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Karen Armstrong, ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence’

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

By Karen Armstrong Knopf 512 pages, $30

By Edward Cuddihy


Karen Armstrong, the often-controversial author of a dozen books on the history of the world’s religions, set out in her latest work to make the case that religion over the centuries has been neither the impetus nor the incubator of mankind’s unending wars.

In the opening pages of “Fields of Blood,” she promises to explode the myth – a belief that has risen almost to the level of a truism – that “religion has been the cause of all major wars in history.”

Then, in her closing pages, she writes that she has proved her case, debunking once and for all that erroneous notion, refuting the bad rap that modern secularists have hung on the shoulders of religion.

That’s all straightforward enough. It’s the 450 pages separating the beginning from the end that can be puzzling, perplexing and downright controversial.

It is essential to Armstrong’s premise that she take a hard look at how man has worshipped his gods and has fought his wars over the last 4,000 years. And what she sees on both points is not a very pretty picture.

Thus, the seeds of controversy, not necessarily with her conclusion, but in the details of her reaching it. In Armstrong’s view, man has done some atrocious things in the name of his God. He has diced and minced his God’s words to fit the political situation of the age. And he has rationalized his own political actions as being the will of his God.

But the deeper she probes, the more she opens old wounds and the more she leaves herself open to the cursed: “Now she’s messing around with my religion!” Always a recipe for controversy.

Whether it be the ancient Israelites, the Church of Rome, the disciples of Mohammad, the Byzantine Church of Eastern Europe, the followers of John the Evangelist in North Africa, the Protestant reformers, the modern secularists or the 20th century’s fundamentalists, Armstrong finds and exposes their every wrinkle and wart.

In that respect, she is an equal-opportunity antagonist.

Throughout, she displays a deep knowledge of the world’s religions and a near-encyclopedic familiarity – if not a universally accepted interpretation – of the ancient and modern scholars who have studied the topic.

Karen Armstrong is a Brit, probably best known for her book “The Case for God,” published in 2009. At one time long ago, she was a Catholic nun, then, for a period, a self-proclaimed atheist before coming to terms with her own personal set of religious beliefs.

As a historian, she is highly praised, and her books on comparative religion have enjoyed a wide readership. At the same time, she has been attacked as a revisionist historian, openly hostile to the Catholic Church and as an anti-Semite. Nothing ruffles feathers, it seems, or polarizes quite like religion.

It might be more accurate to describe her as disdainful of highly organized hierarchical religions, whether they are centered in Rome, Canterbury or Medina. Of course, that places the Catholic Church squarely in her sights.

Armstrong has clear and succinct views in areas where hazy ambiguity often is the norm. She gets, as they say, right to the heart of the matter; no equivocation, no “but on the other hands.” Thus, her opinions can hang heavy over her history.

It is her deep knowledge of history and of those who shaped man’s beliefs over the millenniums that keep you interested, even while you might question her analysis of the events she is describing. If she were writing about politics, we would call it spin.

Early on, she divides all of mankind into two categories: agrarians who crave organization and rules to protect their fields and distribute the excess crops of their serfs, and rugged herdsmen and gatherers, for whom organization and rules are anathema.

It is a definition of mankind she carries right through to modern times. Along the way, she describes the Israelites’ Yahweh as a war god, an “intransigent enemy of agrarian civilization.”

In Armstrong’s view, politics and religion were indistinguishable until the last 250 years.

She writes that “politics and religion were inextricable” in the mission of Jesus of Nazareth and his Disciples, adding: “They threw in their lot with the most indigent peasants.” And Paul, the earliest extent Christian author (about 50 A.D.) was part of the Greco-Roman culture which she contends never separated religion from secular life. (She makes no mention of: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s …”).

It was the third century before Christianity “became a force to be reckoned with.” Then she adds a particularly trenchant observation: “We still do not really understand how that came about.”

In the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire before taking off to the East for the city that would bear his name, Armstrong says he created “an imperial Christianity,” and “entirely subverted the original message of Jesus.”

This becomes another key recurring theme: It was not religion that led to inevitable wars among the agrarians, it was the interpretations of the political leaders – whether they be kings or popes – of their religion that attached a spiritual significance to their wars.

This theme is ever-present in her treatment of the Christian-Moors conflicts, the Catholic-Protestant wars, even the modern-day radical Islamic movements.

Armstrong plots with thoroughness and insight the development of radical Islamic thought from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I to today’s struggle for power in the Mideast. One might dispute her characterization that Pope John XXIII and Ayatollah Khomeini were in agreement because Pope John wrote: “unfettered capitalism is immoral and unsustainable.” But that’s a side issue.

Armstrong’s foundational argument on war and religion seems to contain a certain dichotomy.

In the case of Europe and Christianity, the leaders of the church-government coalition may have caused of wars, but it was not the common man’s righteous beliefs in the words of Jesus, the real religion. Then, in the case of Islamic extremists, she makes the opposite argument that it is not Islamic law and its hierarchy, but bands of mostly young fighters with little religious training who turn their personal war into a religion. Here she cites the Lackawanna Six.

One would suppose you could justify that 180-degree turn, but it is not intuitive.

Then, much of this book is not intuitive. While Armstrong’s knowledge of facts remains solid and deep, those facts sometimes lead us along a path of tortured logic where we either accept the author’s take on world-shattering events or we just wonder where she is coming from.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.