NO WAR IS HOLY: SAYING NO TO GOD-SANCTIONED VIOLENCE
Max and Marion Farash Lecture
February 11, 2013
Before I speak, I want to say something. I am deeply honored to be giving the inaugural Farash Community lecture here at Hobart & William Smith. I salute the memory of Max and Marion Farash, whose love for this region and these colleges is palpable here tonight, and add my gratitude for their many contributions to yours. And I acknowledge the personal honor it is to have such a welcome from President Gearan, a man whom I have so long admired, and to whom so many Americans look with profound respect.
I chose to address the question of holy war, God-sanctioned violence, because, despite the enormous hopes generated by the “human coming of age” that was the Enlightenment, religious violence continues to define a central problem for people across the Globe. Obviously, since the Enlightenment, secular ideologies have generated the hyper-violence of the grotesque wars of the 20th century, but religion has continued to spark various holy wars, including here, in our own America, which defines itself by the wall of separation that was intended by the Founders to disarm religion.
Next month, President Obama will travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. He will center his visit in Jerusalem, which remains the ground-zero for God-sanctioned killing - and not only for those who live in its environs. Jerusalem has anchored my own work over the last decade, so let me begin there - the city that is sacred to the three monotheistic religions, the city that defines Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the city that is a flashpoint between Muslims and the so-called “West” - but also, the city that is a pillar of the political imagination of the United States.
Jerusalem is the epicenter of the joint hopes of the three religions, and of their aspirations for the world. It is the place where the believers’ understanding of God evolved, and where they feel closest to God. But it is also the epicenter of their rivalry. Each of the two younger religions (Christianity and Islam) saw itself as a better version growing out of the earlier, and each expected to be universally acknowledged as such. But instead, each of the three survived. They are siblings, and their rivalry has often turned violent, bringing out the worst in these traditions.
Jerusalem has been both site and symbol. As the latter, it became a political and cultural touchstone in the United States, even though Americans as such have never coveted control of the actual city, unlike European Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The mainly Christian character of American identity, including a messianic strain, growing out of theologies rooted in Jerusalem, has nevertheless affected the U.S., particularly in its policies toward Israel, the Middle East generally, and the whole Islamic world. That became manifestly clear after events of September 11, 2001.
Jerusalem is a golden city (Because of the yellow-white color of Jerusalem stone, it seems so literally; “Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blessed,” goes a 12th century hymn). Its story tracks the history of religion – moving from God the Unknown, to God the Enemy, to God the intimate Friend. Once, God was openly understood to be violent, but, beginning in Jerusalem, that faith was left behind. God is no longer violent (even doctrines about hellfire are discredited), and violence among humans can seem to have lessened - think of the work of Steven Pinker. But given the technologies that threaten human survival, violence is a greater threat to our planet than ever. The hope for peace lies in human imitation of that divine progress. The Non-Violent God: Can the theologies of the religions that spawn holy war and jihad be reformed in such a way as to match that image? Can American religion break its longstanding, and still vital character, despite the separation of church and state, as a source of, and even justification for, violence? It is a question that comes now, like a hot wind blowing back at us— from the end, if not of the world, of the human species.
There is a truck-sized rock on a hilltop in the ancient city of Jerusalem. It has been revered as a holy place of one kind or another since the Middle Bronze Age. The rock is regarded as the site of the place of sacrifice to which, perhaps four thousand years ago, Abraham brought his son Isaac. Three thousand years ago King David ordered a temple built here, and his son Solomon obeyed. “The Temple,” so the Talmud says, “is in the center of Jerusalem, and the Great Hall is in the center of the Temple, and the Ark is in the center of the Great Hall, and the Foundation Stone is in front of the Ark, and beginning with that stone the world was put on its foundation.” The foundation of the world! And why should it not be in dispute?
When Jesus is remembered in the Gospels as attacking, or “cleansing,” the Temple, the basis of Christian-Jewish conflict is set. Across time, some Christians claimed, erroneously, that the Temple rock was the site of Golgotha. And that same rock is regarded by Muslims as the place from which Mohammed, accompanied by the archangel Gabriel, ascended to heaven. That is why, since the 7th century CE, the Dome of the Rock has stood there, a magnificent Muslim holy place - perhaps the most beautiful structure in the world. It, together with the adjacent Al Aqsa Mosque, as you know, is the second most sacred shrine in Islam, after Mecca. From this heart of conflict between Jews and Arabs comes a pulse that is a drumbeat of 21st century violence, making it the most heavily guarded holy place in the world.
The interplay of religion and violence is considered by some a mark only of primitive culture, centered in anachronistic institutions like temples, which came into being as institutions where bloody sacrifices were enacted. Rituals varied, but across civilizations and eras, humans constructed holy places in which living things were killed and offered to gods, sometimes as divine food - an implicit reckoning with the human need to live, and eat, by killing. Today, even scholars are squeamish about the subject of such bloody sacrifice, attuned as contemporary people are to animal abuse, the degradation of nature, and anguish about violence generally. But life itself is violent, and across the food chain, nutrition assumes the devouring of living things by other livings things. A population that brings its meat home from sterile supermarkets, wrapped in cellophane packages, is in denial about an essential note of the human condition. Primitive religion had the virtue of being direct in its sacrificial practice. We kill to live.
Across cultures, special buildings were constructed in which to perform the sacraments of sacrifice, and remnants of such structures mark landscapes from Athens to Egypt to Mexico to Japan. But what entered human consciousness in the mists of time and across cultures remains. We not only kill to live; we kill to worship. Is that link inextricable?
When the Jihadist cries “God is Great” before detonating his explosive vest; when the Crusades are invoked to justify assault from the West on radical Islam; when Jewish terrorists conceive a plot to blow up the Al Aqsa Mosque to hasten the arrival of the Messiah; when Christian and Muslim Palestinians contend with Israeli Jews over the sovereignty of old Jerusalem; when holy places lead to holy war, as in the sacrilegiously named “Al Aqsa Intifada,” an early 21st century Palestinian uprising that led to more than 5,000 deaths; when, in what is only apparently unconnected, the U.S. military shows signs of embracing Christian supremacism - think of US military academies where cadets are routinely proselytized or Prayer Breakfats where juniors in the chain of command are required to bow at the name of Jesus. Through all of this, “secular” critics can indulge a satisfying sense of superiority over believers, whose very devotedness can seem to promote, purposefully or not, primal notions of sanctified violence.
In the United States, war-justifying religious references came into the explicit rhetoric of the Bush administration for a time – the War on Terror defined in categories of good and evil, for example; God asserted to be “not neutral.” But as Bush policies, including Middle East military adventures, were discredited, war-justifying appeals to the rhetoric of faith went out of fashion, although they remain a staple for marginal movements like the Tea Party. That does not mean, however, that a subliminal link between religion and violence no longer exists, not just on the margins, but in the mainstream. For Christians, Jews and Muslims, and for the civilizations they produced, the Temple and its altar – narratives of religious sacrifice - remain structures of consciousness. When it comes to violence, the “secular” is not all that secular.
Anthropologists tell us that, beginning with archaic religion, “Redemption” is the social calm that follows on the elimination of violent urges when they are “appeased” through ritualized killing. When sacred realms of “purity” and “chosenness” are thus established and protected by sacrifice, a social need is satisfied. Sacrificial violence (whether directed at an Aztec virgin, the goat of Leviticus, or Jesus) can thus be understood, ironically, as serving the cause of peace. This process becomes “religious” when the social need is attributed to a deity, to whom the victim is “offered.” Purity and chosenness are established through appeasement. If we sacrifice one, perhaps the killer-God will spare many. In this desperate hope begins the Temple.
And here begins - my interest - what might be called the Temple nation. Episodes in which the state helps religion do violence for religious ends are replaced, through this history, by states using religion to extend state power, even for non-religious ends. Constantine, the 4th century Roman emperor whose conversion made the empire Christian, offers the masterpiece manifestation of this dynamic. Constantine invoked faith in Jesus as a way of unifying his vast empire, but it did not end with him. We are dealing with something here that belongs not to any particular religion or age, but to the human condition itself, even now.
Despite the secular assumption that impulses of God-sanctioned violence belong to a primitive past, they are universally at work whenever humans go to war. Get rid of religion, the critics says, get rid of transcendent claims for killing. But that is nonsense. This comes clear with a closer look, say, at the wholly “secular” event that ushered in the modern era – World War I. The greatest mystery of that conflict was how the high commands of both sides could have so long persisted in the evident futility of infantry assaults across No Man’s Land against defensive lines that were, finally, never breached by either side.
Technology (the machine gun) totally favored defense, but commanders never yielded their absolute preference for offense because the waste of life was, to them, no waste. That millions of soldiers died for no discernible purpose can be explained only by the irrational belief in the salvific power of sacrifice as such. The Tommies, Micks, Jocks, Doughboys, Frogs and Jerries who went endlessly “over the top” only to be mowed down were, in effect, a legion of sacrificial scapegoats. The nations that glorified them were in the grip of a displaced faith in the power of sanctioned death, operating in a realm apart from any conceivable war aim. The trenches became Europe’s altar. The war itself the Temple. You English majors know that Wilfred Owen was the protesting poet laureate of this perversion. Below the surface of this wholly “secular” event, a brutal god was being appeased. Otherwise, parents would never have sent their innocent sons off to that carnage. Their innocence was the point.
It should come as no surprise that the great symbol of this World War I dynamic was Jerusalem itself, as made palpably clear just then in the British imagination. It was only in the year 1916, while the Battle of the Somme raged, causing a million casualties, that William Blake’s poem Jerusalem, dating to 1804, was set to music by Hubert H. Parry. Parry did this at the request of the British Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, who saw in Blake’s verses encouragement to “accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion.” As soon as King George V heard the hymn Jerusalem, he declared his wish that it be the national anthem, and it was instantly embraced as such. Jerusalem spoke directly to the war, suggesting as it does that Jesus had come “to walk upon England’s mountain green.” The lads who died in the trenches were with Him, their sacrificial “Lamb of God,” and they sang...
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariots of fire!
I will not come from mental fight,
nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
in England’s green and pleasant Land.
Jerusalem registered with such power because of the consolation and purposefulness it offered to a people traumatized by the senseless slaughter of its sons. It remains England’s most patriotic hymn, and it is routinely sung even today at Rugby and cricket matches. (A de-anglified version was sung at Ronald Reagan’s funeral in Washington’s National Cathedral in 2004.) For our purposes, the thing to note is that this glorification of Jerusalem during the psychologically stressful years of the Great War was tied to a sudden British infatuation with the literal city of Jerusalem and its environs - an infatuation that was then enshrined in the exclusively British Mandate for Palestine, which generated the Arab-Israeli conflict after 1948, to this day.
The scapegoat mechanism shifted in World War II from soldiers to civilians, whose innocence was even sharper. The masterpiece form of this dynamic was, of course, the Nazi genocide of Jews. That crime against Jews was unique, but the mass bombing of civilian population centers was, under all the “strategic” justifications, also an exercise in the irrational belief that bloody sacrifice saves lives and in so doing could somehow be redemptive. There is no other way to account for the all-out spasm of killing from the air that marked the last six months of the Allied war effort, especially in Japan.
The primitive impulses of our ancestors live on in us – not only individually, but collectively. War always operates at two levels – one apparent and rational, the other hidden and irrational. At a certain point, the first gives way to the second, which is why the violence of war inevitably continues past points of tactical and strategic meaning. Sacrifice for its own sake takes on mystical significance that, in a secular age, can no longer be described – or defended. But it can be discerned, for example, in the anguished hope that troops will not have died in vain if others follow them, even into death.
The point of a reckoning like this, my offering you this reading of history, lies in the conviction that, once these subliminal currents are openly acknowledged, they can finally be left behind. Through history, the religion of what scholars call “substitutionary sacrifice” has sought to mitigate its own violence, with the progressions from human sacrifice to animal (as in the Genesis story of the ram that takes the place of Isaac beneath the knife of Abraham), or from literal sacrifice to the symbolic (as in the “unbloody sacrifice” of the Mass), the “imagined” Temple of Rabbinic Judaism. Religion has set aside places (holy of holies) and times (Sabbath, truces of God) as sacred exceptions to otherwise unbroken assault. Conversely, sites of mass killing prompt religious responses, with blood-soaked earth taking on numinous significance: Gettysburg, the Somme, Hiroshima, Ground Zero in New York, the flower bedecked sites of mass shootings, from Aurora to New Town.
The problem of sacred violence, one could say, is its own solution. Once a place has been hallowed as belonging to the gods, either through ritual action or through mass violence, it is from then on regarded off limits to war - or even to the display of weapons. It has become, in the argot, sanctuary. No even in America are guns welcome in church.
The Jerusalem Temple is both a source and a manifestation of these diverse impulses. Obviously, the history of what Jews and Christians call the “Temple Mount,” and Muslims call the “Noble Sanctuary” is relevant to the resolution of the most contentious war of contemporary times. But the story has even broader implications, nowhere more so than in the United States.
The Puritan founders of America envisioned a “City on a Hill,” an explicit reference to Jerusalem. Their settlement required the bloody sacrifice of expiating victims – first, native peoples, then Africans, then three-quarters of a million Americans who fought over slavery, with half of them singing, “...as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” The Battle Hymn of the Republic is the American version of the hymn Jerusalem. During a savage war, it played the same role, enabling legions to die with assurances that their cause was a sacred, and enabling their families to be consoled. God wills it.
Both sides of the American Civil War interpreted the trauma in terms of the sacrificial altar – language that originates in Jerusalem. When the Union prevailed, so did the Temple construct. Religion provides for absolute distinctions: sacred-profane; holy-unholy; pure-impure. The altar is the bar that enforces such distinctions, and the slab on which the enforcement is enacted. Violence that enforces such distinctions in such a way is regarded as redemptive. In America, a new distinction was born: free-unfree, and violence upheld it. In blood sacrifice, the “free” nation became itself. Not for nothing would the national monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington take the form of a Temple, becoming nothing less than America’s most sacred place. With Lincoln as their tribune, this redeemed and redeeming people embraced a mission to bring the salvation of such freedom to the world.
Cast your mind’s eye with me to that Greek Doric temple (modeled on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia) that anchors Washington, D.C. Its form reminds us that this dynamic of sacrifice gave us the temple religion of Greek tragedy – tragedy, a word that derives from the goat, the goat whose throat is slit.
From the throne of the Greek temple on the Mall, the gaze of Abraham Lincoln follows the sacred axis that runs to the Washington Monument five hundred yards away. Themes of the American past, from the Puritans forward, coalesced in Lincoln, creating something new.
Lincoln’s peripheral vision takes in the Jefferson Memorial. Thomas Jefferson may have rejected the theocratic impulses of the original City On A Hill, but in the decades after Jefferson, the United States was braced not by his detached Enlightenment Deism, but by the evangelicalism of a rolling Christian “great awakening.” What Jefferson never imagined is that key to the nation he helped start was not “yeomanry” but a relgiously fervent immigration. Rootless newcomers, whether on the prairie or in urban slums, needed religion in ways they never had in the old country, and in ways the founders never envisioned. Exclusivist evangelical (and Catholic) religion, that is, gave the young country its civic infrastructure – and its energy. Between 1789 and 1860, for example, as I learn from the historian of religion Mark Noll, the population of the United States grew by a factor of 8, while the numbers of Methodists, to take one denomination, grew by a factor of 28. Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Calvinists, naming settlements for Geneva, the Protestant Vatican, followed suit, It was an explosion of piety. The intellectual and cultural heart of America (from Know Nothings to the nascent Ivy League) was defined by religious fervor - nowhere more so than right here, at the Gateway to the Genesee. The first century of this institution’s life felt the fevers of the so-called “burned over district” up close. Religious “Awakenings,” some centered near here, transformed mainstream denominations, including Bishop Hobart’s own Episcopalians. And that fervor burst into the open flame of a national civil religion with the Civil War.
The wall behind Lincoln’s gravely inclined head in Washington are inscribed with the words,
In this Temple
As in the Hearts of the People
For whom He Saved the Union
The Memory of Abraham Lincoln
Is Enshrined Forever
With Lincoln, the Temple impulse, and all that it implied, reached its fulfillment in the American imagination, and his own Temple enshrines it – if not forever, for as long as the Washington Mall remains the most hallowed ground in America. On one wall of the Lincoln Memorial is engraved the Gettysburg Address, and on another, the Second Inaugural Address – together, sacred texts which, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, complete the American Scripture. When, in November 1864, Lincoln ordered the nation to observe its first formally declared Thanksgiving, he was giving thanks for Sherman’s victory in Atlanta (which marked the start of his murderous “March to the Sea”).
More to our point, with that Thanksgiving proclamation, Lincoln was evoking the New England Puritans who established their settlement as the City on a Hill. Lincoln, that is, inadvertently falsified their purpose, as if they came to the New World for “freedom,” to found a redeeming nation that would advance the principle that “all men are created equal.” No, that was not what John Winthrop believed. Americans have misremembered the true character of that theocratic dictatorship ever since.
The Civil War was begun in the morally ambiguous name of “Union” (morally ambiguous because the American colonies, after all, had claimed the right to secede from Britain), but was brought to savage climax in the name of “freedom” (the “total war” of Grant and Sherman could only be justified by the morally unambiguous cause of Abolition). The Civil War became an ultimate instance of redemptive violence, and upon its altar, the true father of the nation – a man named Abraham, no less – laid the sacrificial offering of most of a million sons. On the “altar of the nation,” in the phrase of historian Harry S. Stout.
As “salvation” was the ancient purpose of bloody sacrifice, now the purpose was “freedom.” Again: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Lincoln’s own martyrdom brought this dynamic full circle with the Passion Play enacted at Ford’s Theater, on the very day the flag of the victorious Union was raised again at Fort Sumter. The murdered president was high priest and victim both. Assassinated, as it happened, on Good Friday, America’s Abraham was America’s own Jesus Christ, and his death, finally, was what “saved” the Union. So naturally--- we remember his birthday tomorrow, an American holy day.
That a subliminal force, apart from a radical commitment to the equality of African slaves, was driving the American impulse through all of this is indicated not only by the fact that the fate of slaves did not become an official issue in the war until the killing turned the corner into all-out slaughter in 1863, but that, when the war finally ended, the people of the United States, North as well as South, promptly abandoned the cause of black equality, betraying African-Americans with “Reconstruction,”Jim Crow, and the lynching of thousands. The now God-commissioned “manifest destiny” of America promptly justified the late 19th century completion (by Confederate and Union veterans alike, especially Sherman, Sheridan, and Custer) of the genocide of the Indians, and the “total war” conquering of the entire continent, “from sea to shining sea.”
Outside the Temple precincts, there is no access to God. Outside the Church, once, there was no “salvation.” Now, outside the American idea of it, there would be no “freedom.” In its name, at last, Americans, who had before been a disparate people with regional loyalties dominant, now became one people – the point of Garry Wills’ observation that only with Lincoln did “the United States” become a singular noun. Only after Lincoln, was it, in G.K. Chesterson’s phrase, a “nation with the soul of a Church.” Only then was it a nation to die for. And to kill for. As Temple destructions (first the Babylonian destruction, then the Roman destruction) had created Judaism and Christianity, then Europe itself - so now a mass destruction created “America.” What Constantine had done for his empire by means of Christianity, Lincoln did for his in much the same way.
Only after Lincoln’s “mystic chords,” did the American Gospel represent “the last best hope of mankind.” Thus, an intercontinental imperial mission was launched in the late 19th century, beginning in Latin America and the Philippines, and continuing into modern era wars for “freedom” and “democracy.” Sacralized patriotism, with its own rituals and myths and messianic purpose, defined American life through the 20th century, climaxing in the anti-atheist evangelizing of the Cold War, when “the Free World” came into its own.
And so, in those years – only then - did the Temple precinct come into its own on the Mall in Washington, with numerous shrines created to honor the expiating sacrifices of the wars of the United States. But the Lincoln Memorial was never more its true self than when its sanctuary served as the pulpit for the greatest American sermon ever given, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. King joined Lincoln then in fulfilling the Temple pattern of sacrificial expiation when he, too, was murdered in 1968. As with Lincoln, King’s dying was what made his moral authority absolute. It is fitting that a memorial to King, however ungraceful, has been erected in that very place, within the sacred aura of Lincoln’s shadow.
The “mountain top” to which King referred in his great sermon, the holy place in which he glimpsed that he was “free at last, thank God almighty, free at last!” was nothing less than the crest of Mount Moriah, the mountain top to which Abraham had gone with Isaac, and over which sits today the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. One Temple forever reflects the other. King referred to that mountain top again on the day before he was murdered, tying it directly to Jerusalem. “I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem…,” he said in Memphis, on April 3, 1968. “I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’m not fearing any man,” he said, as if directly to James Earl Ray. And then he closed the last public utterance of his life with the words, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Those of you saw the movie Lincoln, know that among Abraham Lincoln’s last words were, “There is no place I should like to see so much as Jerusalem.”
This has been a decidedly Christian look at the larger problem of religion as a source of violence. Let us summarize. The roots of conflict include aspects of the human condition, theological assumptions, and the two-way intersection of religion and state power.
We acknowledge, confess even, that we humans are born with an inbred tendency to divide the world into “us and them.” In defining oneself positively by defining others negatively, we sow the seeds of conflict. Religious claims can sanctify this bi-polarity, and absolutize it in terms of “good versus evil,” but it is important to begin by acknowledging that something basic to the human condition is at work here.
Theological assumptions can carry this impulse further, with, for example, understandings of the “Oneness” of God as justification for the rejection of pluralism. The humane repudiation of “other gods” can, at the same time, be a source of denigration. Salvation can be defined exclusively, with afterlife damnation prompting modes of damnation (violence, enslavement) in the present life. Jerusalem has been the center both of the sanctification of these dynamics, and the effort to mitigate them.
But such human and theological impulses become even more dangerous, and even harder to criticize, when religious claims are made with the force of state power, or when the state uses religion to justify and quicken its abuse of power. This is an ancient problem (Constantine) and a contemporary one (America). It is not just a problem of “fundamentalism,” nor, for that matter, of religion alone. Believers, unbelievers, those who feel entirely removed from all God-sanctioned violence, as much as those who feel in some way co-responsible for it: we are called to a reckoning here.
I am an American Christian, and as such I acknowledge a responsibility to investigate such basic religious issues as absolute claims made for Jesus as the “one way,” an atonement theology that sanctifies violence, the post-Enlightenment tension between reason and faith, the amnesia that deleted Jesus’s own rejection of coercion, and the ongoing complicity between empire and the realm of God. In an age of heightened “civilizational” conflict, Christians must reckon, in particular, with the history of Christian anti-Judaism and contempt for Islam, while American Christians must reckon with the implicitly religious justifications for the triumphalist exceptionalism that still makes U.S. power a danger to the world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing if not holy. And today, still, even under President Obama, nothing embodies our self-excusing mandate to wage holy war more dramatically than the armed drone, which strikes its victims unawares, out of blue, exactly like a lightening bolt hurled by God.
So we are earnest Americans, examining history and conscience on the edge of the burned over district. The burned over district, in the era of modern weapons, alas, can be the world. Our obligation, therefore, is clear. It is the oldest lesson of all, taught by every great religion in the world– that the one way to honor the Holy One is by honoring the neighbor. Compassionate love: we must make it real - in our intimate relations, and in our politics.
Can we close by offering an ecumenical prayer, or even a secular prayer - even if it is unclear who answers those? Can we, in the words of the Psalm, Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem – the city where humans, troubled by holy violence, invented ways to mitigate it. The city where humans work to this day to bring that impulse of peace to completion. <
Can we pray, Godspeed President Obama next month. Make him a true messenger of peace. Which means, of course, that he, like all of us, must change those things of ours that, to this very day, remain obstacles to peace.
And so... Shalom. Salaam. Peace.
Inaugural Max and Marian Farash Community Lecture
Monday, Feb. 11, 2013