Thursday, January 8, 2015

Religion and Violence: Karen Armstrong's Fields of Blood

         I always get excited about a new book by Karen Armstrong, and was delighted to receive a review copy of her latest, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, from Blogging for Books Although it may disappoint those who want further excuses to denigrate some particular religion (like author Sam Harris, who has accused her of being an apologist for Islam), Armstrong’s sweeping and carefully researched historical account does not provide the kind of ammunition such readers seek. Instead, her detailed accounts of various faith traditions show how all of them arose in societies where powerful landowners exercised “systemic violence” to keep the peasants in their places. 
          Religion did not create the inequities and imbalances of such systems—indeed, as Armstrong shows (notably in her explanation of the Indian emperor Ashoka’s dilemma in trying to establish a “benevolent [and nonviolent] model of governance based on the recognition of human dignity”), religion tended, and was intended to serve as a necessary corrective to temper that violence—but in a world where religion was not the private matter it is in the West today, “agrarian aggression, and the warrior ethos it begot, became bound up with observances of the sacred.” 

Ashoka’s dilemma is the dilemma of civilization itself. As society developed and weaponry became more deadly, the empire, founded on and maintained by violence, would paradoxically become the most effective means of keeping the peace. Despite its violence and exploitation, people looked for an absolute imperial monarchy as eagerly as we search for signs of a flourishing democracy today. (71)

One cannot help noticing, of course, that although technologies and the nature of wealth and property may have changed, such systemic violence is still alive and well in our world. 
As an undergraduate history minor, I took several courses from a brilliant professor who was fond of two phrases: “One must not be naïve about these things,” and “and so, just as it happened in . . . it happened again.” Armstrong proves the validity of that second observation, beginning with Gilgamesh in ancient Sumer and moving on to the Aryan conquest of India, the “Warriors and Gentlemen” of early China, ancient Israel, early Christianity, the Byzantine Empire, early Islam, and the Crusades. Eventually she comes to the great shift of the early modern period in the West, when religion became a personal, individual concept, leading to the secular societies that first took root with the American and French revolutions. However, the rise of the secular state did not, as we all know, create a non-sectarian paradise on earth; the title of Chapter 11 is “Religion Fights Back.” 
          As Armstrong explains in greater detail in The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000), religious fundamentalism arises out of fear and a feeling of helplessness against the juggernaut of modernity, and those emotions are easily exploited in ways that can bring out the worst in us. I am writing this the day after the terrorist massacre at the offices of the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but the same fundamentalist mentality which apparently inspired that violence also motivated Jim Jones and led to what happened at the People’s Temple in Guyana, as well as other horrors and tragedies. And as Armstrong reminds us, “Religious fundamentalists and extremists have used the language of faith to express fears that also afflict secularists” (p. 400). One of Armstrong’s many admirable qualities is that she does not take sides; she reports on many such examples from many faith traditions, the people behind them, and what led up to them, including much that even the well-informed reader may not know about the current “war on terror.” She is, I believe, as another reviewer described her: “careful, fair, and true."
           Armstrong’s purpose is not overtly political in the usual sense. Implicit throughout the book, however, is the assumption that we cannot overcome what we do not understand, and the goal of this book is to help us to understand how we got to where we are, if we are ever to be able to live together since, in Armstrong's succinct and apt description, "we are flawed creatures with violent hearts that long for peace" (p.76). 
Early on she discusses the “taint of the warrior,” something many cultures address explicitly with cleansing rituals for those returning from war but which we in the West, with our relatively recent recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder, have only just begun to deal with. I thought of that, and of her description of the "transcendence" the warrior experiences in battle (p. 10) while watching the recent World War II movie Fury.
           Although she never excuses violence, here or in her other work, her underlying argument is for understanding and compassion: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world. We are all, religious and secularist alike, responsible for the current predicament of the world” (p. 401). That may be a hard concept to swallow if we are convinced that we, as citizens of nations or members of religions, occupy the moral high ground, that God is necessarily on our side. The book begins and ends with the concept and ritual of the scapegoat, the idea that we can always blame the “other.” In all our long and violent history, scapegoating has never solved anything, as this powerful and important book makes abundantly clear.

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