Violence and the World's Religious Traditions

An Introduction

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Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, Michael Jerryson
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The relationship between religion and violence is an intersection that naturally brings together academia and the broader world of public discourse. Because of this—and because the topic has deep historical roots and a seemingly eternal relevance to any society—a group of scholars have recently confronted the subject in two important volumes: The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (2013) and Violence in the World’s Religious Traditions (2017), both edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael Jerryson, and published by Oxford University Press. This second volume is a popular digest of the first, consisting of nine select essays on each of the major religious traditions from Part 1 of The Handbook. It includes, in order, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Africa, (African traditional religion), Pacific Islands (religions of Oceania), and China (Chinese religious traditions). The result is an enlightening and eccentric mix of scholarship that reveals the complex dynamics underlying the relationship(s) between religion and violence.

Because each chapter is written by a different author, the tone, structure, and overall approach of individual chapters is markedly different. Some authors provide a lucid historical narrative of the religion and summarize relevant acts of violence and their ideological, cultural, and sociological origins. Others attempt to open up new vistas regarding the meaning of violence, whether in Hindu animal sacrifice, ritual powers of Pacific island communities, or exempla from other religions. Similarly, the tone varies from the intensely concerned, to the skeptical but generous, to the critical and somewhat detached. Perhaps this type of diversity is intentional, useful for facilitating new dialogue about how the subject matter should even be approached. In that sense, readers may leave this book with deep, provocative questions.

On the other hand, this somewhat cacophonous exploration may leave more uncritical readers with misleading impressions about the basic contours of violence in each religious tradition. No doubt this is due to the inherent obstacles posed by the assignment—explicitly relating “religion” and “violence”—such as whether or not (and how much) attention be given to religion and peace. Some contributors engage in this topic (out of both respect and, perhaps, necessity) while others exclude it almost entirely. Because of this difference in methodology, those without a basic familiarity with world religions may easily come away with a distorted view of the whole.

The chapter on Judaism, for example, is consciously sidesteps, for example, the calls to peace and regular critiques of empire-building that are typical of the Hebrew prophets (88). And when one compares this chapter (and the one on Christianity) with the chapter after it on Islam, radically different perspectives come to light. The chapter on Christian violence assumes that little can be known about Jesus to determine whether or not he was actually peaceful (the gospels were too “infected with anti-Jewish attitudes” to be taken seriously [117]) and that violence committed in the name of Christianity may simply be internally (e.g., theologically) consistent. In its historical overview, the chapter on Christianity excises the first three centuries of church history during which Christians were killed—by religious adherents—because of their refusal to participate in the military. By the second page of the essay on Islam, in contrast, entire portions of the Qur’an are shored up to stress the religion’s peacefulness.  Institutionalized animal sacrifice (al-Id al-Kabir, integral to the pillar of Hajj)—a focal point in the chapter on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese Traditions—is noticeably absent in the chapter on Islam.

Such differing approaches—along with frequent conflation of opinion for fact throughout the first half of the volume—may puzzle readers by the time they reach the chapter on Africa, which is starkly more even-handed and consistent in tone. With such tight page limits, crass summaries and cutting corners might be inevitable. But the variety of approaches remains a rather disturbing feature for “an introduction” published by Oxford University Press—especially as the manuscript suffers from several typographical errors (e.g., “reviewof” on 59, “monastery” on 62; “kerning issue” on 109, etc.).

One must not forget though how terribly difficult a task it is that faces the editors for this kind of project. The situation is also ameliorated by helpful bibliographies at the end of each chapter. Furthermore, there is, in fact, a semantic thread that binds all the contributions together, namely, the inescapable relationship of the political apparatus (the state) with religious violence (see 15, 19, 38-40, 45-46, 60-63, 77, 81, 86-88, 118-22, 151, 156, 180, 214-15, 217). It becomes clear that religious adherents do not always cause government machinery to wield influence (though this certainly happens), but rather the reverse often occurs: the government wields religion to serve its political ends (e.g., 217). The so-called “religion of the state” (or “statism”) is practically a thematic subtext underlying the book, as the authors frequently and explicitly lament the marriage of religion and state. This emerging triangle (religion, state, violence) did not merit a chapter in this volume, but it will hopefully get attention elsewhere in the future.

Violence in the World’s Religious Traditions is sure to provoke thoughtful response and get readers asking the right questions. However, “Sketches and Perspectives” would be a much more accurate subtitle than “An Introduction.” With this qualification and others in mind, anyone interested in the subject of religion and violence will find much to think about before drawing hasty conclusions on this highly-charged topic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin Hübner is director of instiutional effectiveness and associate professor of Christian studies at John Witherspoon College.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Juergensmeyer is professor of sociology and global studies, Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair of Global and Sikh Studies, and fellow and founding director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is author or editor of over twenty books, including Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence and God in the Tumult of the Global Square.

Margo Kitts is professor of humanities and coordinator of religious studies and east-west classical studies at Hawai'i Pacific University in Honolulu. She is the author of Sanctified Violence in Homeric Society (2005, 2011) and over thirty articles on Homer, the ancient Near East, ritual, and violence. She is coeditor of State, Power, and Violence (vol. 3 of Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual, 2010) and, with Mark Juergensmeyer, Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence (2011). She also co-edits the Journal of Religion and Violence.

Michael Jerryson is associate professor of religious studies at Youngstown State University. He is the author of Mongolian Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of the Sangha (2008), Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand (2011), coeditor with Mark Juergensmeyer of Buddhist Warfare (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism (2016). He also co-edits the Journal of Religion and Violence.



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