The Paradox of Religion and Violence, and Why Religions Are Not Shit: An Interview with Jon Pahl

Paul Harvey

As promised a few posts ago, I'm posting here an interview with Jon Pahl, one of our occasional contributors here at the blog, and most recently author of Empires of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence, just out with NYU Press.

It's not every book that juxtaposes theories of religion drawn from the likes of Bruce Lincoln and Thomas Tweed, reflections on violence (defined very broadly as "any harm to or destruction of life, whether intended by individuals or enacted by systems of language, policy, and practice") inspired by Rene Girard's Violence and the Sacred, youth culture in post-World War II America and films from Reefer Madness to Halloween to Spike Lee's Malcolm X, slaveholding religion and the resistance to it from Frederick Douglass and Jarena Lee, the culture of public executions from Quakers in 17th-century New England to Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, and finally the rhetoric of "sacrifice" surrounding American wars and how that rhetoric has shaped recent involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pahl analyzes such diverse texts in exploring what he believes to be a characteristic American trope, "innocent domination," or power over others exercised without conscious malice. Pahl intends his work as a call to take up the opportunity missed after 9/11, to "shape a remarkable global consensus against religious violence." The basic paradox of the work is this: religions "produce violent power," but religions exist ultimately to "eliminate violence." That paradox captures the troubling message but hopeful conclusion to the work.

In the interview, Pahl elaborates and summarizes some of the key points made in his provocative work. And, as you'll see, he also finds a way to scam a free beer off me next time we meet up. May that be soon, Jon.

PH: Jon, you’ve written (among other books) Paradox Lost¸about 17th-18th century theology; a book about shopping malls; a book about religion and youth culture; and now this work about the religious origins of American violence. Describe if you can the intellectual trajectory that has taken you so far afield over all these disparate topics -- or are they all that disparate?

JP: Part of the reason for the diverse range in topics that I've written about is that I may suffer from academic attention deficit disorder--I'm easily distracted. Another part of it is opportunistic--I was commissioned to write two books about youth ministry in American history, and stumbled onto the wonderful collegial group the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth, where I'm kind of the token "religionist." Part of it is principled--I truly believe we're more responsible intellectually when we break with the hyper-specialization of the corporate academy and its silos of knowledge. But the consistent thread throughout all of my writing is the interrelationship between religions and violence--so this work is in some way the culmination of all of my previous study.

PH: A key term in your work is innocent domination, by which you mean “patterns or systems of domination, hegemony, or power over others that are largely absent of malice on the part of the perpetrators.” But in some of the examples you cover, such as Frederick Douglass’s contest with his master’s domination, the malice is self-evident. So can you discuss and define that term further, to introduce readers to a central concept of your book?

JP: I'm not suggesting that all of the cases I attend to only manifest "innocent domination." As you point out, there's plenty of overt malice and sheer domination in evidence in American history. The cases illuminate for me patterns. I try to surface in the book not only the overt physical destruction that usually gets called "violence" in public discourse, but also the systems of violence that manifest patterns in discourse and practice around constructions of age, race, gender, and the nation. These systems kill just as surely as a gunshot, only more slowly and with greater suffering over time. And systemic violence, not only in America, but in a peculiar form here, implicates discourses and ritual processes that shroud domination in an entrenched collective sense of innocence that I find rooted, finally, in religion. Now how I mobilize that term "religion" is of course one of the experiments in the book; but you didn't ask about that so I'll happily avoid defending that choice, for now.

PH: You suggest that critical to the process of fostering a culture of innocent domination “is the socialization of youth, to accept violence as a part of culture, [and] to see brutalities as blessed.” Can you elaborate on that point a bit further?

JP: This is one of the ways that the book builds on my earlier research into youth culture in America. Young people today live with awareness of violence once known only to combat soldiers. That knowledge has been produced or mediated through manifold mechanisms, and I try to track one of those trajectories by studying the representation of young people in American cinema--from Reefer Madness to Hostel. Films featuring what I call the "sacrifice" of youth have been increasingly bloody in American history--mirroring the actual treatment of young people by the systems of American society. Once again, though, it's hard to find anybody to hold responsible for this "socialization," since we're dealing less with intentional practices than with systems that take on a life of their own and become, like religions, self-replicating patterns of what Rene Girard calls "mimetic desire." Two other scholars with whom I've collaborated a bit out here on the Atlantic coast are tracking some more specific patterns of this socialization. Lehigh's John Pettegrew in his Brutes in Suits explored some early 20th century constructions of "manhood" in ways that reinforce the trajectory I pick up later, and Kelly Denton-Borhaug at Moravian College will be publishing a book later this year that explores quite directly American "war culture," and especially rhetorics of sacrifice and how they help turn young people into killers through military advertisements and training regimes. It's nice to know there are others out there seeing similar things at work, since at times I feel like I'm "out there" a bit for actually caring about the young people who populate our classrooms, and (even more) those who never get the chance to experience the "privilege" of studying with us. . . . Bear with me on a tangent here, but someday it might be fun to track the effects of systemic violence on the profession of teaching in the academy--the ways we ourselves participate in or get socialized into "innocent domination." Power dynamics on most college campuses between faculty and students are rife with possibilities for exploring modes of discourses and practices that replicate themselves "religiously" to justify the domination (if not exploitation) of young people by supposedly "innocent" scholars merely engaged in the "objective pursuit of knowledge." But I'll probably not write that book; some administrator might (since they usually have few illusions about the innocence of the academy). Or, as one college President told me recently, in a conversation about Machiavelli: "of course I want to be feared rather than loved. Who wouldn't?" I'm interested in how young people have to negotiate systemic violence, in short, in ways that are quite complicated but not without historical tracers in the record.

PH: You are bitterly critical of the use of the concept of “sacrifice” to justify violence, and give the example of how the apparently neutral and innocent "sacrifice" of soldiers that we are all supposed to celebrate is part of the process of turning war into religion. But isn’t sacrifice sometimes necessary to combat further violence -- as in the case of the war against Hitler, for example, or the war which ended slavery in America?

JP: I prefer to call killing killing, and not drape tragic policy decisions (which I hope we can agree every war is) in the cloak of religion. Harry Stout's and Drew Gilpin Faust's books on the Civil War make evident, I think, what happens when war gets cloaked in religion--and how these discourses and practices have remarkably long half-lives.

And as for World War II--it's the litmus test for everyone who wants to treat war realistically rather than romantically or religiously. If I had a dollar for every time I get asked about WWII when I speak about nonviolence and peacemaking, I'd be a much wealthier man than I am now (and I'll be happy to collect from you, Paul, in food and/or beverage in the near future). My criticism of sacrifice is rooted in a deeper mistrust of the ascetic potential of religions--the way they produce sadistic and masochistic practices that amplify rather than reduce human suffering. I just don't think asceticism is a particularly helpful way to orient human living, especially when it's the State that is asking us to sacrifice (which implies suffering) on behalf of some imagined community that is as much a fiction as any "god" has ever been. God knows there's enough suffering in the world; I'd like to find ways to minimize or reduce that suffering, rather than participate in or promote it, and I suspect even God would agree with me on that, actually (it's always nice when that happens), rather than on wanting more sacrifices, in whatever form.

PH: Your individual chapters range from discussions of movies such as “Reefer Madness” and “Halloween,” to the execution of Quakers by 17th-century Puritans, to Frederick Douglass and Spike Lee’s version of the life of Malcolm X, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tell us how you came to think through putting such diverse and seemingly unrelated topics into a work.

JP: Well, the common thread across the diverse chapters is the cultural construction of "sacrifice" in American history--of youth, of people who are members of a different religion, of those who of are a different race, of people who are a different gender or sexual orientation, or who are members of a different "nation" or "tribe." It's the excluded one who constitutes the "us" in any us-them dualism that I find interesting and culturally generative, or at the root of "religion." By that term (I can't get away from it!), I mean to point to a process of compression and displacement of desire (what I call 'projections of transcendent authority') into replicable patterns that create (and consolidate) cultural power. I organize my history of these compressions and displacements in an inverse chronology, from the "present" of the representation of young people to the execution of Mary Dyer on Boston Common. In short, I'm happy to blame America's religious violence on the Puritans (and their arcane theological arguments that were all about power), but it is Puritanism as transmuted or translated into all kinds of religious hybrids that have little or nothing to do with the actual ecclesiastical communities that trace their roots to the Puritans today that I find interesting. Religious discourses and practices migrate under conditions of pluralism and disestablishment. That gives them their vitality--they get mobilized in surprising ways. I suppose here I've been tainted as a historian by my forays into cultural studies; I can see shopping malls and Walt Disney World as sacred places or pilgrimage centers, so I find "religion" in surprising places in history, as well. So I talk about American "civil religion" or "cultural religion," as ways to identify these hybrids that have operated along the lines of age, race, gender, and the nation to produce violence.

PH: It will surprise some readers when they come to the passage in which you explain that “religions exist to eliminate violence,” in a book that suggests some of the religious origins of American violence. Can you explain this a bit further?

JP: I teach at a seminary, and formerly in a theology department, and I'm engaged in religious practices across traditions (Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and a variety of Christian communities), so I see not only the destructive features of religion, but also the beauty, goodness, and truth they create and preserve. In trying to puzzle out this paradox of the destructive and creative elements in religions, I've come up with the broad notion that religions are the cultural equivalent of biological systems of elimination. Religions exist to eliminate things; to rule out options; to limit the field of contingency and its radical chaos to some replicable patterns.

This is not, as one earlier reader of the book put it, that "religions are shit" (although there surely are aspects of some traditions that have plenty to say about shit, and some that can be pretty shitty in one way or another). But it is to say that religions function for people (to mix metaphors) as maps that reduce territory to symbolic processes that (again) compress and displace matter and its associated desires with cultural markers. At root, given their ultimate dependence upon symbols (most historic religious traditions do NOT possess armaments!), I'm willing to wager that religions exist to eliminate violence--that they arose among human beings as ways to resolve conflict and disputes nonviolently and through persuasion, rather than with brute force

I can't support that claim empirically, yet, but I think a rather persuasive case can be made that as historic religious traditions have gradually disentangled themselves from state and military power (officially), we can begin to see the development of this "heart and soul" of religion in nonviolence, conflict resolution, and cultural reconciliation in some very surprising (and empirically verifiable) cases. In fact, that's the book I'm working on at present, under the tentative title A Coming Religious Peace. It's the sequel to this book, and tracks precisely the ways traditional religious communities in American history (with an eye on global trends, from Gandhi to Tutu) have promoted developments to create a more peaceful (and just) existence for young people, for racial minorities, for women and sexual minorities, and (even) for religious and national "others." In short, the emergence of religious nonviolence, peacemaking, and reconciliation across traditions is what I take to be the major subplot in 20th century American religious history, the counterpoint to the exploitation of religious discourses and practices for violent purposes that I tracked in this book. We tend to fixate on religious violence precisely because it is anomalous and hypocritical. Human (and historical) attention is like that: we gawk at the one automobile wrecked on the side of the road, and miss the 999,999 that move smoothly down the expressway.

PH: Likewise with surprising passages, you end with Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” and some suggestive thoughts on how “Holy hatreds might finally give way to sheer blessing.” Where is it ultimately that you derive the hope that American religions can be extracted from a culture of violence in which they have always played a critical role? What steps do you think religious people should take towards that end?

JP: Finally, I'm a true patriot--I like the First Amendment and its paradoxical disestablishment of religion and protection of free exercise. The State is better off when religions hold it accountable to promote justice and peace, insofar as possible, without wandering into utopian projects or imperial fantasies of one kind or another that construct the State (or its extensions in laws and policies) as innocent. And religions are true to themselves when they're not complicit with policies and practices by means of which a State protects its citizens and restrains those who do not live nonviolently by rationalizing them as anything other than violence to check violence. Finally, I think something akin to what David Cortright calls "realistic or pragmatic pacifism," in which religious agents serve as critics of (even necessary) State violence, and promoters of reconciliation and peacemaking (insofar as possible), is the paradoxical way opened up by the First Amendment. The specific forms this might take are open to debate. But that something like this is already happening is evident not only in the structures of American law and society, but also within the internal histories of religious traditions.

I'm in dialogue with a surprisingly large number of socially "progressive" people of faith--some of them quite conservative theologically--who articulate and practice in many and various ways the creative and peaceful potential of religions. But, of course, as a historian I know that, finally, it all depends: everything is contingent on what actually happens. So you're right to use the word "hope." That is what it comes down to. And, yes, I did vote for Obama.


Kelly Baker at: May 7, 2010 at 2:26 PM said...

Jon, the book looks awesome, and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. What an important topic, and I think your chapter on Quakers will be perfect for my summer Religions in the U.S. class.

Rex at: May 7, 2010 at 3:55 PM said...

Those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition have the story of Abraham and Isaac to teach us that human sacrifice, even in the name of religion, is hateful--in its own time, hateful to the All High.

Some try to excuse our refusal of that lesson by interpreting the commandment as "Thou shalt not do murder" rather than "Thou shalt not kill."

Religion teaches us that ending human life, whether others or our own, is hateful. Civil religion, on the other hand, teaches us that killing can be made legal. So long as we distinguish religion from civil religion, we may avoid the hateful consequences.

zapata at: May 8, 2010 at 6:17 PM said...

What a wonderful interview and exciting/difficult/depressing/hopefulbook! I am finishing a dissertation on the use of narrated martyrdom and suffering in the early colonization of Northern New Spain (America's first frontier), and I have found the concept of "sacrifice" to be a deeply rooted metaphor, a rationalization for all sorts of violence and cultural exclusion/formation.

Jon Pahl at: May 12, 2010 at 6:53 AM said...
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