Book Review: Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong
Bronek Korczynski, PeaceQuest
A cacophony of voices has weighed in on the merits of Karen Armstrong’s 2014 book Fields of Blood – Religion and the History of Violence, suggesting the importance of her latest scholarly effort. This prominent writer on religion, history and culture has made another useful contribution to the sometimes raucous debate surrounding our efforts to understand the role of religion in society.
Fields of Blood does two things. It counters claims that religion has, throughout history, given rise to all war. It is also a plea to religious traditions to more forthrightly promote peace.
Armstrong argues eloquently for the Golden Rule which the world’s great religious traditions share as one of their most essential tenets – treat others as one would wish to be treated.
Armstrong’s own Charter for Compassion seeks to restore the Golden Rule to the centre of our religious traditions. Asserting that there is a hunger for change in peoples around the world, Armstrong preaches that religion must restore its historic role as a force for harmony: “Religion has been hijacked.”
Armstrong argues convincingly that, historically, only a state proficient in making war was strong enough to keep the peace. While sometimes overwhelming the reader with historical detail about ancient religious traditions, she succeeds in showing “… the impossibility of describing any religious tradition as a single unchanging essence that will always inspire violence.”
Unpacking the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, Armstrong outlines in compelling detail how the essentially peaceful core of Islam and Christianity were compromised in the political and military struggles of the day. She shows how this dynamic had already transformed Judaism. The failed struggle of these traditions to sustain their rejection of systematic violence becomes most evident in the clash between Islam and Christianity within the context of the Crusades and the expansionist efforts of Christendom in the east and Islam in the West. The ensuing clashes, ultimately both justified and promoted by religious leaders, today continues to fuel the claims of those who would lay responsibility for such horrors at the feet of religion.
Armstrong admits that this era did give rise to the important development that “… holy warfare was beginning to merge with the patriotism of national war.” In her focus on modernity, Armstrong shows that the sanctioning of violence by the state and religion became the hallmark of an expansionist Europe. Political and economic struggles also accompanied the Reformation. “Religious” sentiments were certainly present in the minds of those who fought colonial and intra-European wars. But to imagine that “religion” was distinguishable from the social, economic, and political issues is highly problematic.
Emerging secular states were buoyed by both the excesses of the French Revolution and liberal philosophies. Novel distinctions between the state and the nation, gave rise to new levels of state sponsored violence. Critically, as evident in the case of colonial expansion in the Americas, this came at the expense of the indigenous peoples — state sanctioned oppression often sanctioned by an emerging evangelical Christianity.
Armstrong explains that, armed with the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution, the West’s colonial expansion in the Middle East followed a different but no less flawed and tragic path. European colonialism fueled the rise of resistance from popular religion. Colonial efforts to destroy popular religious institutions and traditions left the common people with few meaningful ways to resist the violence of the state – except through violent struggle against the colonial state. Armstrong points to a tragic irony here – violence by the secular state against popular religious institutions encouraged those oppressed religious institutions to in turn respond with violence.
Armstrong ably illustrates the dramatically changing global political landscape of the second half of the twentieth century. The nation became a “supreme value.” This eliminated “holiness” from politics “… if the nation becomes the absolute value (in religious terms, an ‘idol’), there is no reason why we should not liquidate those who appear to threaten it.”
Armstrong concludes by considering the increasingly violent responses to contemporary state sponsored oppression. She argues that whether terrorism emanates from religiously minded people or from the minds of those driven by nationalism, all such violence is essentially political. Moreover, had such ostensibly religiously motivated actors been properly schooled in their own religious traditions, they would be unable to justify terrorism in any form.
In the final analysis, Armstrong remains hopeful that religion can be — indeed, must be — a force for peace in the world. She has courageously tackled one of the most vexing questions of our age. She is convinced that we, especially in the secular West, must share greater responsibility for the violent state of world affairs. Otherwise, it becomes all too easy to wrong headily lay the blame at the feet of “others”; namely religious fanatics.
It would seem that if religion has any valuable contribution to make in this struggle, it is in its ability to reign in those violent hearts that long for peace. Moreover, it remains the task of the polis to control its “natural” proclivities to employ violence to maintain itself. In both cases, religion has positive roles to play at the level of the individual and as an institutional expression of that desire for peace. Fields of Blood offers a timely and thoughtful contribution to these efforts.
Bronek Korczynski is the Co-Chair of PeaceQuest, a long-time social justice activist and a retired educator.