Monday, November 10, 2014

Religion and Violence

Catholic theologian Karen Armstrong caught my attention with her publication of Fields of Blood that discusses religion and the history of violence (NY, Knopf, 2014). Elsewhere, I have written about America’s violent history, a violence that long defended slavery, practiced ethnic genocide, and otherwise left an ugly picture. I concur with Armstrong’s defense of religion(s)  that recognizes it as a substantive force of reconciliation and non –violence more than the practice of hostility and competitive force that some suggest.

She references historian John Bossey who reminds us that “before 1700 there was no concept of ‘religion’ as separate from society or politics (cf: Wm. Cavanaugh/The Myth of Religious Violence/159/John Bossy, “Christianity in the West, 1400-1700/Oxford/1985/170-71). As we shall see later in this chapter, she writes, “that distinction would not be made until the formal separation of church and state by modern philosophers and statesmen, and even then the liberal state was slow to arrive. Before that time, ‘there simply was no coherent way yet to divide religious causes from social causes; the divide is a modern invention. ‘People were fighting for different visions of society, but they had as yet no way to separate religious from temporal factors.”

“This was also true of the English Civil War (1642-48),” she concludes, “which resulted in the execution of Charles I as the creation in England of a short-lived Puritan republic under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658).”

Armstrong counters the notion that religions are intrinsically violent (as per Crusades etc), and that violence comes primarily from secular sources such as the nation-state, and especially when that political power behaves in the manner of the Roman Caesar and views itself as the supreme value. Caesar emphasized this by demanding his subjects worship him as their Deity.

She well documents events like Abu Graib, 911, and other aspects of the current conflict between ISIS and Western Culture. She illustrates how the perpetrators of 911 felt great compassion for Islamic peoples and causes, sufficient to become radicalized, but were also very “lite” in their Islamic faith. They were hardly conversant enough with the Koran to know its teachings forbid the harassment et al of other religions, and especially Judaism and Christianity. Their violence resulted more from their secular/political ideologies than their teachings from the Koran.

Another idea that captured my attention is found in the following quote (Armstrong/274-75). She writes: “James Kelly and Barton Stone railed against the aristocratic clergy who tried to force the erudite faith of Harvard on the people. Enlightenment philosophers had insisted that people must have the courage to throw off their dependence on authority, use their their natural reason to discover the truth, and think for themselves.

“Now the Revivalist insisted that Americans could read the Bible without direction from upper-class scholars. When Stone founded his own denomination, he called it a ‘declaration of independence’: the revivalists were bringing the modern ideals of democracy, equality, freedom of speech, and independence to the folk in an idiom that uneducated people could make their own. This Second Awakening may have seemed retrograde to the elite, but it was actually a Protestant version of the Enlightenment. Demanding a degree of equality that the American ruling class was not yet ready to give them, the revivalists represented a populist discontent that it could not safely ignore.

“At first,” she continues, “this rough democratic Christianity was confined to the poorer Americans, but during the 1840’s Charles Finney (1792-1875) brought it to the middle classes, creating an ‘evangelical’ Christianity based on a literal reading of the gospels … Like the Second Great Awakening, these modernizing movements [social issues] helped ordinary Americans to embrace the ideal of inalienable human rights in a Protestant package ... the Great Awakenings in America show that people can reach these ideals by another, specifically religious route.”

I found Armstrong supporting the notion that we can be true to our faith while also lifting up the downtrodden and the vulnerable. To recognize the social aspects of our faith ministry is not necessarily to delute (liberalize) our faith, as some contend.

Like a good writer, she stretched my mind and expanded my understanding. She cleared my thinking about religion being widely united against violence and added to my understanding of religion as a social uplift as well as a spiritual renewal. From Warner’s World, I am

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