Armstrong, Karen. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Toronto: Knopf, 2014.
Karen Armstrong’s latest work is a very timely book and is, as one tends to expect from her, insightful and detailed. The end notes take over fifty pages of nine or ten point type and the bibliography runs twenty-nine pages and a bit. I found myself somewhat in awe of the amount of research involved in writing a book such as this. However, again as one expects of Armstrong, the book is not heavily academic in tone or pacing. In fact, I found myself feeling somewhat breathless as I read, and I sensed that Armstrong must have faced something of a challenge in deciding the length of the work. Given that she begins her historical overview with hunter gatherer groups and ends in the present, the temptation to write a longer work or to condense the whole argument to a the size of a conference position paper must have been great. Certainly, I felt at times as if I were galloping through history.
The main focus of Fields of Blood is a thesis that contrary to common assertion religion has not been the source of violence through the ages. Armstrong argues that the roots of war and violence lie not in religious difference but in the social and subsequent political inequalities created first by agrarian and then by industrial societies. She does acknowledge that sometimes these social and political rifts appear to take on a religious tenor, but she reiterates her view that “all the world’s great religious traditions share as one of their most essential tenets the imperative of treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself (344).
She begins, as I said, with hunter gatherer societies and then examines the early civilisations of India and China both of which distrusted the values of the warrior even as they somewhat regretfully understood the need for defence. She then goes on to examine what she defines as “The Hebrew Dilemma.” It is in this chapter that she makes most explicit her view that the agrarian society was oppressive, pointing out that “from the start [in the story of Cain and Abel], the Hebrew Bible condemns the violence at the heart of the agrarian state” (104). In this chapter, too, we see clearly what is to be her strategy for the rest of the book: look at the social/political situation of a given time period and examine how that political situation shaped its philosophy and theology.
What we see developing in Armstrong’s history is a repeated pattern of rising and falling power structures. She suggests it is the desire for increased political power and the desire for more resources that initiate war not theological disagreement. That such conflicts become cloaked in the rhetoric of “Holy War” is unarguable, but their root cause is the desire to maintain or increase power structures and control over resources.
Most of her attention is given to the Abrahamic faiths “because they are the ones most in the spotlight at the moment” (16). Armstrong has sometimes been called an apologist for Islam. If we understand the term “apology” in terms of its meaning explanation, then she probably is. Certainly, her explanation of Islam’s history and of the tenets of its faith is detailed and sensitive. Is she attempting to excuse terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam? No, definitely not. Does she attempt to explain political situations that give rise to the kind of alienation that can result in violence? Yes.
This is indeed a very timely book and a very compassionate book. Armstrong argues, “if we want a viable world, we have to take responsibility for the pain of others and learn to listen to narratives that challenge our sense of ourselves” (400). She goes on to say, “somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world” (401). A challenge indeed.