Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Review: Princeton Readings in Violence and Religion [Vol. 4, #27]

“Religious Violence
and Social Order”

A Review of
Princeton Readings in
Religion and Violence

by Mark Juergensmeyer
and Margo Kitts
Paperback: Princeton UP, 2011.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Adam Ericksen.

In their introduction to Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence, Mark Juergensmyer and Margo Kitts claim that “Violence in the name of religion, plentiful in our time, is an enduring feature of religion.” The fact that religion and violence mingle in a sacred nightmare plagues our modern mind. We are left asking: what is the relationship between religion and violence?

That’s the critical question this book brilliantly explores. The question has perplexed modern anthropologists and philosophers for the last 200 years. The answer has proved elusive as theory after theory has been promoted. Scholars continue to debate and explore that question. This relatively short (222 pages) book is a great introduction to anyone who is interested in the debate and exploration.

The book is divided into two parts and 25 chapters, each are excerpts from sacred writings or authors reflecting upon those writings. Very helpful introductions by the editors begin each part and each chapter of the book. The first part, which really could be divided into two parts, contains 13 short but provocative chapters. The first six chapters explore religious texts from the Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions that endorse religious justifications for violence. The final seven chapters of part one include the writings of religious adherents, including the medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas and the “9/11 Conspirators,” all of whom endorse some form of violence in the name of religion.

In their introduction to part one, the editors claim that each religion has similar justifications for religious violence. In religious traditions a divine mandate for violence is “carried out for an ultimately moral purpose: to uphold the social order” (8). Divinely sanctioned violence seeks to defend the social order against a real or perceived threat. Four of the first six examples include: Sun Tzu, who wrote The Art of War, was primarily concerned with order in the material and spiritual realms. When that order is threatened, Tzu claimed that war may be necessary. Thus, for him, the goal of war “is to restore a state of order and calm” (17). Soho Takuan, a Buddhist Zen Master, used Buddhist principles to promote violence, but believed that violence should only be employed “for defensive reasons, not for personal gain” (25). Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 20 of the Hebrew Bible both sanction violence in the name of God. Troubling to many, Deuteronomy even makes the case for a divinely mandated war of expansion. That war of expansion was seen as defensive; it was “justified not for material gain but for defensive purposes—to preempt the possibility of attack by distant enemies” (30). Increasingly since 9/11, the Qur’an has been thought by many in the West to be a bellicose book written by a man determined to conquer the world in the name of Allah. Although less than 2 percent of the Qur’an refers to warfare, it does contain verses that endorse violence. Still, those justifications for religious violence are defensive. The editors explain in their introduction to the chapter on the Qur’an that “most interpreters assume that war is warranted only for defensive reasons, when the Muslim community is under attack, as it frequently was in the Prophet’s lifetime” (36).

The concluding seven chapters of part one are essays written by religious adherents who look to their traditions as a justification for violence. Like the first six chapters, a diversity of religions are represented (Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), but what unites them all in their justifications for violence is the defense and restoration of the social order against a real or perceived threat. I’ll mention a few examples from the book: early in his life, Reinhold Niebuhr was a committed pacifist, but could no longer claim pacifism after WWII. After that experience he called himself a “Christian realist.” Niebuhr had a profound sense of humanity’s sinful nature, and believed we could not rely on the love of our fellow humans, but only on the mercy of God. Niebuhr is unique among the faithful in this book, for he continued to respect the pacifist’s position. He wrote that pacifism “proceeds from the conviction that the true end of man is brotherhood, and that love is the law of life” (54). Still, Niebuhr believed that human sin was a threat to society and needed to be restrained through a limited use of violence. According to Niebuhr, political systems need to employ strategies that “seek to secure the highest measure of peace and justice among selfish and sinful men” (50). Niebuhr held in tension the ideal of pacifism with what he thought was the need for violence. For Niebuhr, violence was not due to the will of God, but solely to the will of a sinful humanity.

That tension is missing from the other authors in part one. Michael Bray, who left the Lutheran church to form his own organization called the “Reformation Lutheran Church,” is the author of A Time to Kill, which is “the definitive book on the ethical justifications for anti-abortion violence” (55). Bray justifies his use of violence by associating Jesus with violence. “This Jesus,” writes Bray, “is the ‘Man of War’ of the Scriptures” (59). For Bray, abortion has become part of the secular social order that threatens the Christian social order and he believes Christians must follow Jesus by using “godly force” to violently oppose abortion. Many of his followers have done just that by bombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors. Rabbi Meir Kahane was the founder of the Kach Party, a right wing political organization in Israel. He believed it is a divine duty for Jews to defend their community against the threat of evil. Kahane wrote, “he who rebels against G-d, treating His command to fight and root out evil and evildoers with contempt, will never have peace, for there is no peace for the wicked, those who cast off their yoke” (73). The Buddhist example for religious justification of violence is Shoko Asahara, whose organization used nerve gas to attack a Tokyo subway in 1995. He prophesied a “great catastrophic war” that would begin in 2000 and “justified the movement’s violence as defensive postures necessitated by the evil threats occasioned in the great war” (75). The final chapter in the first section is titled “9/11 Conspirators.” The perpetrators of 9/11 believed they were participants in a cosmic battle of Good against Evil. Their instructions for that terrible day are printed in this chapter and “represent the attacks as glorious acts in a war that ultimately would restore the world to its pristine perfection” (219).

The second part, titled “Understanding the Religious Role in Violence,” is a bit more demanding. Fortunately, the editors’ introductions to this second part and to each chapter are very helpful. Excerpts from the classical social theorists Émile Durkheim, Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud are provided, as are excerpts from more recent theorists, including those of René Girard, Walter Burkert, Maurice Bloch, George Bataille, Nancy Jay, Elaine Scarry, Jean Baudrillard, and Ashis Nandy. They represent a diversity of viewpoints, including religious, atheist, anthropological, literary, feminist, and postcolonial. Despite their diversity, the editors claim the theories of religion described in this second part do have something in common with the first part. Generally, these theories claim that the faithful justify religious violence “in order to establish a more ordered and peaceful world” (218). This is the key point made throughout the book: everyone who endorses or participates in religiously sanctioned violence believes that he or she is protecting their community from a social threat and thus is making the world a better place.

Just as significant as that belief though, is another social significance behind religious violence. Religious violence unites a group against a common enemy, or, in the case of sacrifice, against a common victim. Durkheim, the father of modern sociology, saw something of this social significance in his theory on totem sacrifice. “He envisioned the totem as the projected collective consciousness of the group, whose members are integrated together around the totem” (94). Similarly to Durkheim, Freud postulated that the first sacrifice occurred when a band of brothers resented their father’s power and united in violence against him (121). Girard builds upon Durkheim and Freud. For Girard, “Violence and the sacred are inseparable” (138); they are interrelated from the foundations of human culture. He postulates that the primary source of violence doesn’t come from an external threat, but from within. Conflicts within early hominid groups led to war of all against all. Without a solution to violence, those groups would self-destruct. The solution to self destructive violence was found through sacrifice. Sacrifice redirected chaotic violence that threatened the group’s survival by ordering that violence against a sacrificial victim who was blamed for all the problems within the community. Girard writes, “The desire to commit an act of violence on those near us cannot be suppressed without a conflict; we must divert that impulse, therefore, toward the sacrificial victim” (135).

This is a terrific book for anyone interested in the topic. Although the second part is challenging, because the chapters are short and the introductions are good, I think this would be a good book for a group study. The only thing missing are alternative readings from religious traditions that challenge religious justifications for violence. The editors acknowledge this and state, “We wish that this volume were large enough to include the peaceful side of religion and to counteract all the violent passages” (1). I hope that a companion volume that explores religion and peace is in the near future.


Adam Ericksen is Education Coordinator at The Raven Foundation and Youth Pastor at First Congregational Church of Wilmette(IL).


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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