By Karen Armstrong
Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb
In her latest book, Fields of Blood religious historian Karen Armstrong, addresses a common claim in the current dialogue on the value of religious faith: that religious conviction is often a source of violence. Cases in point, 9/11 carried out by Islamic extremists, and in Christian history the easy targets are the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Troubles in Ireland, and the list goes on and on. Armstrong argues that “the problem lies not in the multifaceted activity that we call ‘religion’ but in the violence embedded in our human nature and the nature of the state.” (p. 394)
To make her point she goes back to the foundational myths and earliest stories of recorded history, the Epic of Gilgamesh dating back to the middle of the third millennia BCE. The Sumerians imagined their gods busy with what occupied their own lives, managing and irrigation system that made farming a sustainable living for the community. After the Great Flood, the gods had gone to the heavens leaving the Sumerian aristocracy to rule over the rest. One side of Armstrong’s argument reveals that violence is inherent in the human struggle to thrive and prosper.
So, while this liberated elite was necessary for the kind of evolutionary developments that have given us the progress necessary for human communities to grow in knowledge, insight and awareness, Armstrong explains, this arrangement was dependent on the servitude of the vast majority of the population. Thus, given that fighting one’s neighbors was the quickest way to control more land and capture more workers/slaves, “warfare and taxation would be essential to the economy of every future agrarian empire.” (p. 37)
The other side of her argument is to show how religion functioned in these ancient communities, vastly different from the modern experience. Today, people tend to refer to religious practice as private and personal, where we speak of a separation of church and state, but for our ancestors, the rulers were often viewed as gods or serving at the gods’ pleasure. “As ever,” Armstrong writes, “religion and politics co-inhered, the gods serving not only as the alter ego of the monarch but also sanctifying the structural violence that was essential to the survival of civilization.” (p. 38)
From there, Armstrong unpacks the historical movements in India, China and among the Jews, before moving on to Christianity and Islam, with a keen eye on the intersection of power, violence and religion. Not only does she shape these historic events in an informative and convincing narrative, but her simple deconstruction of popular understandings of these faiths and focus on what motivated the prime actors at the time is eye-opening and worth the price of admission.
In each community, as a budding faith tradition took root and developed in to a formal religion, with many of its religious leaders jockeying for power and wealth alongside their political counterparts, Armstrong says, “sages and mystics developed spiritual practices to help people control their aggression and develop a reverence for all human beings… Prophets and priests insisted that a city could not be ‘holy’ if the ruling class did not care for the poor and dispossessed… They all insisted in one way or another that if people did not treat all others as they would wish to be treated themselves and develop a ‘concern for everybody,’ society was doomed.”
As her study moves through modernity, unpacking the diverse interests and concerns that led to those much discussed Crusades, the Inquisition, invasion and control of the ‘new world,’ the interest in global jihad, revealing the economic and political motivations that often lurked behind the religious language of serving the will of God or Allah, and fighting the infidel, the pagan, the other believing peoples in our world. When Christianity found itself bound to Constantine’s Roman Empire, the obvious lesson learned is that “it was clearly easier to imperialize the faith than to Christianize the empire.” (p. 167)
So the proverb that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” seems especially apt when religious authority is bound to political powers known to rely ultimately on violence. Armstrong’s wide research, extensive knowledge and consistently impressive footnoting shores up any questions of the veracity of her claims. You may interpret the narratives differently, but she appears to have an excellent handle on the facts on the ground, as best as they can be known.
Having argued that warfare and violent activity developed quite naturally in human society, and thus within humans as we seek to come to terms with the reality of our actions and desires, and that religion offered an alternative path and way of thinking that led many to abandon violence for lives of service and compassion, Armstrong successfully makes that case that it’s an oversimplification to say that religion is the cause of most of the violence in our world. We may share together a world that has great potential for self-destruction, but Armstrong’s point that we solve nothing by making religion a scapegoat, while it is all the more clear that violence, wars and rumors of war continue to perplex humanity.
In fact, it’s very possible that these prophets and poets, these sages and mystics that she speaks of might help us grow the “golden rule” to a size where we can come to respect and protect the world and each other from our own violent tendencies.
BRIAN Q. NEWCOMB is a freelance writer and the Senior Pastor of David’s United Church of Christ in Dayton, Ohio. He earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at Eden Theological Seminary in 2005, and in the past has contributed, primarily as a music critic, in a variety of publications: Billboard, Paste, The Riverfront Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, CCM Magazine, and currently contributes to the indie music website www.thefirenote.com.