The presentations given in the “Violence and Representations of Violence among Jews and Christians Unit” (henceforth VRV) have deepened our understanding of the intersection of religion and violence in the Greco-Roman world. Many of the papers delivered in this unit have been published, both individually and as books. The unit has collected and analyzed a broad range of ancient examples of religious violence and its representations in both material and literary culture.
Ten years is a relatively short time compared to the swaths of history many of us tend to cover in our studies of religion, but in SBL years it’s nearly a lifetime, particularly when we include the early years, from 2002-2005, when this topic was explored as a consultation. At the risk of coloring outside the lines, I will begin my reflection with the year 2002, when this unit was born as a consultation. Violence was on everyone’s mind that year, largely due—I believe—to the transformational events of 9/11. John J. Collins delivered his SBL presidential address on “The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence,” in which he “presented a ‘geneology [sic] of the concept of ‘the wrath of God.'” He offered scriptural passages where God condones the obliteration of peoples and where “ritual violence” is connected to ideas of religious purity, land rights, and “chosen-ness.”
While Collins pointed out that most likely none of these violent events ever occurred, he did underline the ethical implications of their status as part of the Bible especially in the current context of September 11 and what would become the war in Iraq. Collins’ advice to the Bible scholar was to note the diversity of approaches in the Bible, in order to relativize it; to admit the unethicalness of certain passages; and to show that absolute certainty is an illusion, quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Certitude leads to violence.”
Although scholars like Mark Juergensmeyer (Terror in the Mind of God) had been working on the topic of religious violence prior to 9/11, the number of publications devoted to the topic skyrocketed afterward. To name just a few: the four-volume collection of essays The Destructive Power of Religion edited by Harold Ellens (2003), Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God (2004), the group of essays that emerged from the consultation period of this unit edited by Shelley Matthews and Leigh Gibson Violence In the New Testament (2005), Hector Avalos’ Fighting Words: the Origins of Religious Violence (2005), Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs (2008), and Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (2009) by Tom Sizgorich, for whom this unit held a memorial session in 2011. These books advocated the view that study and analysis of the phenomenon of religious violence could help avoid, or at least manage, religious violence in the present. Juergensmeyer’s book ends, for example, by reviewing different ways to “cure” religious violence; Stern’s with policy recommendations for U.S. foreign relations. Sizgorich, in a 2009 JAAR article entitled “Sanctified Violence: Monotheist Militancy as the Tie That Bound Christian Rome and Islam,” stated explicitly that “historians, and particularly historians of earliest Islam, are positioned to undertake especially useful interventions” (897). He positioned his article as an overt response to the unfortunate statements made by Pope Benedict XVI on Sept. 12, 2006 in “a lecture titled …”Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections” at the University of Regensburg, in Germany” (898). That same issue of JAAR featured articles on related topics by Chris Frilingos (past chair and contributor to this unit), Brent Shaw (whose tome Sacred Violence was the prompt for a 2013 session that I participated in), Steven Weitzman (who presented his paper in this unit’s “Panel on Violence as an Analytical Category” in 2011), and noted Hinduist Gerald Larson. Weitzman nicely sums up scholars’ inclination to apply their research on violence to the current historical context:
The interventionist impulse at work in these examples was felt by many scholars in the post 9/11 era, including those of us who studied ancient religion who felt that we too should try to be of help and believed we had something to contribute to this effort. Perhaps there was something constructive to learn from studying religious violence in the ancient world, we believed, or by asking new questions of the ancient texts used to justify violence in our own day and age (961).
Weitzman correctly points out that the interventionist impulse was sparked by the Branch Davidian debacle at Waco in 1993, as the AAR session devoted to the topic that year attests (Tabor and Arnold). And he, like others, are quite skeptical of this impulse. Since 2001, the topic of religious violence has not only been timely (keyword search of violence in this year’s program book yielded 19 hits in paper titles and 7 hits in panel topics apart from VRV), but the topic has embraced a social agenda the likes of which were entirely different than those of previous generations. Whichever side we take in the debate about interventionist scholarship, VRV needs to investigate the issue of how our own personal investments as 21st century citizens of particular nation-states employed in a shrinking discipline affects our study of the topic of religion and violence. This seems to be the elephant in the room that has been acknowledged individually by various presenters over the years, but has not yet risen to the level of a dedicated panel topic.
Now I turn to a more detailed analysis of the unit’s history. First, I will discuss structural issues; then I will consider session topics.
The first four years of the unit were organized scripturally and chronologically, which was a helpful place to start. Since 2006, the shift to a thematic approach has proved immensely worthwhile. As some of the themes explored in this unit have lent themselves to fruitful collaboration, VRV has done a good job of holding joint sessions with other units, namely Early Jewish Christian Relations, Social History of Formative Christianity and Judaism, Religious World of Late Antiquity Section, this year for the first time with Art and Religions of Antiquity. VRV even courageously bridged the institutional divide for a joint session AAR’s Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence Group. It might be worthwhile to consider future partnerships with Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement or Religious Competition in Late Antiquity, which have often explored the violent aspects of their subjects. Other ways to formulate future sessions might be to focus diachronically on a particular geographic area.
To my knowledge VRV has only held one book review panel: a laudatory and thought-provoking discussion of Elizabeth Castelli’s Martyrdom and Memory, although two panels have engaged the work of other scholars, namely Kathleen Coleman and Brent Shaw. VRV might consider more of these “life-work” panels in the future now that the field has matured and produced a sizable corpus. Although open sessions can often prove a mixed bag, those held in 2007, 2008, and 2009 were very productive both in the quality of their papers as well as their intersections and discussion. This is due not only to VRV’s skillful leadership but also because the unit had established a research agenda. The range of scholars has included both novices and veterans, which has kept conversations both fresh and deeply informed.
To my knowledge, VRV hasn’t included scholars outside the field of religious studies as guest keynote speakers, although I understand some have been invited. Given the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches to the topic of religion and violence, this could prove valuable.
This retrospective session’s chair asked us to reflect on what is gained by including "representations of violence" in the name of the section. I’m not sure we can always distinguish any ancient phenomenon from its representations, so its presence in the title reminds participants to always bear in mind the complexity of our sources and the precarious relationship they have to so-called “reality.” As this group emerged just as I was entering the field, I personally found it a useful heuristic. I think our newer scholars could help us reflect on whether the qualification is still useful.
Along the lines of examining the unit’s title, I think the change from “VRV among Jews and Christians” (2002-2013) to “VRV in Antiquity” (2014-present) has been successful. In the first decade and more of investigating religion and violence, the restriction was not only valuable for deep inquiry but also perhaps necessary, due in no small measure to the history of scholarship on Jewish-Christian relations, which privileged the themes of violence and conflict. What will be gained by expanding the religious parameters to include Manichaeans, Mystery Religions, Neoplatonists, and, if chronological parameters were also extended, Muslims, to name only a few, remains to be seen. Thus far I believe the conversation has been enriched, particularly since scholarship is increasingly challenging the boundedness of ancient religious identification. We might be able to get at some marginal phenomena that have previously escaped our notice. Furthermore, the complexity of factors that provide fertile ground for religious violence can be seen best when the landscape is at its broadest.
VRV has chosen topics that attract those whose work focused on religious violence as well as topics that open up new areas of study. I was surprised to discover the subject of theory missing from the list of topics until 2011, when VRV convened a panel devoted to Violence as an Analytical Category. That is not to say that the topic has been entirely absent from the unit’s discussions. In fact, many individual papers over the years have explored theoretical and methodological considerations. There is undoubtedly more to investigate here, and one way would be to devote a series of panels to specific definitions or typologies of religious violence, like that of René Girard, Mark Juergensmeyer, Charles Selengut, Saira Yamin or Scott Appleby, or even to the question of whether any modern typology fits the confluence of religion and violence as manifested in antiquity.
I would like to suggest some further topics for the unit, some of which have been addressed in individual papers but I think deserve a whole panel’s exploration:
- how religious violence shapes and affects the brain;
- gender, class and religious violence;
- the non-visual affective dimensions of religious violence: auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory;
- spontaneous and planned religious violence;
- the dynamic of power in distinguishing violence from justifiable force;
- violence as a form of religious control;
- the incommensurability of material and intangible realms: religious use of physical violence for non-physical outcomes [conversion, e.g.] and vice versa [invocations to martyrdom, e.g.];
- justifications and legitimations of violence;
- and a topic near and dear to my heart: the role of space in staging religious violence
- the location of religious violence, and how space functions in planting and memorializing memories of religious violence.
Finally, let me close by reflecting on my own participation in this program unit as a spectator, discussant, and panelist. The conversation has been alternatively disturbing, inspiring, and provocative, but always enriching; so much so that I was motivated to develop and co-teach Rice University’s first course on religion and violence with Matthias Henze. I have also explored the topic as it pertains to space and place in North Africa in a forthcoming monograph with Cambridge (Ritual Sites and Religious Rivalries in Late Roman North Africa). Many, many thanks to the conveners and organizers of the unit who have created a productive forum for innovative and compelling inquiry, and I look forward to continuing the discussion.
Shira L. Lander, Southern Methodist University
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