‘Fields of Blood,’ by Karen Armstrong
Just after finishing Karen Armstrong’s new book, I happened to hear a discussion on television about the latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East. “We have to hope that this disagreement stays on the political level, rather than becoming a religious dispute,” one of the experts said. “Political differences can be resolved. Religious ones cannot.”
“Fields of Blood” can be thought of as a long, wide-ranging and overall quite effective rebuttal to the outlook expressed in that comment. “In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident,” Armstrong says on the book’s first page. It follows that the main hope for peace is to keep faith and statecraft separate.
Armstrong, a onetime Roman Catholic nun and the author of several influential works on religion including “A History of God,” argues that this is an incorrect diagnosis leading to a flawed prescription. The page-by-page detail of the book is much of the reason to read it, but if you reduced its complexities and tangles to their essence, they would amount to these three points:
First, through most of human history, people have chosen to intertwine religion with all their other activities, including, notably, how they are governed. This was “not because ambitious churchmen had ‘mixed up’ two essentially distinct activities,” she says, “but because people wanted to endow everything they did with significance.”
Second, this involvement with politics means that religions have often been tied up with violence: Crusaders, conquistadors, jihadists and many more. But — a point Armstrong cares about so much that she makes it dozens of times — the violence almost always originates with the state and spills over to religion, rather than vice versa. This, she says, is because any governing body, democratic or tyrannical, peace-loving or expansionist, “was obliged to maintain at its heart an institution committed to treachery and violence,” and because “violence and coercion . . . lay at the heart of social existence.” The earliest states required force to maintain systems of agricultural production; mature ones found that the threat of violence — by police within their borders, by armies between them — was, sadly, the best way to keep the peace.