Regina M. Schwartz, Ph.D. University of Virginia Professor of English, has written a book with a provocative title: The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. While I have not had the pleasure of reading the book, the subtitle caught my attention. Historically speaking, there certainly has been a violent legacy within monotheistic religions, so to that extent the subtitle is not particularly interesting. The more interesting question, however, is whether monotheism necessarily leads to violence. In other words, is the violence inherent in monotheism?
Does it make a difference? I think so. For example, THOnline posted a letter on April 12 from a reader who opined that Christianity has a history of violence. After alleging that the Bible promotes violence in passages like Number 31 (about which, much could be said, but I will simply reference The Christian ThinkTank's insight-filled evaluation), the writer says:
The Bible has been used to justify a number of evil things, including slavery and genocide. The Bible continues to justify hatred and acts of violence. There are countless examples of Christian extremists using the Bible to justify violence against Jews and Muslims from the Crusades to the atrocities in Nazi Germany against Jews and others.
There is so much in error in this short paragraph that I could exhaust what little time I have responding to each error in turn. But rather than do that, I want to focus on the fact (which should be widely acknowledged by anyone who understands even a modicum about Christianity) that any Christian who supports slavery, genocide, violence against Jews and/or Muslims, or the Crusades is acting in clear contradiction to what the New Testament clearly teaches. (I won't dignify the idea that Christianity was somehow responsible for Nazi Germany's atrocities, and support that understanding by asking those who somehow imagine that Hitler was a Christian to visit the CADRE Hitler page.) Thus, in my view, anyone who argues that Christianity's legacy of violence is supported by Christian teachings -- rather than being merely the actions of people acting outside of Christian teaching -- simply has no idea about that which they speak.
But what if monotheism naturally leads to violence? Perhaps regardless of what Jesus taught, the Judeo-Christian tradition must lead to violence. Dr. Schwartz clearly thinks so. She apparently argues (according to Iain Provan, Marshall Shepherd Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver) that monotheism "leads inevitably from narrowness of thought and dogmatism, via violence, to war." Elsewhere, Dr. Schwartz is interviewed and makes the following response to the question, "[W]hy do you say this violence is a legacy of monotheism?"
Monotheism is a rich, complex concept with a multifaceted history. But one aspect of monotheism has been complicit with violence: the demand of allegiance to one principle, or one god, is accompanied by aggression to those who have other allegiances. Unfortunately, the injunction "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" turns into intolerance for other people who may have other gods, or principles, or beliefs. It says in Exodus, "Whoever is for the Lord come to me. . . . Gird on your sword, every man of you, and quarter the camp from gate to gate killing one his brother, another his friend, and another his neighbor." While organizing a people under one principle seems like an effective way to create a positive identity, it can also create destructiveness and division, insiders and outsiders.
This is very interesting, but I think that it proves nothing. Dr. Schwartz' alleged connection between monotheism and violence appears to be that the claim of allegiance to one thing precludes allegiance to others which raises distrust of others who do not share that allegiance. This distrust, when elevated, leads to violence. Okay, that's a fair observation, but I am not sure why monotheism should be singled out to receive special condemnation because what Dr. Schwartz claims can be true of anything that can give rise to an allegiance. Using Dr. Schwartz' argument, being patriotic towards one's country is inherently violent because it requires allegiance to one country and distrust of people in other countries which can lead to violence. Being a fan of Manchester United is inherently violent because it requires allegiance to one soccer (aka football) team at the expense of being a fan of other teams like Chelsea or AC Milan which could (and, in fact, has) led to violence. Heck, being a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes one allegiant to Captain America and Iron Man instead of those lesser characters in the DC Universe like Batman and the Flash which can, of course, lead to violence. So, what's so special about monotheism that it uniquely deserves to be mentioned as inherently violent?
It seems that there isn't anything that special about monotheism, and she admits as much in the interview cited above. In fact, in that same interview, after acknowledging that she doesn't have all of the answers, Dr. Schwartz notes, "The issue, to be precise, is not one versus many gods, but one defining principle versus many principles." Again, I don't disagree with this broad statement, but it certainly isn't the case that monotheism is any more likely to require violence than any other "defining principle." What appears to be different about monotheism is that Dr. Schwartz could point to important events in history used to support her thesis, but this doesn't actually make monotheism more inherently violent than any other "defining principle."
In fact, I would argue just the opposite. I do have a "defining principle" which is monotheistic -- Jesus died for my sins and calls on me to follow His teachings -- but that doesn't lead me to violence. In fact, it leads me away from violence because Jesus taught us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In fact, He told us to go even further and love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. If I do follow these teachings which are at the very central core of Christianity, then I won't be condoning evil things like slavery, genocide, hatred and/or violence. Monotheism, in the case of Christianity when practiced truly, leads to peace on the part of the Christians. It is those who have "defining principles" other than following Christ for whom I have much greater concern. Thus, I suggest that a monotheistic belief has much less to do with promoting violence than what that monotheistic belief teaches (coupled with the sincerity with which the belief is held).
With all due respect to Dr. Schwartz, the idea that monotheism is somehow inherently violent appears overstated. I could say that Dr. Schwartz is wrong, but I don't want to do so because that might suggest to her that I am accepting a "defining principle" that contradicts hers which could lead to violence. And while I wouldn't harm her because the God I follow in Christianity (the only true God, by the way) would not condone that type of response, I don't know enough about Dr. Schwartz to know whether her "defining principles" preclude violence in return. And that appears to be what really matters.