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Blood spilled in name of God

by Charles Kimball
HarperCollins, 240 pages, $21.95

Reviewed by STEPHEN J. DUFFY

Some time ago, Hans Küng sagely observed, “There can be no world peace without religious peace.” Flash points of violence across the globe in the last decade certainly confirm his observation. There have been bloody encounters between Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is by no stretch purely political. History reveals a pitch-dark underside to religious traditions and movements that spawn violence. Until recently, this underside has been little attended to by religious leaders and theologians.

Indeed they have often enough self-deceptively cloaked the carnage of religion in a haze of sacralized ideologies and social structures of violence. Too many wars have been fought and too many humans slaughtered under the banners of religions. War is a “holy cause” and “God” a blood soaked word.

At another level, there is the religiously sanctioned violence of figures like Ashsara Shoko and the Aum Shinrikyo movement, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians and Marshall Applewhite and the Heaven’s Gate movement. Consider, too, the religious sanctioning of slavery and apartheid, of violence and discrimination against women and of the episcopal cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy in the American Catholic church. Violence in the name of religion is done not only to outsiders but also to community insiders and to the community itself.

Charles Kimball, professor of religion at Wake Forest University, offers a timely analysis of this long, tragic history of bloodshed laced with religious rhetoric and imagery. Ours is a world of religious diversity combined with global interdependence. It is also a world of political and economic instability, shifting cultural values and expanding secularization, ethnic conflict, nuclear proliferation, grinding poverty and ecological devastation.

Combine these ingredients with narrow, exclusivist religious worldviews, political self-interest and the human proclivity to aggression and you have an incendiary mix. It is crucial, therefore, that we recognize the centrality of religion and its interaction with a new world marked by both globalism and tribalism.

Kimball’s study focuses on Christianity and Islam, whose adherents number almost half the planet’s population. Both, along with Judaism, engage with political structures more readily than do the other major religions and both have a strong missionary impulse.

Kimball ranges widely through all the major traditions to evanescent sects and cults of little or no historic import. But the central aim of his analysis is to examine five interpenetrating warning signs that signal the human corruption of religion, from which no tradition is exempt. The five alarm bells that should alert us to religiously sanctioned evil are absolute, totalistic truth claims, blind obedience to charismatic leaders, belief that one’s community is ushering in the ideal age, ends that justify any and all means, and declarations of holy war.

Kimball’s elaboration of these five signals is nicely anecdotal rather than abstractly analytical as he weaves together illustrative narrations of events past and present drawn from historical sources, media accounts and his own extensive experiences throughout the Middle East. One may wonder whether, and if so, to what extent, Kimball agrees with Samuel Huntington’s debatable “clash of civilizations” thesis.

Kimball is correct in locating the root of the problem in the efforts of religious communities to find their fit in society, in the everyday world of politics, economics, education and social life. Theocracy is out of the question in a pluralistic world increasingly wired for cyberspace. Moreover, the historical record hardly recommends it. Also, living as we do in secularized societies where religion is largely privatized, it is hard for us to understand anyone who sees religion as a way of life permeating every nook and cranny of existence.

Kimball is also correct in finding in the texts and foundational figures of the major traditions another side, which provides the resources enabling a turn from distortion to authenticity. If there are the warrior God and the military messiah, there are also the suffering servant and the crucified Christ; if there are summons to holy war and crusades, there are also the love commands.

Kimball’s final chapter points up the need for a new way of understanding and living out one’s particularity in a religiously diverse world, a paradigm that enables interfaith engagement at all levels. In quest of this new paradigm, he turns to the shopworn exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism typology. Of late, theologians have shown that there is sand at the foundations of this typology.

Kimball’s brief presentation of it lacks nuance and precision. In the end, it is less than clear exactly how he wants us to think about religious diversity while maintaining our own faith commitments and not facilely melting down the diverse religions to a one-size-fits-all homogeneity. More is required than open and respectful attitudes. What Kimball needs here is a much better thought-out theology of the religions that will ground interreligious dialogue and interaction.

While Kimball’s claim that there has been more blood spilled and evil done in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in history is without warrant, the data he presents do confirm the awful fact that religion as a human phenomenon is not immune to the ambiguity that dogs all things human. Religion continues to inspire the noblest of our aspirations and achievements; yet it can turn demonic and betray our humanity when our capacity for self-transcendence yields to tribalism or scapegoating violence. Religious myth and ritual may then be invoked to energize and rationalize destructive choices and actions. Genetic selfishness and aggressions surely live behind the evils of religious people. Divided selves and divided communities live in symbiosis.

Religious ideologies masked in religious symbolism stoke the fires within and without, enflaming hatred of the out-group and dividing the world into armies of God and dark satanic empires and sending each camp into “holy” wars against the enemy its ideology creates. Religion has been, and sadly still remains, as tragically ambivalent as any of our highest human achievements. We do well to ponder this in our flag-waving republic poised on the brink of another war.

Stephen J. Duffy is professor of theology at Loyola University, New Orleans.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003