Why Can’t We Be Friends? Karen Armstrong on Religious Violence – By Sarah Rollens

Sarah Rollens on Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 512pp., $30
Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 512pp., $30
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Recipe for a popular book on religion: one provocative meta-topic (violence is heavily in demand these days); one five- to eight-fold world religions scheme; an extensive historical knowledge; and an entertaining, accessible writing style. From such formulae comes Karen Armstrong’s highly readable, enlightening study on religion and violence in world history. Although rightly complicating many ongoing political debates regarding the causal relationship between religious ideas and violent acts, the study also implicitly endorses some problematic claims about cultural identity as well as the oft-critiqued “world religions” paradigm. These shortcomings, though, are probably most vexing to specialists and will likely be missed by popular audiences who will instead be treated to clear and concise histories of major religious and political developments and admirable explorations of the diverse forms of religious interpretations throughout the last 3,000 years or so.

Armstrong’s goal is to counter the tendency — by both specialists and non-specialists alike — to blame particular acts of violence on the religion of those who carry them out; in this way, she argues, “modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.” To interrogate this situation, her study is most interested in “Abrahamic” religions, because “they are the ones in the spotlight at the moment” — although I suppose that depends on where one is situated on the global stage. Despite this stated focus, the book attends to the conventional “world religions,” most of which are explored by the geographical regions from which they were born.

Field of Blood begins with the functioning of the brain in the earliest humans. Even at such a primitive stage, the neurological impulse in humans toward conflict and violence was high, arising mostly from survival instincts. The transition to agricultural societies deepened these violent tendencies: settled societies required force, subjugation, and structural violence to ensure that people were consistently producing an economic surplus and sustaining class distinctions. That is, aristocratic and specialized political classes could only exist by exploiting resources and labor from agricultural workers. This is nowhere more evident than the Ancient Near East at the dawn of civilization. In Mesopotamia, Near Eastern mythologies expressed a close connection between agricultural production and violence. The narrative frameworks of such tales as the Epic of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis naturalized such violence: warring agricultural sky gods routinely engaged in struggles even as humans battled for power on earth. Moreover, the gods in these contexts were often “alter egos of the ruling class” (Karl Marx would approve). Inevitably, agricultural societies often came into direct conflict with nomadic pastoralists such as the Aryans, who relied on fighting and warfare to replenish their animal stocks and defend their encampments, thus valorizing the “warrior’s life.”

The pastoralists could not compete with the agriculturalists and their resources for long, though; the Aryan nomads migrated out of central Europe and the Near East and gradually established a presence in the Punjab region. They, too, ultimately settled down into an agricultural way of life, providing the optimal conditions for religious specialists to develop, hone their cosmological ideas, explore concepts such as brahman and atman. Since these cosmologies endorsed specialized social classes such as the Kshatriya warriors and sought to assign behavior and attitudes appropriate to each class, texts such as the Upanishads inscribed a kind of structural violence that determined the livelihoods for many people. Some “renouncers” (samnyasin) chafed under this order, and those who went especially far with an ethos of renunciation became known as Jains. Like many conventional world religions overviews, Armstrong charts how Buddhism emerged from Hinduism, but she treats the former in only few pages and styles Jains as nonviolent reformers within Hinduism.

As with the other regions Armstrong surveys, China’s history is also imagined through violent mythology, promulgated mainly by the aristocratic classes at the expense of the min (“common people”). This discussion of the Shang dynasty in particular shows close attention to structural violence inherent in agrarian societies. The Zhou, who defeated the Shang, lacked the martial aggression of their predecessors and were defeated in turn by the Qin, who installed the first absolute ruler. From the aristocratic classes, of course, came Confucius and his ideals of ren (“benevolence”) and the passive notion of “yielding” to one’s aggressors in order to achieve peace. Daoism similarly promoted an ethic that subverted typical, militarized forms of aggression. This attitude is outlined in the Daodejing, a text that many people today understand as advocating a program of “doing nothing,” but Armstrong suggests it was actually “a manual of statecraft” penned to keep minor rulers in their proper places.

Since her study is chronologically oriented, we next meet “the Hebrews,” the tribal-ethnic designation which allows Armstrong to treat the Israelite society in its agrarian form (as opposed to more modern Jewish groups). The Israelites had to deal with a legacy that valorized violent conquest of land. The “Hebrew dilemma,” Armstrong explains, was the tension that the Israelites navigated between critiquing the agrarian state and the aristocracy that it supported, and realizing that the settled, agrarian life — violence and all — was essential for survival. In fact, again and again, Yahweh is depicted as enacting horrific violence to ensure the survival of Israel against her enemies. The Assyrian destruction from the north and the Babylonian invasion from the east were decisive moments for the Israelites, encouraging them to expand their notions of God into an “arch imperialist.”

Figure 1

Inscription in the Lachish relief: “Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment, before (or at the entrance of) the city of Lachish (Lakhisha). I give permission for its slaughter.” (“Lachish inscription” by User: oncenawhile - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lachish_inscription.jpeg#/media/File:Lachish_inscription.jpeg)
Inscription in the Lachish relief: “Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment, before (or at the entrance of) the city of Lachish (Lakhisha). I give permission for its slaughter.” (“Lachish inscription” by User: oncenawhile – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

In contrast, Armstrong depicts Christianity as a docile movement that arose innocently in the midst blood-thirsty Roman Empire. The juxtaposition of early Christianity with its social context is at times overdetermined. For instance, she paints Jesus’ society as “traumatized by violence”; General Pompey is a “Roman warlord”; and Roman military tactics are “savagery.” Using what some might argue is a selective reading of the texts, she claims that Jesus himself rejected violence in order to “create an alternative to the structural violence of imperial rule and the self-serving policies of the aristocracy.” John of Patmos, however, later skews this portrait to make Jesus a “ruthless warrior” in the Apocalypse of John, perhaps in response to the very real state violence that some Christians ultimately experienced. The violence that some Christians suffered under Roman emperors largely ceased with Constantine. As the Empire adopted Christianity, its teachings took on new significance since they could now be deployed to authorize state violence. In addition, the state now had a strong stake in the Christological conflicts, struggles in which we start to see Christians using violence against one another (that is, against so-called “heretics”) instead of against external opponents; in fact, Armstrong declares that the Christological controversy “has always expressed itself violently.” A prime example of the malleability of violence as a cultural, intellectual resource comes with Augustine, who famously articulated the “just war” theory in this period, giving a self-consciously Christian sanction to state violence.

Armstrong characterizes the rise of Islam in Arabia as a “dilemma,” as she similarly did in her discussion of the Hebrews. The portrait of Islam is one of a religion which grew among noble clans that “had little interest in the supernatural” and that cultivated a tribal ethos marked by “a chronic tendency toward violence and retaliation.” After years of conflict, Muhammad united the tribes loyal to him in Medina and thus solidified a “primitive ‘state’” reliant on warfare. The Qur’an (like the Bible, we could note) includes a confusing mix of traditions, some of which authorize violence while others promote peace. The early Muslim “dilemma” concerned how to balance an empire achieved through military prowess with the absolute monarch who had resulted from that military conquest. How could an absolute ruler, whose power rested on warfare, quell violence among his subordinates in his empire? And how should justice be enacted in a militarized state that relied on violence? This issue, coupled with the sweeping territory that each caliphate governed, constantly at risk for fragmentation, led to a situation that was particularly vulnerable when the Byzantine Empire decided to try to win back their holy lands.

The encounter between Christendom and the Islamic caliphates brings “pre-modern” history to a close. Armstrong follows the development of feudal states in Europe and the incorporation of aristocratic values into medieval Christendom. The Church sanctioned violence only when directed against enemies of Christians, including not only the Turks in the Middle East, but also the Jews at home in Europe (and even later, some Christian groups that were deemed “heretical”). Armstrong pulls no punches in describing some of the violence endorsed by the Church in this time: “The First Crusade was especially psychotic…. the Crusaders seemed half-crazed…. The ecstasy of battle, heightened in this case by years of terror, starvation, and isolation, merged with their religious mythology to create an illusion of utter righteousness.” This legacy, she notes, haunts many later forms of Western meddling in the Middle East.

Figure 2

Fracesco Hayez, Crusaders Thirsting Near Jerusalem (1836-50)
Fracesco Hayez, Crusaders Thirsting Near Jerusalem (1836-50).

But all these events occurred before “religion” emerged as an autonomous sphere of life; this attitude comes about in the modern period, which coincided with the expansion out of Europe, initiated by Spain, as part of colonial conquest. The colonial project was supported by “ruthlessness” and “cruelty,” for it had to justify exploitation, displacement, and sometimes outright slaughter of native peoples. Armstrong credits Martin Luther as one of the first thinkers to extract religious ideas from other spheres of life, such as politics and economics, and transform them into “a wholly personal and interior matter.” Because this move insulated religion from ever having to confront or challenge an unjust state power — politics and religion were different “spheres”, after all — Luther also gets “credit” for tacitly endorsing the aristocracy that oppressed the peasants. The resulting Reformation, with its splintering and violent clashes, was “a tragedy.” This culminated in the Thirty Years’ War which infamously exhausted European powers. Thus, although the modern period is often treated as a civilizational achievement, Armstrong prudently reminds us that the same amount of violence and ideological intolerance created and sustained these societies as it had in empires past.

“The Triumph of the Secular,” the well-known reaction in Europe and America to the struggles following the Reformation, ultimately prevails, in theory at least. Religion still featured prominently in the newly formed United States; the so-called Founders understood it mainly as a private set of beliefs that could be easily separated from politics. Separation of these ideologies did not necessarily end state violence, though, as the French Revolution demonstrated. Armstrong cautions that the “long-drawn-out and painful process” of negotiating secularism should be kept in mind as we witness the revolutions taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe, once secular states had (ostensibly) been established, imperialism and colonialism could thrive like never before. Imperial powers swooped into countries such as India and sought to define, regulate, and bracket the religions of the inhabitants (and we all know how well that went in India). Violence, it turns out, continues to go hand-in-hand with empire, even when it has achieved (in theory) the status of a secular state. By the time World War I began, extreme violence had begun to be inspired by nationalist identities, in many cases in direct response to the invasion of colonial powers.

Secularism was not embraced by all; in many contexts, fundamentalist interpretations began to appear, spurred on by the anxiety following WWI, the struggles of global economy, the consequences of colonialism in the Middle East and elsewhere, and for some American Protestants, new forms of biblical criticism emerging in European universities. At this point, Armstrong extensive details threaten to overwhelm the non-specialist reader. This discussion reads as a frantic dash to cover a complex swath of history from the creation of the state of Israel to the Iranian Revolution, from partition of India and Pakistan to the development of the Muslim Brotherhood in Islam and Liberation Theology in Catholicism. We are then given (perhaps overly) concise histories of diverse movements from Jonestown to Hezbollah to Hamas to Al Qaeda. Armstrong often labels the extreme violence carried out by some of these movements as a distortion or an “extremely reductive form” of a more heterogeneous tradition. At one point, she even argues that the 9/11 hijackers’ religion “bore very little resemblance to normative Islam.” This apologetic tactic, however, is no doubt part of her increasingly obvious ethical project. In fact, the closer we get to the present, the more strident her moral calls become:

We must deplore any action that spills innocent blood or sows terror for its own sake. But we must also acknowledge and sincerely mourn the blood that we have shed in pursuit of our national interests. Otherwise we can hardly defend ourselves against the accusation of maintaining an “arrogant silence” in the face of others’ pain and of creating a world order in which some people’s lives are deemed more valuable than others.

This is a project with which I can certainly sympathize. I am, however, less convinced that historians should be engaged in the efforts to define what counts as “true” or “normative” Christianity, Islam, or any other religious tradition. That effort seems to me to be a kind of theological enterprise (indeed, many of her other books have clear theological interests). While certainly theologians engage in this project, it becomes problematic when seemingly objective historians enter the discussion and weigh in on “correct” expressions of a given religion.

The contours of this study are based largely on a chronological trajectory and a geographical landscape that have factored significantly into so-called “Western” history. Moreover, much of the historical description falls into what we might describe as repackaging religious myths in scholarly form. That is to say, when Armstrong covers the historical development of each religion, she is basically reproducing the traditional narratives that have been sourced from scriptures deemed sacred.

Moreover, for most traditions in this study, their historical development seems to cease as the analysis approaches modernity. Only Islam and Christianity are appraised in more recent contexts (which perhaps explains why the latter chapters of the book try to survey a myriad of expressions of these traditions, while in comparison, their origins are treated as somewhat more tidy affairs). This attention is, of course, because these two traditions loom large in Western discourse and politics. Yet the general lack of attention given to other parts of the world in the section on modernity is troubling. In fact, the entire continent of Africa is left out of the discussion except when the historical developments of Christianity (in the Byzantine period) or Islam (during the early Muslim expansion out of Arabia and subsequently as a setting for modern fundamentalist movements in Islam) bring it into view. This is a clear consequence of the study being guided by the conventional world religions paradigm; only those traditions that are visible to us are worthy of widespread coverage.

Another consequence of this paradigm is that it reinforces a “civilizational model” of history in which people are treated in terms of only one dimension of their identity (either their ethnic or religious identity, or sometimes a combination). This is evident in the organization of the study: the Hebrews, the Muslims, the Indians, and others are all treated in turn. It grants the religious dimension of their identity a unique explanatory role in historical events when such a dimension may have had little or no influence. To borrow the words of the economist Amartya Sen in his book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny:

The religious partitioning of the world produces a deeply misleading understanding of the people across the world and the diverse relations among them, and it also has the effect of magnifying one particular distinction between one person and another to the exclusion of all other important concerns…. The singular classification gives a commanding voice to the “establishment” figures in the respective religious hierarchy while other perspectives are relatively downgraded and eclipsed.

In that sense, this study is largely “history from above” which follows the “great men” and the texts that talk about them or were written by them. This is especially odd, because many people who experience violence, warfare, and structural inequality are not these voices “from above.” Yet one gets the impression that, for instance, there were no women in China, India, or the Ancient Near East. Granted, Armstrong did not set out to uncover women’s history in all these patriarchal settings, but as one who engages in historical explorations, part of her role should be to probe the historical evidence to assess whose history we are actually getting. The emphasis on elite perspectives is problematic in a study devoted to violence, because often the victims of structural and interpersonal violence are notably non-elite — yet their perspectives are nearly absent here.

Figure 3

Vincent van Gogh, Peasant Woman Taking her Meal (1885).
Vincent van Gogh, Peasant Woman Taking her Meal (1885).

Armstrong is well aware of the modern critique of the “world religions” classification scheme: that it is a modern invention, that it essentializes and homogenizes a great deal of diversity, and that it is built on Protestant assumptions about religion as a private set of beliefs that is separate from politics, economics, and the like. And she is absolutely correct to recognize that blaming violent expression of religion on particular doctrines is an essentializing tactic that serves no analytical purposes. Nevertheless, essentializing enters her analysis from the other side: she frequently argues that much violence done in the name of religion is a “distortion,” and in this way, essentializes what a particular tradition must look like. Indeed, one analytical strategy of this study seems to be to insulate (and hence protect) select parts of religious history that many have critiqued for their violent dimensions. Consider martyrdom; yes, Armstrong notes, early Christians were enraptured by martyrdom, but unlike modern extremists, Christian martyrs were “victims of imperial violence and did not kill anybody else.” Or, when discussing Eusebius’ portrait of Christianity and its relation to the empire, she argues that he “entirely subverted the original message of Jesus.” Or, when describing the diversity of understandings of jihad, she notes that it “sometimes involves fighting” but “bearing trials courageously and giving to the poor in times of personal hardships was also described as jihad.” And elsewhere: “These campaigns [of the early caliphates] were not religiously inspired: there is nothing in the Quran to suggest that Muslims must fight to conquer the world.” Here the efforts to salvage the honor of martyrs, the “original” message of Jesus, a non-violent interpretation of jihad, and the peaceful core of the Quran appear strained. There seem to be inconsistencies regarding which sorts of violence must be treated as objectively wrong and which sorts can be rationalized through a little tweaking. What might alleviate such inconsistencies is the awareness that religious concepts are forms of discourse in which many people participate.

In all, there is something fairly axiomatic about what is being demonstrated in this book. Of course the arrivals of major empires and world powers were accompanied by violence. And it makes equally good sense that people who are powerless — or perceive themselves to be powerless — often turn to violent actions to assert the only agency that they understand themselves to have. We have witnessed this innumerable times throughout history, whether we consider the Indian revolts against their British colonizers or the more recent intifadas in Israel/Palestine. Yet in popular discourse, many still remain mystified when acts of extreme violence occur, shocked that anyone would opt for strategies of bloodshed. And so Armstrong’s insights about the frequency and utility of violence throughout history are crucial to keep revisiting. It is too easy to play a simplistic blame game with religion and violence, that is, to claim that a particular religion causes or endorses violence. On the contrary, violence ideologies, like religious ideas, are cultural resources, put to use in a variety of contexts. In addition, both religion and violence are products of the practitioners, and therefore to study them tells us little about either phenomenon in and of itself, but a great deal about the people who mobilize them throughout history. Armstrong’s contribution to this timely issue keeps this conversation alive and well.