Abstract and Keywords
More time has been spent on discussing the correlation between religion and violence than on any other aspect of religion since 9/11. This was doubtless a defining moment in modern thinking about religion. While politicians and religious leaders are inclined to emphasise that good religion is moderate and peaceful, some researchers think differently. While this article stresses that religions are not only about violence, it holds that the concept of cosmic war argues that religion is driven by a fundamental impulse in the form of a quest for order, and from this starting point it introduces the concept and reality of violence as the pathway to harmony and peace.
Religion is not entirely about violence, of course. Sacred teachings present the most profound images of peaceful existence to be found anywhere, and the idea of nonviolence is central to most religious traditions—it supplies, for instance, the very name of Islam—a word that is cognate with salaam, meaning “peace”. The ethical principles of religion allow the taking of human life for none but the most extreme reasons, such as defending one's very existence or protecting the faith. Yet the images in the news in the post-Cold War world are often of a great range of violent acts perpetrated in the name of religion. The slaughter of Sunni families in Baghdad by Shiʼite death squads, the strident voices of Jewish settlers aimed at cleansing their territories of Arab occupants, the attacks on abortion clinics by Christian militia in the USA, the anger of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka towards Tamil separatists and the government that seeks to reconcile with them—how can all of these militant postures be justified in religious terms?
In fact, virtually every religious tradition contains images of violence and instances of social violence that are legitimized by what is imagined to be divine will. The relationship of violence and the sacred clouds the histories of every tradition and has fascinated some of the keenest theorists of religion. Visions of destruction are ubiquitous in religious symbols, mythology, and rituals, and the histories of most religions have left a trail of blood. It is a source of great scholarly fascination to understand why this is so—why violence is essential to religious language and images, how violence is justified in religious ethics, and when religion may be employed to justify acts of social conflict.
(p. 891) At the outset, though, we need to clarify what we mean by “religious violence”. As one can see from the illustrations in the first paragraph of this chapter, the term can refer to everything from blood sacrifice in ancient Egypt to the terrorist attacks of September 11; from the Crusades to ethnic fratricide in Sri Lanka; from the epic wars of the Mahabharata to the release of nerve gas in a Tokyo subway. The principal variables are these: are we talking about symbolic images or actual acts of violence? Are we looking at protracted warfare or single terrorist events? Are we referring to contemporary incidents or historical memories? Are we viewing solely religious images and events, or are we seeing how religion is used in incidents that are largely for social or political purposes?
In this chapter, we will be talking about all of these. It would, of course, be conceptually easier if we could focus on one or other of these dichotomies. Given the rise of a certain kind of religious violence in the first decade of the twenty-first century, my preference would be to limit our discussion to something like “contemporary acts of terrorism undertaken for religious motives”. But—as if the world were determined to make life difficult for social analysis—the reality is not so simple. Events of religious violence today often cut across our attempts to categorize them. As indicated by the last instructions given to the nineteen men who hijacked airlines and crashed them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, their act was performed in the pattern of religious ritual. Their commitment touched religious depths, and their jihadi ideology was suffused with the images and ideas of their religious history (Lincoln 2006).
Was the bombing of the World Trade Center a religious act or a political one? It can be said to be either or both, for it is apparent that one of the most significant features of contemporary religious activism is that it entails not only the politicization of religion, but the religionization of politics. By the latter term I mean the way in which political life has been encompassed by the religious imagination, and how social and political struggles have been drawn into the realm of cosmic drama. Ordinary fights between political opponents have become charged with spiritual force, so that those engaged in combat are opposing what they imagine to be not just a despicable opponent but a satanic foe—as Hamas has characterized both the State of Israel and, at times, the secular Palestinian leadership that does not share its vision of Palestine as a religious state. A foe of such evil proportions is dehumanized to the extent that it is no longer a person: it is an evil thing, and any form of force is warranted in subduing it.
Because today's events of religious violence defy any easy categorization, they invite the explanations of theories as varied as the dimensions of religious violence that these incidents contain: theories relating to symbolic and real violence, warfare and terrorism, contemporary and historical events, religious and socio-political motivations. The authors of these theories come from fields as multiple as the topics: from literary theory, psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, (p. 892) and theology. As we shall see, each set of theorists presents its own theoretical solace to the Job-like plague of religious violence in our contemporary life.
Sacrificial Violence: Anthropology and Early Sociology
In many theories about religion, symbols of religious violence occupy a prominent place—just as they do in religion itself. The martyrdom of Husain in Shiʼite Islam, the crucifixion of Jesus in Christianity, the savage death of Guru Tegh Bahadur in Sikhism, the bloody conquests in the Hebrew Bible, the terrible battles celebrated in Hindu epics, and the religious wars described in the Sinhalese Buddhist chronicles are all testimony to the significance of violence in religious myth and history. The visibility of such symbols as the Christians' cross, the Muslims' sword, and the Sikhs' saber witnesses to their power.
Perhaps the most common symbol of violence—one that is ubiquitous in all ancient traditions—is sacrifice. The domestication of sacrifice in evolved forms of religious practice—such as the Christian ritual of the eucharist—belies the real acts of violence that were present in the ancient acts: a real animal (in some cases a human) offered its life on a sacred chopping block, an altar. The Vedic Agnicayana ritual—some 3,000 years old and probably the most ancient ritual still performed today—involves the construction of an elaborate altar for sacrificial ritual, originally an animal sacrifice. Some say it involved human sacrifice (Staal 1983). This was said to be so at the other side of the world, at the time of the ancient Aztec empire. Literary accounts describe situations in which conquered soldiers were treated royally in preparation for sacrifice—and their still-beating hearts would then be ripped from their chests and offered to Huitzilopochtli and other gods, eventually to be eaten by the faithful, their faces skinned to make ritual masks. In the Hebrew Bible, sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the book of Leviticus gives detailed guides for preparing animals for sacrificial slaughter, and the very architecture of ancient Israeli temples reflects the centrality of the sacrificial act.
Because of its centrality, some of the earliest scholarly theories of religious violence begin with sacrifice. In the nineteenth century, E. B. Tylor (1870) posited that primitive sacrifice was an attempt to bribe the gods; as religion evolved, Tylor explained, sacrifice became internalized in the form of self-renunciation. W. Robertson-Smith (1889) saw sacrifice as a ritual meal, its destructiveness leading to a covenantal bond. In The Golden Bough, James G. Frazer (1900) identified sacrifice as the key element of religion: the killing of kings and holy men allowed (p. 893) the gods to be rejuvenated, and the symbolic sacrifice of modern religion Frazer saw as an extension of this ancient magic.
The concept of sacrifice was also important to the notion of religion advanced by Émile Durkheim. Perhaps the most expressive statement from a Durkheimian perspective was the study of sacrifice prepared by sociologists Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss (1899). They regarded sacrifice as the seminal religious act, since it provided a mediation between the sacred and profane realms of reality: the sacrificer offered life—the sacrificed animal—to the eternal being, who in turn bestowed life to the giver. Killing the sacrificed animal was a way of communicating with the divine. According to these anthropologists, the sacrificial act of mediation between the sacred and the profane is what gives religious communities their transcendent character and what makes possible the sacred legitimation for political authority and social order.
Hubert and Mauss's Durkheimian theory continued to be used by a great number of anthropologists and other scholars throughout the twentieth century, including anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard in his famous study of Nuer sacrifice (Evans-Pritchard 1956). It has come under criticism, however, for being overly dependent on Vedic, Jewish, and Christian examples. Scholars of Greek and African cultures have revised Hubert and Mauss to fit their own cases. One of the sharpest critics has been the classicist Marcel Detienne (1979), who accepts the Durkheimian notion of sacrifice as mediation, but focuses on the act of cooking and eating the sacrificed animal as an element equal to, or more important than, the act of killing it.
One of the most interesting of the recent theories of religious violence in the Durkheimian tradition—and the most relevant for our contemporary situation—comes from an anthropologist, Maurice Bloch. Bloch has accepted Detienne's critique of Hubert and Mauss, providing a revised theory of sacrifice that relates symbolic acts of violence to acts of warfare and conquest in the real world. In his book, Prey into Hunter (1992), Bloch shows how sacrificial ritual in many societies is an empowering act: it is a way of identifying with a victim in order to surmount the fear of victimization and become a conquering warrior and hunter.
Although Bloch's references are to tribal societies, one could relate Bloch's ideas to contemporary acts of terrorism, and suggest that they too are symbolic attempts at empowerment. In the case of Islamic militants in Algeria and Egypt, their use of terrorism may be a symbolic attempt by disenfranchised groups to gain a sense of the power that has been denied them at the ballot box. But more than that, as indicated in Bloch's theory, they may hope that the confidence built through such acts will lead to the reality of power. This symbolic transformation from powerlessness to real power was precisely what was prescribed by Franz Fanon, author of The Wretched of the Earth (1963), who wrote about an earlier period of political conflict in Algeria, its colonial struggle against the French. According to Fanon's philosophy of terrorism, a symbolic act of violence can impart a feeling of (p. 894) empowerment to the masses, and thus spark a real revolution. In reality, however, such acts of catalytic violence are often counterproductive. To the terrorists' dismay, the masses are often repelled rather than empowered by such acts, and the strategy may alienate potential supporters of the cause as much as it attracts them.
Displaced Violence: Literary Theory and Psychology
Is symbolic violence empowering? Or does it conduce to social harmony? Another strand of intellectual thought—also focusing on sacrifice—argues that symbolic acts of violence, such as sacrificial rituals, diffuse violence and lead to social bonding. A body of psychological and literary analyses in the twentieth century has attempted to show that such symbols as sacrifice are culturally useful precisely because they defuse violent urges between people and thus allay real acts of violence.
Many of the ideas relating to this understanding of the violent symbols of religion can be traced to the pioneering psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud advanced a theory of religious violence that by extension accounts for virtually all forms of culture. In Totem and Taboo (1918), Freud explained that the destructive instinct in human nature would tear apart a family, tribe, or civil society if it were not symbolically displaced and directed toward a sacrificial foe. Freud regarded the myth of Oedipus—in which a man desires to kill his father and seduce his mother—as the prototype of all myth.
Although many aspects of Freud's theories are now discredited, the major theme—that symbolic violence can reduce the threat of real acts of violence—has survived. Ernst Becker (1973; 1975), for instance, accepts that the purpose of violence in religion is to sublimate the violence of real life, and ultimately to deny the reality of death. Weston La Barre (1970) argues that all religion—like the Ghost Dance religion of the Plains Indians—is an attempt to escape the horrors of cultural and physical destruction, and to appeal for support from immortal forces. Writing in the same vein, but employing semiotic analyses of sacrifice by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne, and biological studies of aggression by Konrad Lorenz, Walter Burkert (1972) concludes that the bloody myths and sacrificial rituals of ancient Greece and other societies allow a group collectively to confront the reality of death and the power of violence, to increase inner-group solidarity, and to give the group a biological advantage for survival (see also Kitts 2005).
(p. 895) The role of sacrifice in allaying both violence and the fear of sexuality—a theme that is prominent in Freud—is revived by an American psychologist, Eli Sagan (1972), in psychoanalytic studies of Greek myth and cannibalism, relying on both historical and anthropological accounts. In a vastly different way, this combination is also evoked by the French literary theorist Georges Bataille (1973), who mixes sex, religion, violence, and modern capitalism in a curious mélange (and with a writing style that some may find to be excessively self-indulgent). Although Bataille regards Durkheim as his intellectual forebear, he borrows as much from Freud and Foucault as he does from Durkheim in a theory that tries to explain external conquests and acts of control as attempts to reclaim the shattered self.
In America, the most influential attempt to resuscitate Freud's ideas on religious violence—and one that has been used to explain contemporary terrorist acts—comes from a French literary theorist, René Girard, who teaches at Stanford. In Violence and the Sacred (1972), Girard accepts the Freudian point that religion's symbols and rituals of violence evoke, and thereby vent, violent impulses and allow those who embrace them to release their feelings of hostility towards members of their own communities. Parting company with Freud, however, Girard rejects the notion that aggressive instincts are the motor that drives the sacrificial act, and identifies instead the basic impulse as “mimetic desire”—the urge to imitate and better one's rival, and to desire what one's rival desires.
Like other literary theorists and psychologists, Girard generally avoids the problem of real acts of religious violence, such as the terrorism that has gripped many parts of the contemporary world. After all, according to Girard's theories (and, for that matter, the theories of Freud), the proper enactment of the symbols and rituals of religion should conduce to nonviolence and social harmony, not to terrorism and social disruption. From Girard's and Freud's points of view, symbolic expressions of violence in myths and rituals should alleviate the desire for violent acts.
Girard's theories—and Girard himself—have been put to the test by a number of critics, including a working committee of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. The Guggenheim project was an encounter between Girard and a group of social scientists who have studied contemporary aspects of religious violence. I was privileged to chair the committee and participate in the project, which resulted in a volume, Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World (Juergensmeyer 1991), that contains both critiques of Girard and attempts to apply his theories to the contemporary situation. The volume concludes with a response from Girard.
In the Guggenheim volume several authors find Girard's insights to be usefully applied to the contemporary situation. A modern historian of Islam, Emmanuel Sivan (1991), describes a kind of mimesis—the ideological rivalry between Islamic and Jewish militants in the Middle East—as a central component in the conflict. A political scientist, Ehud Sprinzak (1991b), sees Rabbi Meir Kahane's envy of the Gentiles as a prime factor in the feelings of vengeance that have propelled the (p. 896) Rabbi's anti-Arab ideology. A Middle East studies scholar, Martin Kramer (1991), takes a close look at the members of the Hezbollah and Amal terrorist groups who were selected as the suicide bombers in attacks on Israeli and American military. Kramer finds that these young people bear many of the characteristics of sacrificial victims in traditional religion. Moreover, he sees something of a sacrificial rivalry between Hezbollah and Amal, each trying to outdo the other in acts of martyrdom.
Perhaps the most controversial essay in the book was written by a colleague of Girard's, Mark Anspach (1991), who utilizes Girardian theories to explain why, in his frame of reference, Islam is more prone to violence than other traditions. He argues that this allegation is true in part because the Muslim tradition lacks a sufficient ritual apparatus to diffuse violent urges, and instead violence is “channeled outward against the infidels” as a “ritual requirement in Islam”. Christianity, on the other hand, is alleged by Anspach to be more pacifist in its outlook, not only because it has sufficient rituals to act out, and thereby prevent, violence, but also because Christianity is alone among the world's religions in portraying its God—in the person of Christ—as a sacrificial victim. Critics of Anspach's theories about the alleged violent character of Islam and the pacifist character of Christianity cite evidence to show that Christianity has been an even greater instigator of international and internal conflict throughout history than Islam. One can contest these historical examples on both sides by challenging what constitutes an incident of conflict and what can be attributed to religious rather than political instigation. The point remains that the theoretical analysis of an assumed fact is as valid as the assumption on which it rests. For this reason analytical perspectives drawn primarily from historical and literary examples are often applied to contemporary cases with a certain amount of controversy.
Strategies of Violence: Sociologists and Political Scientists
Other social scientists have approached the matter of religious violence quite differently. Rather than beginning with sacrifice and other artifacts of religion, they begin with the social and political contexts that give rise to religious images and acts. Here the theoretical roots lie in the ideas of two great theorists of society, Max Weber and Karl Marx. Weber saw religious values as affecting social patterns, and vice versa; the case of the “Protestant ethic” both shaping and being informed by “the spirit of capitalism” is Weber's (1930) best-known example. Marx (1960), on the other hand, took religion to be both a tool of the social situation and an expression of it: both an “opiate” and a “sigh of the oppressed”. In this context (p. 897) Marx thought of violence—in the form of class conflict—as being endemic to the social role that religion played as an instrument of exploitation.
Although few modern sociologists and political scientists hew closely to Weberian or Marxist formulas, they, like their famous forebears, tend to see religion as an expression of social structure, and religious violence as an instrument of social or political forces. They are primarily interested in real acts of violence in the world, and less interested in the symbolic and ritualized depictions of it. For that reason, some social scientists who study political conflict and terrorism find nothing intrinsically special about religious forms of public violence. There is no category for “religious terrorism” in Walter Laqueur's encyclopedic study, The Age of Terrorism (1987), for example.
Along similar lines, Martha Crenshaw, a political scientist who specializes in the study of theories of terrorism, finds no special theoretical approach to the study of religious terrorist movements. Rather, she distinguishes between “instrumental” and “organizational” approaches to the subject. The former focus on the instrumental results that a terrorist group hopes to achieve by using its strategy of violence, and the latter look at the organizational context of the group itself: the schisms, power plays, and internal conflicts that may lead to acts of bravado meant more to impress or intimidate wayward members of their own group than to achieve strategic victory against their external opponents (Crenshaw 1988; 1995).
But although most social scientists are concerned with the matter of how religious activists behave in political and social ways—and not with their religious motivations—some social scientists have returned to Weber's challenge of trying to understand the interaction of values and social structure, and see how religious beliefs may have a social impact. A political scientist, David C. Rapoport, for example, finds that terrorist strategies are evoked by religious activists especially in times of messianic expectation, when their acts may be justified by apocalyptic images of a radical transformation of history and society (Rapoport 1988; 1991). Another political scientist, Ehud Sprinzak, describes the “catastrophic messianism” that can emerge in Israeli society in times of weak authority structures and an unbridled ideology of democracy (Sprinzak 1988; 1991a). Martin Riesebrodt (1993), a sociologist of religion at the University of Chicago, has compared the implicit violence of Christian fundamentalists in the United States and Islamic revolutionaries in Iran, and cited the respective traditions' propensities for shoring up patriarchal patterns of religious and secular authority.
In my own book, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State (Juergensmeyer 2008), I put the current rise of religious violence in the context of geo-politics and the historical decline of the intellectual hegemony of what Jürgen Habermas (1975) calls “the Enlightenment project”. The resulting loss of faith in secular nationalism in various parts of the world, I argue, has spawned new attempts to secure the moral footings of public life in the traditional ethics (p. 898) of religious traditions. I see these movements for religious nationalism as historically new inventions; for in some cases they merge the values of traditional community with the modern artifice of the nation-state, providing a religious legitimization for nationalism at a time of global political insecurity. In other cases their visions are transnational, and aim at alternatives to the Western-oriented forms of economic and cultural globalization. The violence of these movements is understandable, I assert, for they challenge the established political order at its theoretical roots.
In a chapter of my book devoted specifically to the issue of violence, I observe that the religious character of new nationalist movements gives a particularly violent tinge to the encounter, since religion gives moral justification for undertaking violent acts. As Max Weber once observed, the power of the state rests in large part on its monopoly over morally sanctioned violence, which it uses primarily for police protection and military defense. Religious authority is the only entity that can challenge that monopoly (Weber 1946: 78). For that reason, I regard acts of religious violence as revolutionary: the symbolic potency of religion is potentially a resource for political as well as spiritual empowerment.
Theological Justifications for Religious Violence
The idea of religious violence as empowerment, a theme central to many social scientists who have written about the subject, is a motif that is sometimes also adopted by those writing from within religious traditions. Sacrificial rituals, for instance, can be spiritually interpreted as acts of renewal and regeneration. In this, as in many related areas, theological and social-scientific points of view converge.
Often theological writings will describe symbolic images of destruction as acts of purification and transformation, and as expressions of the quest for social harmony, in ways that are not that dissimilar from the insights of the psychologists, literary theorists, and social scientists mentioned above. The writings of René Girard, for instance, have attracted a great deal of attention from Christian theologians. A leading Latin American theologian has published a volume of essays mining Girard's ideas for their utility in liberation theology (Assmann 1991).
Theologians and other religious thinkers have written thoughtfully not only about these symbolic acts of violence but also about real ones. In a sense they have no choice. The violence perpetrated in the name of religion during the present age and over the centuries requires some sort of religious response, either to condemn it or give it moral justification.
(p. 899) Christianity
The controversy over whether Christianity sanctions violence has hounded the church from its very beginning. Some have argued that Christians were expected to follow Jesus' example of selfless love (agapē), and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5: 44). Those who took the other side have referred to the incident in which Jesus drove the money changers from the Temple, and to his enigmatic statement: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34; cf. also Luke 12: 51–2). The early Church Fathers, including Tertullian and Origen, asserted that Christians were constrained from taking human life, a principle that prevented Christians from serving in the Roman army.
When Christianity was vaulted into the status of state religion by Constantine in the fourth century ce, it began to reject pacifism and accept the doctrine of just war, an idea first stated by Cicero and later developed by Ambrose and Augustine. The abuse of the concept in justifying military adventures and violent persecutions of heretical and minority groups led Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, to reaffirm that war is always sinful, even if it is occasionally waged for a just cause. Remarkably, the just war theory still stands today as the centerpiece of Christian understanding about the moral use of violence (see, e.g., Ramsay 1968; Potter 1969). Some Christian theologians have adapted the theory of just war to liberation theology, arguing that the church can embrace a “just revolution” (Brown 1987; Gutierrez 1988).
An American Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, showed the relevance of the just war theory to contemporary social struggles by relating it to the Christian requirement to fulfill social justice. When violence is employed for the sake of justice, Niebuhr explained, it must be used as swiftly and skillfully “as a surgeon's knife” (Niebuhr 1932: 134). In a famous essay answering the question, “why the Christian Church is not pacifist”, Niebuhr—who had himself been a pacifist earlier in his career—built his case on Augustine's understanding of original sin. Because of the sinful nature of humanity, Niebuhr argued, righteous force was sometimes necessary to extirpate injustice and subdue evil within a sinful world (Niebuhr 1940).
Other religious traditions have also found ways of justifying violence—either for defense of the faith or to maintain social order. In Islam, for instance, violence is required within the tradition for purposes of punishment, and in Muslim contacts outside the tradition violence is sometimes deemed necessary in order to defend the faith. In the “world of conflict” (dar al harb) outside the Muslim world, force is (p. 900) a means of cultural survival. In such contexts, maintaining the purity of religious existence is sometimes a matter of jihad, a word that literally means “striving”, and is often translated as “holy war” (Peters 1979; Martin 1969). This concept has sometimes been used by Muslim warriors to justify the expansion of political control into non-Muslim regions. But Islamic law does not allow jihad to be used arbitrarily, for personal gain or to justify forcible conversion to the faith; the only conversions regarded as valid are those that come about nonviolently, through rational persuasion and a change of heart.
In recent years Muslim political activists have employed the notion of jihad to justify militant political acts, implicitly a defense of the faith in a secular—and therefore presumably hostile—world. According to an Egyptian author, Abd al-Salam Faraj, one of the thinkers behind the group implicated in the assassination of Sadat, jihad has been a “neglected duty” (Jansen 1986). It is one nonetheless incumbent on all true Muslims, who are urged by Faraj to defend the faith—violently if necessary—in the hostile social and political spheres of the modern world. An early twentieth-century Pakistani thinker, Sayid Abul Ala Maududi, has been influential in the thinking of Faraj and many other radical Sunni Muslims, and has helped them to understand the necessity of appropriating violent means in the political defense of the faith (Adams 1966; Jansen 1986). Ideas about religious revolution and the righteous use of violent power expressed by the Ayatollah Khomeini (1981) have also had a seminal influence—especially on Shiʼite Muslims in Iran, but also on Muslims of all persuasions throughout the world. From Khomeini's perspective, the Islamic world has been captive to Western—especially American—cultural and economic control, and must free itself not only for purposes of political liberation but also for spiritual freedom as well.
In the Jewish tradition, some of the earliest images are the most violent. “The Lord is a warrior,” proclaims Exodus 15: 3, and the first books of the Hebrew Bible include scenes of utter desolation caused by divine intervention. Rabbinic Judaism, despite several militant clashes with the Romans—including the Maccabean Revolt (166–164 bce) and the revolt at Masada (73 ce)—is largely nonviolent. At the level of statecraft, however, the rabbis did sanction warfare, but distinguished between “religious” war and “optional” war (Biale 1987; Baron et al. 1977). The former they required as a moral or spiritual obligation: to protect the faith or defeat enemies of the Lord. These they contrasted with wars waged primarily for reasons of political expediency.
In modern Israel, religious writings have emerged that support warfare in the cause of Israeli irridentism, and justify force used against the Arabs. The most influential of these are the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kuk (also spelled (p. 901) Kook) and his son (Metzger 1968; Agus 1946; Biale 1983), with their notions of messianic Zionism. Following Kuk's train of thought, Rabbi Meir Kahane developed his own distinctive “catastrophic Messianism” as Ehud Sprinzak (1991b) has called it (see also Kahane 1978; 1981). One of the dark features of Kahane's logic is what he regarded as the theological necessity of eradicating Arabs from biblical Israel (including the West Bank)—a position that caused some observers to dub him “Israel's Ayatollah” (Mergui and Simonnot 1985; and Kotler 1986). His posturing has left a legacy of violence—including his own assassination in 1990 at the hands of the Muslim group in New York City implicated in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1994 massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs by Dr Baruch Goldstein, one of Kahane's followers.
In India's ancient Vedic times, warriors called on the gods to participate in their struggles, thus merging the sacred and worldly realms, and providing a divine basis for warfare. In the later development of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita gives several reasons why killing in warfare is permissible, including the argument that the soul can never really be killed: “he who slays, slays not; he who is slain, is not slain” (Bhagavad Gita 2: 19). Another position given in the Gita is based on dharma (moral obligation): duties of a member of the ksatriya (warrior) caste by definition involved killing, so it was justified in the very maintenance of social order. Mohandas Gandhi (1960), like many other modern Hindus who revere the Gita, regarded its warfare as an allegorical reference to the eternal conflict between good and evil. Gandhi, who ordinarily subscribed to nonviolence, allowed for an exception to his general rule of pacificism when a small, strategic act of violence would defuse a greater violence (see Juergensmeyer 2005). The rise of Hindu nationalism has been the occasion for new justifications of Hindu militancy and a fair amount of Hindu violence. In the anti-colonial struggle against the British, militant Bengali Hindus were inspired by Kali, goddess of destruction. The use of force in more recent versions of Hindu nationalist ideology is justified by V. D. Savarkar and other leaders of the militant Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (National Service Organization), which is one of the precursors to the hugely successful Hindu nationalist political organization, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Savarkar 1969; Andersen and Damle 1987; van der Veer 1994).
Like the Hindu tradition, to which it is historically related, Sikhism contains precepts that are basically peaceful, yet allow enough exceptions that recent militant (p. 902) activists can utilize these ideas to justify violent acts. Guru Nanak, the sixteenth-century spiritual master regarded as the Sikhs' founder, is portrayed in literature and hagiography as a gentle soul. But the movement in time came to be led by members of a militant tribal group, the Jats, and Sikhs have periodically clashed with Mughals, the British, and other Indian rulers (McLeod 1976). The core of the Sikh community is known as “the army of the faithful” (Dal Khalsa), and their symbol is a double-edged sword. The conquests of the great nineteenth-century ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the violent exhortations of the twentieth-century militant, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, are both justified by the Sikh doctrine of miri-piri: the idea that religion is to be victorious in both the spiritual and worldly realms (Bhindranwale 1999). Bhindranwale was killed on 5 June 1984, when the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, sent troops into the Sikhs' Golden Temple where the militant leader was ensconced. Later that year Mrs Gandhi herself was savagely killed by her own Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for Bhindranwale's death and the invasion of the Temple, which was regarded by many Sikhs as an act of desecration that warranted revenge.
One might expect that the Buddhist doctrine of ahimsa—nonviolence—would make it immune from religiously justified acts of violence. But even traditional Buddhist teachings allow for exceptions to the rule, and require that five conditions be satisfied in order to prove that an act of violence has indeed taken place: (1) something living must have been killed; (2) the killer must have known that it was alive; (3) the killer must have intended to kill it; (4) an actual act of killing must have taken place; and (5) the person or animal attacked must, in fact, have died (Saddhatissa 1970). It is the absence of the third condition—the intention to kill—that typically allows for some mitigation of the rule of nonviolence. For instance, many Buddhists will eat meat as long as they have not themselves intended that the animal be killed or been involved in the act of slaughtering it. Armed defense—even warfare—has been justified on the grounds that such violence has been in the nature of response, not intent. To use violence nondefensively—for the purpose of political expansion, for example—would be prohibited under Buddhist rules (Saddhatissa 1970; Tambiah 1987; 1992).
In modern political struggles in Buddhist societies such as Sri Lanka, Buddhism has been bent to it the revolutionary goals and motives of nationalist ideologies. When I asked a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka how, in light of the Buddhist subscription to ahimsa, he justified support for a militant movement implicated in hundreds of deaths, including assassination attempts on political leaders, he resorted again to Buddhist concepts: “We live in an adhammic [immoral] world,” he said, implying that, like Christian, Muslim, and Jewish thinkers, the immorality (p. 903) of this sinful world drives the religious person to acts of violence for justice, survival, and defense of the faith (Juergensmeyer 2008).
Comparative Studies of Religious Violence
Although each of these justifications and explanations for religious violence is enlightening, taken together the differences in their emphases and the contradictions between their conclusions can be vexing. This is especially so when one attempts to apply these insights to contemporary acts of violence committed in the name of religion. The conundrum of religious violence is puzzling in large part because it involves an attempt to explain not only why bad things happen, but also why bad things happen for reasons purported by their perpetrators to be good. Since we are products of an intellectually self-confident age, we are not content to let explanations for such religious violence reside entirely in the mind of God.
Yet it is helpful to attempt to understand religious violence from the point of view of the nature of religion itself—not only from the perspective of particular theological positions, but from the reference point of the religious imagination in general. Several of the schools of theory that I have discussed have tried to do just that: to locate the justification for violence within a comprehensive understanding of religion, an approach that is also taken by philosophers from Kant to Derrida (de Vries 2001). Durkheimians, for instance, have seen conflict as part of a quest for order lying behind the sacrificial interaction between sacred and profane; Freudians view the role of symbolic violence in the mediation of conflict and efforts to produce social harmony; other social scientists see violence as part of the symbolic expression of social conflict and cooperation; and theologians of all stripes see the violence in religion as a dimension of transcendence itself and part of a broad spiritual understanding of sacred history and material life.
The field of religious studies—the academic study of religion also known as “comparative religion”, “the history of religions”, and “the phenomenology of religions”, and to German-speaking scholars as Religionswissenschaft—places its discussions of religious violence within this totalistic perspective. Following the pioneers in this Weld, such as Joachim Wach and Mircea Eliade, scholars of religious studies attempt, as Jacques Waardenburg (1978: 94) put it, to “reconstruct religious meanings”. Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1959: 37) has described it as an understanding of “the religious life” of a community that knits together the various literary, social, and psychological ways in which that life is manifest.
(p. 904) In line with the religious studies school of thought, one of Eliade's students, Bruce Lincoln, has brought the Hubert and Mauss thesis on sacrifice into a broad analysis, and envisioned violent acts as part of a “master discourse” intended to link together the cosmos, the human body, and society (Lincoln 1991). At Santa Barbara, Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht (1996), in combining sociological with religious studies perspectives, have regarded sacred centrality (divine axes in both space and time) as primary to the religious world view. In their study of the conflict between Jews, Muslims, and Christians over the sacred sites in Jerusalem, they show how such conflicting views of sacrality can easily lead to violence.
My own contribution to an understanding of religious violence comes from the intersection of religious studies and the sociology of religion, in my discussion of the concept of cosmic war (Juergensmeyer 2003). It seems to me that what unites symbolic and real acts of religious violence is a fundamental religious impulse, the quest for order. Underlying the savage imagery of cosmic war is an orderly perception of the world, a world divided into warring camps and knit together in a scenario of warfare that will ultimately lead to a triumphant and peaceful end. The conceptual template of cosmic war is able to embrace apparent social anomalies—such as the persistent control of societies by alien forces or the sudden destruction of major buildings in a modern urban center—and provide a framework in which these anomalies make sense. The images of cosmic war do what religion in general does well: provide a deep framework of order that gives meaning to life's contradictions and hope that counters despair.
This way of thinking about religion—as ultimate order—is not wholly new; it is one that has been enunciated in various interpretations by social theorists in the Durkheimian school and by theologians such as Paul Tillich and David Tracy (Tracy 1975). It seems to me that religious violence, in both its symbolic and its real forms, illuminates this basic characteristic of religion. Acts of religious violence fit into large religious programs of cosmic order. These paradigms of order provide ways of thinking about the world as caught between secular and transcendent histories, the latter offering a world that is regarded by the faithful as eventually moving beyond the state of worldly violence to a stage of being that is harmonious and just. It is this paradox—that violence is perceived as a pathway to peace—that is central, I believe, both to religious violence and to religion in general. Those of us who work in this field are still groping towards a general theory of religion that will allow us to understand how the religious impulse of humanity is always a yearning for transcendence and tranquility, even when it fuels the most vicious aspects of human imagination. In the mind of God, if not in humans' reckoning, we are convinced that there is a link between violence and nonviolence, between worldly disorder and transcendent order. Understanding this link may help us moderate the most savage effects of religious violence and give greater force to the nonviolent aspects of religious teachings.
In the early years of the Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power, one of my colleagues, an Islamicist, was bold enough to compare the Ayatollah to Mahatma (p. 905) Gandhi. In almost every way, she explained, the two were similar: both condemned the vacuousness of modern secular society; both envisioned a moral politics built on traditional values; and both conceived the transition to be a time of struggle in which worldly order would be disrupted so that Godly order could intervene. They both led mass movements that were mobilized by socially adept religious leaders. The only difference, she said, was that Khomeini allowed for violent means, whereas Gandhi did not.
In a sense my colleague was wrong; for there is a world of difference between an approach to social change that justifies violence and one that does not. In another sense, however, she was correct: both Khomeini and Gandhi were concerned with the generation of social and spiritual power through religion, and how it can be morally justified and applied. The headlines in today's newspapers graphically show how potent a force religion is. The question that remains is how we can understand the relationship between this power and the religious goals of harmony and peace.
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