Book Notes Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence

Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence Hot

Jon Pahl writes in his book Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence :

    This book concerns a single problem: “America” has become an empire, and that empire is not innocent, even though many citizens of the United States seem to imagine that their nation has some sort of divine right to dominate that does not implicate Americans in anything that might deserve blame. I am bothered by this logic, which ascribes innocence to all things American, not because I am particularly alienated but because it seems to me not to be true. For instance, how could almost three out of four U.S. citizens in 2003 be persuaded to support sending young men and women off to die in battle for the ultimately unsubstantiated suspicion that Iraq might harbor a weapon of mass destruction, when the United States already possesses an unmatched arsenal of such lethal firepower?

    Such hubris, pride, or sheer chutzpah—what I call innocent domination—is the historical tangle that I try to unravel a bit in this book. As Freud might have put it, many Americans have seemed willing to put a halo on American history and policies. To me, that halo appears more than a little unbecoming. My basic argument here is that American history is riddled with patterns of religious violence. Americans are, by all accounts and especially their own, “the most religious people on the planet.” Yet America is also obviously, brutally, violent, as our history from the public executions of Puritan Boston to the human tortures of Abu Ghraib suggests. To me, as a religious person, a scholar of religion, and a citizen of the United States, it is this problem of the conjunction of religion and violence in American history that obsesses me. ...

    Exactly what I mean by sacrifice will become clearer shortly, but for now it may be enough to say that as used here, sacrifice refers less to the voluntary commitment of people to give up something for the common good, which is often admirable, than to systemic exclusions, prejudices, or biases—that is, ritualized incantations or performances—that substitute violence against scapegoats or victims for actual solutions to social problems. Such forms of sacrifice are rarely admirable, yet they are remarkably common in American history. When I speak of an American empire of sacrifice, I am suggesting that systemic market forces, military operations, national identity, and political rhetorics produced hybrid religions—American “civil religions” or “cultural religions,” for the lack of better terms—which have borrowed from Christianity (and other traditions) to prop up their fragile power.

    These hybrids have depended on religious discourses and practices, often in secular guise, to place sacrifices on altars constructed of social conventions concerning age, race, and gender. Such processes have focused on imagining, communicating, and enforcing an “American” identity in history. In this manifestation of America, citizens have sacrificed both their own and enemy others while simultaneously imagining that they were innocent in doing so. Again, these durable patterns cannot be explained simply as the working out in politics of a doctrine of millennialism, manifest destiny, or America as a chosen, redeemer nation. All the dying, killing, and suffering has more complicated roots than that and has less to do with doctrines like millennialism than it does with practices and the cultural work carried out by various systems of sacrifice.

    I call this cultural work innocent domination, by which I mean patterns or systems of domination, hegemony, or power over others that are largely absent of malice on the part of the perpetrators. This absence of malice is not necessarily simple bad faith; it might be due to cultural contingencies such as the long history of the sexual subordination of women or a sincere belief that one is “doing the right thing” for the nation. ...

    Sacrificial acts are a combination of a victim or object to be offered; the substitution (including metaphor or synecdoche) of a victim or object for a larger group; giving up (e.g., burning), expelling, or killing the victim or object; and catharsis, which includes the identification with the victim or object and the association of some emotion or attribute that serves as motive or rationale for the gift, expulsion, or killing. Traditionally, of course, catharsis refers to purification (usually removing guilt). More accurately, however, sacrifices compress or channel fears and desires—including the desires to dominate, associate, and flee—in ways that displace, purify, and legitimize desires through symbols or symbolic action. These processes are not noted for their rationality.

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