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Fields of Blood, by Karen Armstrong.

October 9, 2014

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong.  Knopf (2014), Hardcover, 528 pages

A valuable global survey from prehistory to the present of the complex relationship between religion and violence by a well-regarded religious historian.

Karen Armstrong is an accomplished historian who has written a number of books relating and comparing different world religious traditions. Her scholarship is excellent, and she aims her writings at a broad audience of readers rather than at the academic community. She believes that everyone needs to understand the histories of the major religions of today in order to deal with conflicts realistically. In her latest book, she traces how religion and violence have always been connected in human history, but their interactions are varied and complex, leaving scars we cannot afford to ignore.

According to Armstrong, no religion is itself inherently violent. Religions have been used to support and justified violence, but those same religions also inspire calls to lessen and end violence. Armstrong explores not only the phenomenon of killing and war, but also the structural violence which she believes makes organized civilized life possible. Details vary from place to place, but the pattern reoccurs.

Drawing on evidence from ancient societies in the Middle East, India, and China, and later Europe and America, Armstrong presents extensive evidence for her thesis. She shows how religion was embedded in all of human life, legitimizing the violence of killing animals and other humans.  As civilizations began to organize and specialize, structural violence also emerged as necessary to provide for a few to lead and enjoy luxuries. The shift to agricultural life did not mean a kinder and gentler way of living, in her interpretation. The growth of towns and agricultural surpluses meant that some people had to be forced to work to insure that others could have luxuries. The walls, towers, and pyramids of antiquity could not have been built without the coercion of laborers.

Armstrong moves from the discussion of ancient cultures to the development of monotheism in the Middle East.  Although she herself comes from a Christian background, she applies the the same scholarly approach that she uses elsewhere to the pre-Biblical and Biblical history. Providing context about when and why the books of the Bible were written allows her to tell a more complete story than the one I learned in Sunday School. Her treatment of the history of Islam is similarly inclusive.  The rise of Christianity in Europe and the formation of extensive Muslim empires lead Armstrong into discussion of how the Crusades introduced the hostile attitudes still present between Europeans and Muslims. Underneath the violence, however, were continuing attempts to both justify killing and to denounce it. Armstrong also places the Crusades in the context of tensions in Europe between the power of the Church and that of emerging national leaders, a pattern that would continue into the Reformation.

For Armstrong, the entirety of life in the pre-modern world was interwoven with spirituality until the Reformation and Enlightenment in Europe gradually separated politics and religion. This separation was literally unthinkable earlier. Although usually hailed as progress, Armstrong points out problems with the emergence of a more secular, privatized viewpoint.  Leaders demanded their subjects’ loyalties in order to chip away at the hold of religious institutions in their lives. Religious commitment and fervor did not disappear because people still felt the need for spiritual grounding and meaning.  The dualities of “us and them” were sharpened into national and ethnic divisions. Religion came to be viewed as a private relationship to God instead of a potentially universal ethic of treating all others with grace and mercy.

Industrialism sharpened the division between religion and the rest of life and spread European domination.  Colonization depended on violence toward indigenous people everywhere. Defining others as barely human was a means of justifying harsh treatment of them.  Religion in the New World took a different pattern than in Europe. The diversity of Christians in the new American nation lead to the creation of a secular state. The elite who lead the struggle for independence were Deists, but a more emotional Evangelicalism was widespread. The variety of evangelical Protestant groups stressed religion as private belief, rather than an ethic of the common good.

Armstrong’s section on the impact of British colonization on religions in India was particularly valuable for me. She points out that while religious tolerance was growing back in England, the colonizers used religion as their major tool in dividing and defining India. Lacking understanding of Indian religions, their conceptualization created problems. When the British arrived, they separated people into two categories; Muslims and all non-Muslims, whom they labeled as Hindu despite the presence of many other religious traditions. Access to British power and resources flowed through these imposed religious hierarchies. Lines between religious groups hardened as people competed for British resources and became more militant. Previously, much of India had been under the rule of Muslims who had never tried to force their religion on their subjects.  While Muslim and Hindu leaders fought amongst themselves, Indian people tended to tolerate and blend their varied religions. Sufism was the main type of Islam, and some Muslim leaders made real efforts to foster religious tolerance and blending.

In the Middle East, colonization was later and even more disruptive. As in India, religious divisions were created that have intensified over time. Armstrong follows the stories in detail, showing little sympathy for either the inept and unthinking violence by Western leaders or the violence of leaders who claim to be Muslim but do not follow its basic tenets. Although this part of the story was somewhat familiar, Armstrong provided important details I had not understood.  I was particularly interested in her discussion of how little Islamic extremists today know about, or follow, traditional Islam.  I was previously unaware of the diversity within Islam or that Islam traditionally prohibited the killing of civilians.

Trying to summarize this book, I see I have said little about the topics on which it focuses; religion and violence. In part that is because Armstrong herself provides such extensive economic and political context. She does not see religion or violence as separate from the society from which they come. I find the breadth of her thinking exciting. I trust the subtlety and precision of her thinking, while accepting that her narrative is only one of many that could be told.

Writing a sweeping overview, like Fields of Blood, is a challenging task, and I applaud Armstrong’s ability to create such a book. Her grasp of detail is enormous, and she weaves various stories into one assessable narrative. As always with such an overview, there will be those who will disagree with her account in its entirety or with particular parts of it.  Fundamentalists in all religions will be upset by how she weaves economic and political context into the narrative.  Yet I found this book to be extremely valuable.  I have been learning separate regional stories, but this book helped me see how the pieces were and are connected.  If we are to have the global histories that some have advocated, we need well-researched and well-considered books like this one.

Karen Armstrong has made another important contribution to our general understanding of global society. Her focus on the roots of religion and violence are particularly relevant today.  I strongly recommend Fields of Blood to a wide variety of readers who seek to understand both history and the present from a global perspective.  In fact, I recommend all her books to anyone interested in world religion.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 13, 2014 1:41 pm

    I read her History of Jerusalem while visiting Bethlehem for 2 months and was amazed by the history of that small area and its people. It made me stare at its inhabitants and wonder how they had survived so many thousands of years of massacre and yet they continue to endure and to fight for this small city.

    Karen Armstrong is a wonderful writer and tackles her subject in way that I find very accessible and balanced. This one looks like a worthy addition to her repertoire.

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