Posted by: cctracker | December 27, 2014

Religion’s Legacy: ‘Peace on Earth’ or ‘Fields of Blood?’

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has gotten a lot of attention in its centennial year.

The story of how peace, carols and—though historians can’t establish they really took place—soccer games broke out over the bleak battlefields of WWI Europe on Christmas Day has long inspired song writers, historians and millions of the faithful. I’ve always particularly liked the John McCutcheon song “Christmas in the Trenches.”

But the song raises a difficult question for those who raise their voices in prayers for peace this time of year: Does faith really make the world more peaceful? Many serious thinkers believe the answer is no.

The NYT recently reviewed a new book by a hero of mine, Karen Armstrong.

Fields of Blood makes the case that religion gets a bad rap for causing much of the violence in world history. The author believes that claim is just as mistaken when applied to violent events unfolding in our own times. Co-incidently, Armstrong is making that case right now as I type this post on PRI’s December 28th edition of  “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”  Search for it here on their archives page.

Armstrong became a nun in a strict, contemplative order as a young woman, but eventually left the religious life and completely lost her faith. She remained a scholar of religion, presuming her career would become a lifetime of critique rather than testimony to the value of faith.
When she got a TV gig on the BBC, standing in some of the world’s great holy places to explain the origins, practices and fundamental beliefs of the world’s great religions, something she didn’t expect occurred: her audiences were moved by the beauty and wisdom she revealed. They were encountering a “deep context” for these faith traditions, seeing them with new eyes.

In time, Armstrong realized her own understanding of faith was being transformed, too. Many books followed, including The Spiral Staircase, an astonishingly honest and painful account of her loss of faith, descent into mental illness and eventual return to faith and health.

When I opened the Times to read the review and discovered that another one of my heroes had written it, my heart skipped a beat.

james fallows
James Fallows is a National correspondent for The Atlantic and an NPR News Analyst. A masterful cross-disciplinary journalist, he’s equally at home dealing with technology, aviation, military procurement and global politics, especially China policy. He wrote the cover article in The Atlantic this month that asks why the American Military can’t seem to win wars anymore.
Despite this astonishing range of interests, I didn’t expect expected to find him writing about religion. Now that I think about why I love his work so much though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. For all of his other intellectual roles, Fallows is always also the philosopher, raising fundamental questions about the search for meaning, exploring how the qualitative experience of being a human person is at stake in every cultural or technological movement.

So what does the great inter-disciplinarian of technology and culture have to say about the new book by the great contextualist of religion?

Importantly, he’s impressed with her scholarship. Despite the breadth of the topic she’s chosen and the demands that consulting historical resources for such an argument places on an author, Fallows says she succeeds.

I haven’t read the book, but with a few direct quotes included, here’s what I got from reading Fallows’ take on the central points in her argument. Afterwards, I want to offer an important perspective that neither Fallows or Armstrong address directly.

If we go back far enough in the lineage of each religious tradition, we don’t find leaders who mixed politics with religion on account of worldly ambition, but rather genuine believers who chose to intertwine religion with the rest of life, including governance, because they wanted to endow everything they did with spiritual significance. It was this intertwining of religion with politics that led to violence—crusaders, conquistadors, jihadists, etc.—not religious content itself. The violence originates with the state and spills over to religion, rather than vice versa.

For most of history any governing body, democratic or tyrannical, peace-loving or expansionist, had little choice but to use violence and coercion in order to protect things like agricultural production from the chaotic and primitive groups seeking to undermine them for their own gain. Practically speaking, historical religions had to face the dilemma of whether to accept the protection of a state, and the threat of violence that protection necessarily entailed, or to live in hermetic isolation. Most chose the former.

Thoughtful people who want to try to control violence carried out by the state in their name, ought not blame religion or imagine that a solution to the problem lies in a cleaner separation of church and state. As an inspiration for terrorism, better to blame nationalism than religion.

Having studied and taught religion for many years, I’m glad to see Armstrong—and Fallows for that matter—defending its integrity. I’ve certainly heard the broad, almost taken-for-granted position that faith is at the root of much of the world’s hatred articulated many times, even among friends and family. When a scholar of Armstrong’s stature exhaustively demonstrates that politics drives violence more than spiritual conviction, I gain another credible source for responding to those attacks. And I certainly share Armstrong’s conviction that the world’s spiritual traditions ought to be regarded as living bodies of wisdom to be called upon in the work of building a vibrant human culture of peace and justice rather than as diseased cultural tissue that must be excised if we are to succeed in that work.

I’m just not sure politics should take the blame, either.

It seems to me that the “thoughtful people” Fallows and Armstrong are writing for need a deeper perspective, one they bring in only tangentially. If we want to get to the root of individual and communal violence, we ought to point the accusatory finger at biology and it’s extended expression in social evolution.

But it’s crucial that we do so in a way that awakens our freedom, the moral agency we’ll need to confront and resist it. That, I believe, is where a renewed appreciation for the power of religion may come in.

Biology and evolution reveal that savagery is built into the chain of being from the very bottom up. Life strains and tears against itself, one species extinguishes another, rivals gore their sexual competitors, one ethnic, territorial or religious community slaughters another. Violence is woven into the very genetic fabric that makes us who we are, individually and socially. It continues to define how we do business.

Image of Congolese refugees at

Image of Congolese refugees at

To give Armstrong credit for being aware of this dimension of the problem, I heard her refer in an online lecture to the “unruly reptilian impulses buried in our brains” against which religion seeks to give us some leverage. But isn’t politics laboring in the same field? Modern political philosophies and structures may have originally been grafted onto the tree of religion, but they have a life of their own now.

The entirely secular United Nations Declaration on Universal Human Rights is the most elevated and idealistic formulation of political vision ever written. Though no nation on earth fully honors it in practice, almost all join in a public profession of faith as to the transcendent truth of its doctrines. Isn’t this document aimed against violence just as surely as the Sermon on the Mount? In other words, doesn’t our political life also have a tap root into the water table of a deep desire for peace? When we clear away the background noise of coercive violence and harsh judgment that are the fruit of how religions have biologically co-evolved with political cultures, don’t we glimpse the prophetic, life affirming truths that lie at the core of both?

That brings the conversation to some critically important, practical theological, philosophical and cultural points:

We are violent by virtue of our biologically inherited needs. Violence is encoded into our cultural practices and institutions, both political and religious.

And yet the dream of peace, as a matter of fact not mere sentiment, has also arisen from biological creation: we long for it, pray for it, sing of it, advocate for it, vote for (or against) it. It’s arrival may be much more recent in the evolution of our species, but, peace, too, has taken root in our political, cultural and religious life.

However, the vast majority of people on our planet have not begun to iaccept the “story” that all that we are, inside and out, heart and mind, together and alone, has come to be through a gradual, material process. Instead, we believe that peace, and the larger truth of universal love from which it flows, has a transcendent character. Which is to say we believe it is a gift, something given to all of us for good keeping rather than something that arose on its own by blind chance or that was created by us for our own purposes.

The explicitly religious versions of the story of peace are particularly dear to us at Christmas time; the angels themselves sing ‘peace on earth’ over Bethlehem. Many other stories are told year ‘round. Jesus commands us to love our enemies.  He proclaims the peacemakers blessed in the Beatitudes’ update of the Ten Commandments.  And he levels a revolutionary critique of the dangers of religious purity and culturally mandated xenophobia in the parable Good Samaritan.

And there many more chapters to the story of peace beyond the realms of the familiar Judeo-Christian west. dStories of Krishna and Arjuna poised on the field of battle in contemplation of the absurdity of war.  Muhammad’s shockingly progressive recommendation that all “people of the book,” including enemies he’s conquered, be treated with respect and due process. These and hundreds of others testify to the depth and variety of stories of peace across many religious traditions.

Image at

Image at

But the story of peace also emerges from sources other than religion.

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

“Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom…

“Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms…

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood…

“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Does this document speak for the God of Moses and the Father of Jesus of Nazareth? Or has this secular, political articulation of the dream of peace arisen from some source other than the Divine? My conviction is that thoughtful religious people need not fear these questions. I also believe thoughtful non-believers need not reject a posture of reverent openness to the Transcendent in their quest to build a peaceful world.

The truth of peace, testified to in our scriptures and our resolutions is, as a matter of record, expressed in language that explicitly calls us to spiritual openness to truths that transcend us. We ought to trust that language. Adopting this posture of faith, listening to the truths we’ve been given, is the only practical foundation human beings have on which to build universal principles of justice; it is our only global leverage against those “unruly reptilian impulses buried in our brains.”

We won’t be able to convince anyone, or even ourselves, to live by these universal truths and resist our inner reptile if we simply say we’ve decided to follow them, in spite of the fact that they aren’t necessarily true, because they are the best chance we’ve got to coexist rather destroy one another.

If we can’t find ways to affirm the both the value of religion and the transcendent depths of politics, we ultimately undermine the just and peaceful political culture we are all seeking to build.

Image of Raphael's Holy family at

Image of Raphael’s Holy family at


  1. Beautifully and thoughtfully written. I agree with Armstrong that there is no one cause for any war; people tend to look for a simple reason/cause which is understandable. It takes contemplation and openness to look at the deeper issues. Thanks, James Burton

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