Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence
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Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence

Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts

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Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence

Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts

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An anthology that examines the historical and contemporary relationship between religion and violence This groundbreaking anthology provides the most comprehensive overview for understanding the fascinating relationship between religion and violence—historically, culturally, and in the contemporary world. Bringing together writings from scholarly and religious traditions, it is the first volume to unite primary sources—justifications for violence from religious texts, theologians, and activists—with invaluable essays by authoritative scholars.The first half of the collection includes original source materials justifying violence from various religious perspectives: Hindu, Chinese, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist. Showing that religious violence is found in every tradition, these sources include ancient texts and scriptures along with thoughtful essays from theologians wrestling with such issues as military protection and pacifism. The collection also includes the writings of modern-day activists involved in suicide bombings, attacks on abortion clinics, and nerve gas assaults. The book's second half features well-known thinkers reflecting on why religion and violence are so intimately related and includes excerpts from early social theorists such as Durkheim, Marx, and Freud, as well as contemporary thinkers who view the issue of religious violence from literary, anthropological, postcolonial, and feminist perspectives. The editors' brief introductions to each essay provide important historical and conceptual contexts and relate the readings to one another. The diversity of selections and their accessible length make this volume ideal for both students and general readers.

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Part I


Introduction to Part I

“GOD IS A WARRIOR,” proclaims the book of Exodus (15:3). This famous song of Moses extols divine acts of warfare, whereby God smashes the Pharaoh’s chariots and drowns the Egyptian leader’s handpicked commanders in the depths of the Red Sea. With his “right hand,” the book of Exodus exults, God “shatters the enemy” (15:6).
Behind this arresting image is an interesting idea—that God is intimately tied to human relationships, including hostile encounters. God is someone, or something, that can become engaged in human affairs and take sides, favoring one group or another. The divine warrior image suggests a certain theology, but it also implies a theory of religious violence, for this theological image indicates that real acts of violence can have sacred significance. Violence is undertaken by no less a figure than God.
It is this divine mandate for violence that is explored in the first section of the book. Yet, as we will see, there is disagreement in every religious community about whether there can be religious merit in violent acts. Religious thinkers argue over whether violence can sometimes be sanctifying, or whether it is at most a necessary evil. Some argue that religious authority approves of violence only in extraordinary cases, to justify the messy business of the real world, such as defending the innocent. Indeed, the “just war” theory of Christianity—an idea that has its parallels in other religious traditions, including Islam—gives this impression. In these cases religion hesitantly approves of force under certain rare conditions. It appears not so much to gleefully celebrate violence as to be its conscience, applying the brakes on morally sanctioned coercive force before it gets out of hand.
But not all of the religious writings about violence are of this nature. There are also writings within most religious traditions that view some acts of violence as sacred duties. These writings, such as the book of Exodus, portray God as an activist who plays a direct hand in earthly affairs, including warfare. Individuals who participate in these acts as holy warriors are thus fulfilling sacred obligations. They are undertaking a “neglected duty,” as Abd al-Salam Faraj, a twentieth-century ideologue for radical Islam, has put it. The same sense of mission motivated Yigal Amir to assassinate a fellow Jew, Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995 in Tel Aviv. Amir had consulted rabbis for confirmation that his act of political assassination was a rabbinically sanctioned sacred act.
Religion and warfare have been intimately tied together throughout history. Some three thousand years ago, ancient Mesopotamian poems and war chronicles celebrated the deities of battle. The writings portrayed gods marching before armies, championing their favorites and decimating their foes. Gods such as Ashur were made to receive tribute in the form of human carnage, and the gods Ninurta, Nergal, and Ishtar were said to delight in battle frenzy. True, the warring aspects of these deities were often balanced by benign aspects. Yet even the goddess Ishtar, sometimes a tender goddess of love, was alleged to have lethally punished those who spurned her advances, demonstrating the auspicious and destructive power of divine attention.
In ancient texts describing the Vedic divinities in South Asia and the Greek and Norse pantheons in Europe, warfare was also an activity of the gods. When humans engaged in it, they called on the power of warrior gods to support their own militant positions. There is a thin line between mortal and immortal battlefield displays in the ancient Greek epic, the Iliad. Mortal fighting is often described with the very same similes, phrases, and precise details as the mythical warfare of the gods. Moreover, Greek gods are described as having impersonated men on the battlefield in order to stir up bellicose passions. A similar tactic was undertaken by gods in ancient India’s legendary epic, the Mahabharata.
In the third and fourth centuries B.C.E., new writings emerged in India and China that focused on the human activity of war under divine mandate. These works, the Arthashastra of Kautilya in India, and the Art of War by Sun Tzu in China, are similar in several ways. Both are essentially manuals for conducting war. They include advice for the ruthless use of spies and devious trickery in order to achieve a military victory. At the same time, both of them include a role for religion, especially in motivating soldiers into battle. But behind both of these manuals of warfare is the notion that the kind of war that they deem worthy of conducting is carried out for an ultimately moral purpose: to uphold social order.
Other ancient writings, including the Bhagavad Gita and similar sacred scriptures, also follow the theme that warfare is just when it is necessary to uphold social order. In the Hebrew Bible, for instance, warfare is always cast in moral terms. The special covenant that God formed with the Israelite people gave a divine mandate for their protection. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible, God is portrayed as directly entering into combat on the side of the chosen people to fulfill a moral obligation.
In the Qur’an, the figure of God is never portrayed as anthropomorphic as is the case in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Muslim texts God is not described as a warrior. As in most of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the central message in the Qur’an is about peace and the proscription against killing. Yet in the Qur’an, as in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there are moments when force, even deadly force, is deemed necessary for a righteous cause. Defending the community against obliteration is one of those righteous causes, and in both the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible one can find approval of killing in defense of the community.
Yet, in a larger sense, it was not just the people in religious communities who were being defended; it was the very idea of civilized society. Early texts of most religious traditions have justified warfare when it was deemed necessary to protect the framework of morality that lies beneath a righteous social order. The Zen instructions of Takuan, for instance, regard the martial arts as essential to upholding a disciplined society. In all of these cases, the alternative to the righteously established communities was thought to be anarchy, chaos, and disorder. To allow one of these enemies to win would be not just a transfer of title from one ruler to another in the control of a territory but also a capitulation to a sea of immoral disarray. In this sense then, war was part of the ultimate moral good, for it protected righteous social order: civilization itself.
This theme was not dominant in early Christianity under the Roman Empire. Congregating in small isolated communities for much of that time, the early Christians tended to be pacifist, in part because they took seriously Jesus’s injunction to “turn the other cheek” and avoid violence, and in part because some early Christians regarded the act of joining the Roman army as showing deference to Caesar as a god. But then the early Christians had the luxury of being pacifist because as a minority sect they did not have territory to defend nor law and order to maintain.
All this changed when Christianity became the dominant religion of an empire after the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 C.E. In the centuries that followed, Christian thinkers tried to make sense of the pacifist mandate in light of the need to morally justify the military actions of the state. They tried to reconcile the nonviolent idealism of the Gospels with the demands of state power and the example of some bellicose images in the Hebrew Bible.
A fourth-century Christian bishop, Augustine, hit upon a solution. Borrowing the concept of “just war” developed by Cicero in Roman jurisprudence, Augustine expanded on this notion and set it in context. Augustine specified the conditions in which a Christian could morally sanction war. This set of prerequisites for warfare was categorized by the medieval Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, and has been refined and expanded by numerous theologians ever since. In general, just war theory allows for military action only as a last resort, when it will lead to less violence rather than more, when it is conducted for a just cause, and when it is authorized by a proper public authority. Islamic thinkers and scholars in other religious traditions have developed similar thinking about the moral criteria that might make warfare permissible.
Contemporary Christian thinking continues to be guided by just war criteria. One of the twentieth century’s most influential Protestant thinkers, Reinhold Niebuhr, began his career as a pacifist. The evil powers of Hitler and Stalin persuaded Niebuhr that there were moments when the force of evil had to be countered by righteous military force in order for justice to prevail. In an influential essay, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” Niebuhr cited the Christian tradition’s defense of justice as more important than pacifism when it came to great encounters in history between evil powers and social order.
A similar line of reasoning has motivated some of religion’s more radical activists. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed a burst of new religious militancy in virtually every religious tradition. These small but vocal groups of extremists—be they Muslim followers of al Qaeda, Jewish supporters of anti-Arab militants, right-wing Christian militia, or Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh activists—all see their justification of violence based on traditional religious principles. But there are some major differences.
Unlike their predecessors—ancient apologists, just war theorists, and twentieth-century theologians like Niebuhr—the new religious radicals do not affirm the status quo or see the current authorities as legitimate upholders of moral social order. Instead, they imagine themselves to be righteous defenders of an alternative order. In most cases, this new order is not described in any kind of detail, but its proponents think that it will be a more fulfilled realization of morality and religious social life than the secular regimes of the day. Religious law is often thought to be a fundamental necessity for this new order. As one leader of a revolutionary Jewish group in Israel put it in an interview with one of this book’s editors, “What we want is not democracy but Torahcracy.” In the readings in this book, we find that the Islamic political thinker Abd al-Salam Faraj, the Christian activist Michael Bray, and the Jewish anti-Arab extremist Meir Kahane were all exponents of incorporating religious law—Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, as the case may be—as the basis of a new religious state. Though they speak for only a tiny minority in each of their religious communities, their violent actions create a loud voice.
These recent proponents of violence are religious revolutionaries. Their justifications for the use of violence for a religious cause are not defenses of an existing sociopolitical order, for they see the secular state as deeply flawed. Most of them are, indeed, at war with their own governments. A Christian activist, Timothy McVeigh, bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in his own country, the United States; a Jewish extremist assassinated Israel’s prime minister; Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi were killed by Muslim and Sikh activists in their respective countries; and the nerve gas attack in Japan by the syncretic Buddhist movement Aum Shinrikyo was aimed at a subway stop adjacent to Japan’s government buildings in downtown Tokyo. The United States has been a target of Muslim extremists in part because it is seen as the power behind the secular or quasi-secular Muslim governments that they despise in their home countries. As the writings in this section show, these religious revolutionaries are defending a religious society that they have never seen—and perhaps one that has never existed. But they are convinced that the secular governments of the present age are preventing a righteous social order from coming into being.
In many cases this radical hope for a new social order is merged with an apocalyptic vision. Rabbi Meir Kahane expected that his anti-Arab activism would create the conditions in which the Messiah would come on earth and Israel would be established as a wholly religious state. Added to his messianic Zionism was the idea of a catastrophic encounter that would usher in this extraordinary messianic occasion. In order for this extraordinary encounter to happen, Jews had to avenge the humiliation that was suffered by them and by God. An even more radical apocalyptic vision was propagated by the Aum Shinrikyo master Shoko Asahara, who imagined a cataclysmic encounter, one even greater than World War II, that would engulf the world in a firestorm of nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare.
The Aum Shinrikyo idea is only an extreme example of a common theme within the world view of the revolutionary religious movements of the contemporary age: the notion of cosmic war. The idea of cosmic war is that of a grand encounter between the forces of good and evil, religion and irreligion, order and chaos, and it is played out on an epic scale. Real-world social and political confrontations can be swept up into this grand scenario. Conflicts over territory and political control are lifted into the high proscenium of sacred drama. Such extraordinary images of cosmic war are meta-justifications for religious violence. They not only explain why religious violence happens—why religious persons feel victimized by violence and why they need to take revenge—but also provide a large world view, a template of meaning in which religious violence makes sense. In the context of cosmic war, righteous people are impressed into service as soldiers, and great confrontations occur in which noncombatants are killed. But ultimately the righteous will prevail, for cosmic war is, after all, God’s war. And God cannot lose.
In this image of God’s role in human history, we have come full circle and return to the ...

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