Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf (2014)
The fighting, killing and dying occurring around the world today (February 2015) in the name of religion makes Fields of Blood a poignant and relevant read for anyone who wants to begin to understand: “why?” There isn’t a better author for this particular topic than Karen Armstrong, a British writer, and religious historian, with a slew of books to her credit.
Fields of Blood is a very dense book, difficult and challenging for anyone with only a cursory understanding of the intersection between world history and the people of the book (the Christians and Jews) and Muslims. In other words, me.
Nearly every passage includes dates, names, locations and another battle. My eyes might glaze over if I had the hard copy in front of me, but I’ve been listening to the audible version narrated by the author on my daily walks. I’m finding it digestible, although I may listen a second time to try to pick up what I missed the first time around.
I want to understand why Daesh (aka ISIS) is trying to establish a caliphate, already the size of the United Kingdom, and butchering people in its path who refuse to submit to its interpretation of Islam.
I want to understand why Bibi Netanyahu and many Zionists insist that Israel must be a Jewish State, despite a poll in December 2014 that found 40% of Israelis think that’s a bad idea, not to mention how does a ‘Jewish’ state square with the ideal of a democratic state?
I want to understand why the United States government perpetrates some of the most outrageous and inhumane acts of torture against Muslims at Guantanamo Bay, using their faith against them to extract information.
Armstrong summarized her book in September 2014 in this article in the Guardian, which certainly does it more justice than my review.
As I listened to her narration, I wondered what my Muslim, Jewish and Christian friends would think of Armstrong’s conclusions. Although each religion began with a vision of a peaceful community based on egalitarianism and the Golden Rule, they each were shaped by the political, social and economic circumstances of the time, and by the human frailties of the religious leaders who committed aggressive and egregious acts of violence in the name of their faith.
Armstrong has a talent for sharing historical facts from several different perspectives, not just from the victor’s. This marks her as a worthy and credible historian in my view. At one point she notes, “Victors are never blamed for their crimes.”
“War has been aptly described as a psychosis caused by an inability to see relationships,” says Armstrong.
In the end, this sums up the take-away message from Fields of Blood for me. No matter which religious tradition, or which humans were interpreting God-Allah-Yahweh’s directive at a particular time in history, their failure to see and appreciate their relationship with all of God’s creatures, inevitably led to violence. It was true in 624 at the Battle of Badr when Muhammad and his followers successfully attacked an important Meccan caravan. It was true in 1099 when the Christian Crusaders captured Jerusalem and slaughtered thousands of Jews and Muslims. It was true in 1947-1948 when the Zionists forcefully drove the Palestinians from their homes, slaughtering many in what is commonly referred to as the Nakba.
I was first introduced to Karen Armstrong in 2008 when she gave a TEDTalk about Compassion. She is asking all of us to establish the Golden Rule as the central global religious doctrine. Her Charter for Compassion is her passionate affair to restore our ability to see relationships. Check out the Charter for Compassion website here.
When I was in Gaza (2012-2013) people would often ask me which religious faith I followed. I told them I was raised as a Christian, I had family members who are Jews, and I know many Muslims, but I don’t follow any particular faith. Instead, I strive to live my life by one simple rule. “What is that?” they inevitably asked. I want to follow the Golden Rule. That is my faith, and that is the only direction I need.