The following is the first of a multipart series.
“People want to lead peaceful lives. The terrorists are shortsighted, and this is one of the causes of rampant suicide bombings,” the Dalai Lama said. “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, ‘Solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.’”
– The Dali Lama, responding to attacks in Paris, November 2015.
In this essay I want to show how a historical reading of religious violence reveals that the frequently invoked concepts of the “state of nature” and the “state of exception” are both related, apocalyptic concepts invoked to legitimate state violence. In doing so, I suggest that binary distinctions between secular and religious are not very useful for preventing terrorism, genocide, or war. Because of this, political leaders and scholars need to adopt what has been recently referred to as a ‘post-secular’ attitude in order to deal with both global and domestic politics, but the ‘post-secular’ must not be understood as a complete rejection of the values of the radical Enlightenment nor the “welcoming back” of religiously enchanted attitudes. I rely heavily on William Cavanaugh’s arguments concerning the myth of religious violence.
Cavanaugh begins The Myth of Religious Violence arguing, “religion-and-violence arguments serve a particular need for their consumers in the West” (4). He sees an ideological contestation for the market on human sacrifice between the Enlightenment nation state and religion. For him, ‘religion’ as a category developed as an “Other” to a secularization process that gained momentum in Western Europe during the late medieval and early modern period. The myth to which Cavanaugh refers is perhaps most facilely and reductively themed by simply referring to the Protestant Reformation’s destabilizing of Catholic hegemony and the emergence of modernity with the scientific thought.
A myth is not a lie, nor is it innocent. Myths are important because they are not simply lies: “a story takes on the status of myth when it becomes unquestioned. It becomes very difficult to think outside the paradigm that the myth establishes and reflects because myth and reality become mutually reinforcing” (6).
Drawing on Linda Zerilli, Cavanaugh claims that myths cannot be defeated by merely pointing out their roots in “groundless belief,” which leads him to a genealogical examination of the ‘myth’ of religious violence because it “can only be undone by showing that it lacks the resources to solve the very problem that it identifies” (7).
I suggest that Cavanaugh is implicitly performing ideology critique. His method is important because discussion of religion has importantly arisen in global politics following the end of the Cold War. By Cavanaugh’s logic, terrorism’s violence is not so much important because it threatens people’s lives as because it threatens the political founding myths of “secular” nation states. While Cavanaugh does not deny that people do violence in the name of religion, that violence is for him no different than the rationale to say, go to war for one’s country. However, nation-state ideologies have at least partially legitimated their self-supporting uses of violence by naming ‘religion’ as a source of historically illegitimate violence.
Ideology critique used to be associated with Marxist critics. As Louis Althusser wrote in his famous 1970 essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” “Ideology is a ‘representation’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (99). For Althusser, religion is but one category for such an imaginary relationship. Importantly, for Althusser, Ideological State Apparatuses are different from what he calls Repressive State Apparatuses. Whereas Repressive State Apparatuses function “by violence,” Ideological State Apparatuses function by ideology (97) and “ideology has no history” (107).
William Cavanaugh, however, like many current thinkers in religious studies critiques the notion that religion is merely static ideology. Thus, he takes a genealogical view and early on in his book draws on discussions of Rene Girard’s work in which religion as a concept cannot be distinguished from culture in “traditional societies” but arises as “man’s efforts to defend himself by curative or preventative means against his own violence” (The Myth of Religious Violence 40).
Girard’s work should be put in context here. He saw himself as correcting and building upon earlier scholars of myth like Sir James Frazer, but he ultimately still has elements of euhemerist approach to myth in his own thought. The difference is that rather than locating mythological violence in an external ceremony, Girard located it within the psychological development of mimetic desire which he then historicized according to a social “evolutionary” model. Religion’s connection to violence here would be in its political theological roots and in governance itself as it performs the representation of power.
Girard’s famous idea of mimetic desire as developed in Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat, however, has been controversial because of his claim that Islam “regresses” from Christianity’s ultimate lesson that humans no longer need sacrifice after Christ. Such grand historicizing on Girard’s part reveals his assumption that people and religions “evolve” or “develop” over time. Islam’s “atavistic nature,” according to Girard, lies in a misreading of Christianity’s overcoming of sacrifice itself.
Girard is not quite as triumphantly Christian as he sounds from this description, but it is easy to see why those who disagree with him call him ethnocentric, as well as why the Hoover Institution uses Girard to promote conservative United States policies. He is not alone in this line of thought. Critics from within Islam, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have made similar claims and called for Islamic reform, especially among people “who have the luxury of living in the West [who] have an obligation to stand up for liberal principles” (28). But When Ali’s rhetoric describes a static view of Islam based on her terrifying experiences as a woman combine with triumphalist accounts of why Western Christian culture is “evolutionarily” and politically more “advanced” than Islam, the result is anything but a promotion of classic liberal values.
Ali’s internal critique got swept up by academic debates about “culture wars” among a U.S. audience of readers anxious to rationalize why there ought to be Unites States military presence in the Middle East. But this line of thinking is more deeply problematic when we consider Cavanaugh’s work. Cavanaugh’s point in articulating a myth of religious violence in the West is that essentialist ideas of religion acting as a static force throughout history evidences its mythological and ideological status.
It is therefore necessary to look at religion from a historical perspective in order to understand how religious violence relates to problems such as war and terrorism in the contemporary world. Following Cavanaugh and others, such as Anthony Marx, my conception of religious violence here is enmeshed in the development of European nation states and the Enlightenment idea of “the West.” Such limitations must qualify my argument.
I am aware of a large and growing body of literature making various claims about religious violence, especially with respect to an essentialist view of violence in Islam, often related to the notion of jihad and its relationship to genocide. Writers like Richard L. Rubenstein make this claim and argue, “there is always likely to be an indeterminate but significant number of Muslims who regard their archetypal model [the Prophet’s war during his own life] as the appropriate solution to the world’s problems.” Similar (though less academically credentialed and peer reviewed) are titles like W. Colin Marris’s First Jihad?! First Genocide?! Such ambiguous punctuation in that title, as well as claims about primacy, directly contradict what Raphael Lemkin said about the ancient crime he named genocide, even if he (like Marris) had the Armenian genocide in mind.
In Lemkin’s 1945 article that coined the term ‘genocide’, he writes: “Hitler was right. The crime of the Reich in wantonly and deliberately wiping out whole peoples is not utterly new in the world. It is only new in the civilized world as we have come to think of it. It is so new in the traditions of civilized man that he has no name for it” (39-43).
Because I will make some concluding remarks about the persistence of persecuting Jews, I want to qualify my argument from the outset against views that essentialize Islam as being a religion of violence any more than others. I also want to distinguish my position overtly from those who would use such ongoing persecution to justify U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.
Religious violence in the region obviously precedes the development of Islam. Jonathan P. Berkeley’s The Formation of Islam: 600-1800 has numerous examples of pre-Islamic violence between Christians and Jews (17), as well as instances of peaceful cohabitation under the Sasanian Empire (25). Sometimes Christians refused to be called Christians because they thought themselves to be the “true” Jews and certainly much havoc was wreaked on pagans in the name of Christianity well before Islam (33).
Yet essentialist views of religion clearly distort the fact that religions influence one another, and that besides there being a place in the Islamic narrative for Christianity itself, in Christianity and Judaism there are also aspects of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, as well as Egyptian Isis cults and Greek Eleusinian cults. To claim Islam is essentially violent because of the concept of jihad alone would be like claiming Christianity is essentially violent because of the cannibalism present in the Eucharist.
So, let me reiterate for clarity: claims I make about the persistence of persecution done to Jews is part of a largely eurochristian frame that also comes to influence Islamic apocalyptic visions as they arise in extreme forms in the 20th century. Those forms importantly mesh with Christian apocalypticism, performing the very religious borrowing that makes essentialist views inadequate. My work should not be read as support for the United States’ ongoing involvement in Israel or for determining the necessity for war based on states of exception with respect to the protection of liberal rights.
I tend to agree with Gilbert Achar’s sentiments in his study, The Arabs and the Holocaust,which studies the Arab reception of the idea of the Jewish genocide in WWII and his “hope that an Israeli scholar will soon produce an in-depth study of the history of the Israeli reception of the Nakba, the drama of the Palestinian people” (3). Achar does, unfortunately, focus on fanaticism as a problem, a view which Mia Bloom has tried to correct by arguing that suicide bombing is a rational act. Liberal-progressivist rhetoric, however, often tacitly accepts the Enlightenment-oriented suspicion that religiosity is irrational.
Olivier Roy has tried to emphasize parallel diversity within and among various Islamic communities. For example, Roy has argued in Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah that the same forces of globalized secularism which produced neo-fundamentalism in discussions of “Islam” post 9/11 are also those forces which have produced conservative Christian “neo” fundamentalists with their intensified interest in affective and personal relationships with God (220-231). According to Roy, “religious norms are not so much culture-compatible as culture-blind, because they bypass the very concept of culture in the same way as the US army dreams of an ‘any-religion-compatible’ combat ration” (230). Roy then claims, “the culture-blind approach of neofundamentalists explains why, in Christianity as well as Islam, only fundamentalists are winning more converts in an era of globalization and uprootedness.”
Given these examples, Western scholars (and those interested in international politics) need to look more deeply at the traditions of religious and imperial political violence within their own history before making essentialist claims about Islam and uncritically accepting liberal “interfaith” agendas that have inherited world religions models developed at the height of European colonialism. For this reason, I draw heavily on William Cavanaugh’s concept of the myth of religious violence to name a eurochristian social imaginary that does not in itself speak to Christianity as religion but more as a worldview.
In what I call the “eurochristian social imaginary,” the notion of development is superimposed onto an anthropological narrative of humans moving out of a “state of nature.” This frame, readily available for Hobbes as he wrote Leviathan (1651) after the Thirty Years [of “religious”] War(s) and during the English Civil War, developed into well-known social contract theory and a rational civilization model that is still alive and well, at least in the West.
For example, Jean Jacques Rousseau famously expands upon the idea of the social contract with the idea of “civil religion” during the mid 18th century. Rousseau’s emergent romanticism produces an idea of a citizen as opposed to a “man” who would be similar to a beast in nature. More recently (1970), in A Theory of Justice, John Rawls describes his “veil of ignorance” or “original state” as like the state of nature and even claims that, “[c]ontract theory agrees, then, with utilitarianism in holding that the fundamental principles of justice quite properly depend upon the natural facts about men in society. This dependence is made explicit by the description of the original position” (159).
The “original position” / “state of nature” always performs a kind of leveling in order to theoretically proceed from a more equitable base. In that sense, it often acts as a fictional tabula rasa – a particular kind of state of exception. Such moves invoke a romantic nostalgia for a state of nature, a “looking back,” yet this retrospective gesture misses a major theological concept: the future, which often includes the apocalypse.
I realize that liberals, and particularly neoliberals, since the mid-twentieth-century have framed their policy-maneuvers against totalitarianism, and so it may seem counter-intuitive to see the “state of nature” and the “state of exception” as overlapping concepts, especially when considering justice as fairness or the Rawlsian veil. Carl Schmitt’s debated importance in the years following 9/11 has been central the discourse of political theology in recent years, as thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben have foregrounded the place of the “state of exception” in western political and juridical thought.
In much of what follows, I am implicitly agreeing with Cavanaugh’s take on a broader look at violence than simply “religious violence” while also attending to important and widely read authors such as Mark Juergensmeyer, who argue that “cultures of violence,” or a “persecuting societies” that see themselves as “at war” in Manichean struggles contribute greatly to genocidal violence. Before taking a longer look at religion historically, let me begin with some of the current discussions in the United States.
In Rene Girard’s view – among others, both scholarly and popular – the Islamic prophet led military campaigns and thus Islam is inherently more violent than the more “benign” versions of Christianity. Because of this view and the cultural place Christianity has in the West, people tend to de-emphasize the apocalyptic tendencies in Jesus Christ’s teaching. For example, Bart D. Ehrman opens his book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999) with the following lines:
For nearly two thousand years there have been Christians who have thought that the world was going to end in their lifetimes […] Jesus thought that the history of the world would come to a screeching halt, that God would intervene in the affairs of this planet, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, and establish his utopian Kingdom here on earth. And this was to happen within Jesus’ own generation. (3)
Although his work may be motivated in part by his own break from Evangelical Christianity, Ehrman is widely recognized as a leading scholar of New Testament scripture. Ehrman’s work begins with more recent cases of Christians who have understood the apocalypse to be right around the corner and works his way back through history.
Like David S. Katz and Richard Popkin, Ehrman builds on Norman Cohn’s classic, The Pursuit of the Millennium, walking his readers through Edgar Whisenant, Hal Lindsey, William Miller, and back to Joachim of Fiore. Ehrman’s book is unique, however, in that it is ultimately an erudite close reading of scripture in historical context arguing that Christians who understand the apocalypse to be coming in their lifetime are reading the New Testament and Jesus’ views correctly, much to the dismay of more popular and mainstream accounts.
This view importantly contrasts while also compliments coverage of Mormon apocalypticism in Jon Krakauer and psychological readings of terrorism in Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton is especially notable because he claims that there is something new about cultic religious violence of the Aum Shinrikyo variety in that its totalizing view combines with the post-atomic technological ability to actually bring about the apocalypse (or just wipe out life on earth) (344).
In a legal sense, there is something important about combining the work of Ehrman and Lifton. The problem, according to Ehrman, with the mainstream versions of Christianity is their ability to minimize the apocalyptic tendencies in both Jewish and Christian scripture. This minimizing of violence is similar to some people’s resistance to naming genocide when it happens as such. What’s the resistance to calling a spade a spade? One’s stake in the game.
People tend to minimize atrocities when it suits their lifestyles or political agendas, just as Ward Churchill has argued with respect to the United Nations committee, who wrote the laws in the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide while watering down Raphael Lemkin’s original language (meant to address the Armenian Genocide) and tailoring it enough to prosecute Nazis while avoiding any application to the United States and the allied forces.
To build on Cavanaugh’s reading, the vilifying and making unique and “sacred” of the Jewish holocaust during WWII under the Nazis overlaps with the myth of religious violence, casting Hitler as a kind of fanatical “religious” leader capable of inspiring irrational violence. It therefore legitimizes the use of violence among allied powers while minimizing the fact that the logic of Hitlerism, as Emmanuel Levinas noted early on and Adorno & Horkheimer later argued, was complicit with western values.
Such a reading is helpful in understanding neo-Nazi and militia apocalypticism in the United States as anti-government critique in works such as The Turner Diaries. In order to undo such mythologizing we only need to look at Hannah Arendt’s critique of the Nuremburg Trials and her term “banality of evil” with respect to the execution of Adolph Eichmann: “It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality-of-evil” (252). As Arendt notes, important Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber criticized the trial not because Eichmann did not deserve to die but as a public means of expiating German guilt.
There has been considerable difficulty among groups of Indigenous people around the world due to the privileged status of the Jewish holocaust (which may indeed have profound theological meaning for practicing Jews) and of course the intimate relationship between the United States and Israel since 1948. The United States’ foreign policy is frequently framed in Manichean terms of a zero-sum game of good versus evil even as it erases entire populations within its own borders. The U.S. citizenry frequently and conveniently erases American Indians to the extent that their existence occurs as a thing of the past in Americans’ minds. When current issues are brought up, one can often hear U.S. citizens claim, “why can’t we just get passed that?”
A hallowed aura surrounds Lemkin’s term, “genocide,” partly because of the myth of religious violence and partly because of the culturally Judeo-Christian political theology underwriting the so-called secular United States. While one hears reference to Rwandan genocide and Armenian genocide, the Jewish genocide figures more prominently in the U.S. consciousness, and especially in the cases of Indigenous peoples, genocide is frequently minimized even while Osama Bin Laden is given the codename “Geronimo” and enemy territory is regularly referred to by the military as “Indian.”
In a political frame that denies such Judeo-Christian underwriting while simultaneously enforcing it, an Enlightenment secularization narrative masks how the U.S. plays Pollyanna to how much American voters care about the religiosity of their elected officials. The inability to address political theology is a masking mechanism to continue to legitimize the rational nation-state against the irrational “fanatic” or “fundamentalist.”
Anti-government folks eat up the implications of the binary by performing overt racist and neo-Nazi bigotry to voice their discontent. Needless to say, this is at least partly why Donald Trump’s bigoted rhetoric has been so popular with people who claim to be against big government. He gives people who hate liberal values something to be patriotic about.
It is also why in 2016 Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both were overtly asked about their faith in a debate in Flint Michigan. Clinton performed a pious Judeo-Christian “humility” while Sanders more frankly owned that he is proud to be a Jew. While Clinton was willing to exploit the underwriting political theology, Sanders was more committed to a traditionally rational secularist stance: “I am Jewish; so what?”
Importantly for Americans, no candidates were atheists. Liberal Americans seem to want believers who minimize both their religious fanaticism and their willingness to use violence legitimated by rational liberal democracy against extremists of all sorts. The rather surprising popularity of Trump’s openly violent and intolerant campaign presented itself as brutal honesty that many Americans no longer have what Anthony Marx calls in his book of the same title, Faith in Nation.
A large problem with both the liberal minimizing view of religious violence, which marginalizes it as merely the work of a few “extremists” or “fundamentalists,” as well as the totalitarian overtones of Trump’s (and other conservatives’) campaign, is that both approaches perform a blatant disregard for history. They both take an American exceptionalist view that obscures the eurochristian cultural and legal frames that underwrite its foundation.
This disregard for history claims that the Enlightenment introduces radically new values and “breaks” with earlier histories, and thus it masks the foundational principles of liberalism it seeks to sustain. Such lack of historical attention makes it into essentialist ideas of religion among politicians and academics, but also in the work of committed secularists and “new Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who are bent on destroying religion and biblical apologists such as Paul Copan who defend it. Because these debaters work within a frame concerned with the truth-value of scripture, they reinforce a hermeneutic vacuum that essentializes the use of scripture as moral doctrine, which to me is simply misreading the texts.
In my reading, The Old Testament and New Testament and Apocrypha never advertise themselves as such texts. They never say, “I am the word of God,” even if certain traditions have taken them to be that. They are flawed texts, but they contain important human records. Scriptures are literary and at times etiological, full of human flaws and horrible deeds – from the characters themselves to the silent monotheistic Deuteronomist historian who erases the plural Elohim in favor of the storming, baby-eating admonishments of Yahweh (Leviticus 26:29).
Although such a statement might sound “anti-religious,” I do not think my reading mutually excludes the idea of divine influence in the production of the texts or in textual “error.” In any case, minimizing the horrors of scripture diminishes the cries of lamentation and the plight of Job. We see the prophets (including Jesus) call for a “higher” purpose against those in power and a longing for the end of suffering that does not end – a complex articulation that with existence there is pain, hunger, strife, violence, and horror…and that there’s not much we can do about it. But nowhere in the texts themselves do I read the assumption that by reading them you are a better person, or that we ought to mimic the characters inside them.
Humans are inherently flawed, and that is part of the profound beauty of the “scriptures.” Beyond Ehrman’s claim that Jesus himself awaited the apocalypse, we see in both the Old and New Testaments that apocalyptic literature occurs parallel to political strife. Far from being irrelevant, scripture in its various uses among groups gives us a window into the rhetorics that bind people together. This is as true for the Koran and the Hadiths as it is for its Jewish and Christian counterparts. Scriptural binding is cultural binding and that binding often comes into conflict with other sources of governance.
As far back a soma rituals in the Rig Veda, religion distinguishes insiders and outsiders. But what the new atheists and the scriptural defenders do in public discourse as they debate the validity of religion itself is ignore foundational thinkers and works of liberal democracy such as Baruch Spinoza’s Political Theological Treatise. They make religion into a boring question of the existence of God alone. That is a very small part of religiosity.
More central to this discussion, like the politicians mentioned above, people who enter into scriptural debate today while purporting to be secularists are unaware of the debates that found the radical Enlightenment and liberal society. It is thus to the origins of liberalism that scholars in the 21st century have looked in the early 21st century to make sense of crises in liberal society. Books such as Benjamin Friedman’s recent Religion and the Rise of Capitalism also give a very surface-level inquiry into religion and modern political economy.
The name “political theology” is often associated with such scholarly work. In this tradition, I will in my next installment to this article briefly turn to Spinoza’s Political Theological Treatise in order to provide a counter-argument to contemporary conceptions of the state of exception. In doing so, I will build on the argument with which I have opened here, that the state of exception, while seen commonly as a purely legal decision, is conceptually tinged with Christian apocalyptic violence. It occupies this place because of a broader eurochristian imaginary that associates the state of exception with the state of nature. By turning to a Jewish thinker, I hope to give an outsider’s take on some of this eurochristian drama.
Roger Green is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens (2019) and the recent dissertation Ayahuasca in the Wake of the Doctrine of Discovery (2020). He has collaborated musically with Anne Waldman on Untethered I (Fast Speaking Music 2017). He is also contributor to an edited collection by Miguel A. De La Torre, The Colonial Compromise: The Threat of the Gospel to Indigenous Worldview (2021), which celebrates Tink Tinker’s career and teaching. He’s currently co-authoring a book with Tink Tinker on eurochristian worldview.