Confronting Religious Violence
Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination
This book is part of a series by the same author, with titles such as Confronting a Controlling God . . . Religious Judgmentalism . . . Religious Absolutism, and so forth. I had assumed that this book would focus on understanding the psychology of people who had committed acts of violence in recent decades from supposedly religious motives, a kind of Terror in the Mind of God (Mark Juergensmeyer, University of California Press, 2017) in a brief and popularized form, but that is not what I found. The book is more defuse than that, and I deem the lack of a concentrated focus to be a weakness.
Author Catherine Wallace discusses in various chapters topics such as the masters of suspicion (Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud), the emperors Theodosius and Charlemagne, the theology of atonement, the nonviolent teachings of Jesus, “extractive economies,” John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and “fundamentalism.” This tendency to jump around from topic-to-topic, and the repeated practice of referring to passages in other books in the series makes it hard for the reader to find, in this particular book, a clearly stated and carefully developed thesis. One of Wallace’s favorite targets is “fundamentalism,” by which she means contemporary religious right Christians in the United States; but when she also critiques “extractive economies”—a wealthy few profit from the labor of the oppressed masses—a pattern that the author notes developed in the ancient world, the reader begins to think that the book is an exercise in complaining about all of the moral wrongdoing of humanity throughout history. How such complaining is supposed to enlighten our understanding of contemporary acts of religious terrorism is unclear, especially when the positive comments about Marx are apparently contradicted by the acknowledgment that his ideas “have proved more dangerous and culturally more destructive than Christianity at its worst” (32). If secular violence has produced more dead bodies than “religious” violence, then why is the author not seeking to understand violence as a deeply rooted phenomenon of human behavior?
The critique of “atonement theology” assumes that this term refers only to a view of God as wrathful and violent, but there are many different forms of atonement theory in the history of Christianity, not just one, as several scholars have outlined. Wallace does not take this variety into account in any serious way. She is not curious, for example, about how Mennonites or Quakers viewed atonement, and how those beliefs related to their pacifism. She also makes no reference to the writings of René Girard, a key thinker in this precise intersection between theories of violence and of atonement. Girard raises, in a pointed way, the question of how we inhabitants of late modernity have become so deeply sensitized to various forms of victimization. This author does not seem to be sensitized to that question and its importance.
Rhetoricians sometimes refer to “god terms” and “devil terms”—the key words that an author is either lifting up or attacking. Wallace’s “god terms” are clearly “humanism,” “progressivism,” “nonviolence,” and so forth; while her “devil terms” are “fundamentalism,” “theocracy,” “imperial ideology,” and so forth. I am less confident than she that the use of such terms will function as she hopes they will in spurring cultural changes in a positive direction. This passage is a good example of my hesitation: “Christianity can be a force for good, but in the past it has also been a force for evil. In our own day, Christian fundamentalism encourages bigotry, rigidity, willful ignorance, and self-righteous condemnation of anyone who disagrees. Political violence puts such tendencies into action: ‘they’—whoever ‘they’ are at the moment—deserve death”(1). Note that “Christianity,” “fundamentalism,” and “political violence” are abstract nouns that are followed by verbs as if they were rational agents making decisions. Human beings are moral agents, but abstract nouns are not. What is needed is careful reflection on the malformation of human agents regardless of where they fit on an ideological spectrum or within a religious or irreligious group.
Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School
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