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Fields of Blood: Religion and the history of violence

Steve Tomkins

Karen Armstrong
Bodley Head, 499pp

It's woefully easy to show that Christianity has blood on its hands, which must be one reason why people do it so much. The exploits of crusaders and conquistadors, the massacres of Jews and the executions of heretics - the fact that our shameful past is so overfamiliar these days doesn't lessen the shame. However many times it is held against us, it still happened. Add to this the fact that Christianity makes a huge thing about being all peace and love and better than everybody else, and it's also woefully easy to show that the whole thing is a load of rubbish. Cancel your subscription now.

Then again, it's also pretty easy to show that the alternatives, including godlessness, are equally red-handed, and that Christians have done some pretty good things too. And so the comment threads on online articles about religion bicker back and forth into eternity.

For a greater and more useful understanding of religion and its relationship with violence, we need to go beyond this kind of moral ledger, and that's where Karen Armstrong's excellent and invaluable book takes us. It's not just a history of religious violence, but, as the subtitle suggests, a history of religion and a history of violence, making it a pretty thorough history of the world.

Her story starts with the transition from hunter/gatherer society to agrarian civilisation, as reflected in the Gilgamesh epic of ancient Sumer. It moves through Aryan conquests in India and the origins of Hinduism and Buddhism; Chinese imperialism and the development of Confucianism; Jewish experience of empire and the coming of monotheism; Jesus and the Christianisation of the Roman empire; the evolution of Islam and the path to crusades and jihad; the Reformation and its wars; the secularisation of the West; and the rise of Islamism - among other things.

The fundamental point of Armstrong's history of violence is that the structure of civilisation is essentially violent. The first civilisation, at Sumer, was only possible because of large agricultural and construction projects, which in turn depended on a large army of forced labour driven by a tiny elite - and their dependents - for their own benefit. The one percent have always been with us.

She tells the story of Ashoka, the Indian emperor who, inspired by the spirituality of early Buddhism, decreed that the empire should be run in an ethic of compassion and non-violence, but could find no way to abandon capital punishment or war, other than by abdicating and letting someone else do them.

The role of religion in this is not to cause violence then, as it has sufficient cause already. Armstrong points out that religion was not one department of pre-modern life, like cave painting or country dancing, but a way of finding meaning in every department of life. The gods of war gave that activity a mythic dimension, a deeper story, just as the gods of wine, shepherding and sowing one's seed gave those activities a profounder sense of meaning.

So, great - rather than creating violence, faith has walked alongside it and told it stories to make it feel good about itself. Except - as Fields of Blood consistently shows - faith has walked also alongside violence and told it stories to make it feel very bad about itself. While one strand of Hebrew scripture glories in violence, another condemns it. While some Christian leaders were telling the Roman empire (the autocracy formerly known as antichrist) that it was the New Jerusalem, others were walking off in disgust into the desert. While some Christians were wiping out native Americans, others were protesting violence and pioneering human rights. This is not so much a matter of balancing the moral ledger of religion, as recognising that the faith that gives deeper meaning to our warfare also gives deeper meaning to our revulsion against bloodshed, damning it as well as baptising it.

Society has changed, of course, and industrial civilisation does not maintain the structures of agrarian civilisation, but this does not mean, as Armstrong finds it woefully easy to show, that the secular state has banished belief and violence. The wealth of the modern West has been built on empire and maintained through war, and devotion to a God at whose decree one is willing to kill and die was replaced by devotion to a country (or, one might add, political ideology) at whose decree one is willing to kill and die. The resurgence of religious violence in our time is a horror and a danger, not, she argues, because religion is essentially violent, so much as because civilisation is essentially violent, and the globalisation achieved by the secular West has connected us with its manifestations everywhere.

Fields of Blood is a hefty volume, but covers such a phenomenal amount of ground that it keeps up quite a pace. The fact that the last 160 pages are end matter gives a sense of the breadth of research behind it - and might come as a relief to some readers - but the book never feels like a display of scholarship, only the telling of a story. It is an important one and deserves to be widely heard.

Armstrong ends with a comparison between the religious belief of Islamist terrorists that God decrees the deaths of innocent people for the good of the cause, and the doctrine of modern secular states that 'collateral damage' in the pursuit of our wars is, in Madeline Albright's words, a 'price worth paying'. This does not, she says, put us on the moral highground: we can only get there, in our modern world of global conflict, by answering the question of the Bible's first killer, 'Am I my brother's keeper?', with a yes.