Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong
Hearing the mantra that religion is the cause of many wars on this Earth and poisonous to humanity is echoed among those who reject religion and also those who question religion’s capacity for goodness. Karen Armstrong, in her new book, Fields of Blood, tackles the muddy relationship between religion and violence with care, probing early sources, but also judiciously reflecting on the nature of religion, its relationship to violence, and looking at violent activity being caused by other sources. In turn, Armstrong makes a case that pointing to religion as the sum reason why wars take place is not only simplistic but doesn’t fit the records we find. Noting the ample supply of food in Jericho in the ninth millennium BCE, Armstrong writes, “Warfare would not become endemic in the region for another five thousand years, but it was already a possibility and from the first, it seems, large-scale violence was linked not with religion but with organized theft (13).”
Pointing out that religion isn’t the one and only source of violence doesn’t excuse it from promoting violence through the centuries. Upon ascending to the Persian throne, Darius I combined three themes in his leadership that caused his enemies to fear him; namely, “a dualistic worldview that pits the good of the empire against evildoers who oppose it; a doctrine of election that sees the ruler as a divine agent; and a mission to save the world (122).” This religious, economic, and power hungry impulse was central to Darius’ insistence that he would unite the world, bringing happiness to those who lived in his empire. Furthermore, we see this kind of dualistic mentality carried out in the early stages of Roman rule. Armstrong contends that, “Rome’s fully professional army became the most efficient killing machine the world had ever seen (131).” Laying bare the enemy was part of the Roman mission, leaving nothing but the land and sea.
Armstrong also weaves together the themes of religious conviction found in the Civil War. Writing about this she notes, “The Civil War armies have been described as the most religiously motivated in American history (295).” Northern and Southern victories would rally the people around political ideals that were held to be ultimately the hand of Divine Providence. Mark Noll has written in his book on the Civil War that the greatest theologian of the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln. With national fasts, prayers, preachers thundering from the pulpit concerning the war, the Civil War imbued the strong sense that religion has played in America’s history, especially its wars.
Tracing religion and violence through India, China, Europe, and North America, Armstrong writes with keen eye towards the foundational sources of religion and politics that have shaped the conversation between religion and violence. You won’t agree with everything here, but you are bound to learn much and be illuminated by this discussion.Thanks to Blogging for Books and Alfred A. Knopf for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.