Review: Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence, by Jon Pahl

[1] Empire of Sacrifice by Jon Pahl is a pertinent and intriguing contribution to self-reflexive interrogation of the American legacy of violence. The book also contributes in significant ways to the growing literature on religion and violence in that it offers a critique of social and cultural hegemonies, conjecturing to the relationship between cultural and structural forms of violence and the practice and legacy of the American empire. Pahl illuminates the motif of “sacrifice” or “blessed brutalities” (sanctioned violence) as one permeating all layers of the social and cultural fabrics in ways that purport to offer an explanatory framework for the analysis of contemporary imperial American practices. He reads patterns of “sacrifice” or “performative violence” into practices as diverse as domestic abuse, slavery, and cinematic representations of youth in order to gesture to their inter-linking with one another and to expose the misguided religiosity of such practices. Each instance of blessed brutality—whether it is the execution of Quakers in Boston in the 17th century or the abuse of wives in the early American republic—constitutes but a distinct trajectory leading eventually “to the emergence of an American ‘empire of sacrifice’” (3). The explicit focus on the case of American violence notwithstanding, Pahl’s theoretical roots, most pronouncedly, in the work of René Girard, leads him to make claims about religion in general rather than American religiosity as it pertains to an American empire in particular. This is a theoretical perspective that amplifies the category of sacrifice as definitional and, in Pahl’s case, leads him to identify every form of sacrifice as religious and thus as participating in a broader national discourse that, too, exemplifies the same engagement in blessed brutalities, albeit projected outwardly. It is the tension between a functionalist explanatory framework of religion, on the one hand, and the particular attention to the motif of sacrifice in the American landscape that is, at once, the most appealing and contestable aspects of Pahl’s analysis.
[2] The book’s central query concerns unpacking the roots and pervasive manifestations of what Pahl calls “innocent domination”: what may be the connections between the legacy of domestic violence in the early American colonies and the contemporary global domination of the U.S.? The task of debunking American “innocent domination” takes the reader through a tour across time and perspectives and in inverse chronological order, from the sustained reflection, in chapter 2, on films such as Reefer Madness and Hostel which unravels the cultural authorizing of the sacrificing of youth to a scrutiny, in chapter 3, of the religious signification of “whiteness” and its discursive legitimization of slavery as well as enduring forms of racial inequalities.

[3] Moving away from the scrutiny of the relevance of religion to the construction of violence based on representing youth as “abject objects” and racism as instrumental sacrificial components of the American national imaginary and interrelated forms of innocent domination, Pahl turns his attention in chapter 4 to “sacrificing gender.” Here, he traces, once again by way of an analysis of cultural artifacts, the interrelations between the devastating domestic abuses endured by Abigail Abbot Bailey as conveyed in her powerful 1815 memoir and the more contemporary Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Defense of Marriage Act. Pahl connects gender violence in the early republic as instrumental and definitional in the same way in which the “religion of slaveholding” (a concept attributed to his sustained reflection on the work of Frederick Douglas in Chapter 3) was to the imagining of an American nationalism. Thereby, Pahl purports to expose the layers of mutually reinforcing modalities of violence inherent in this identity construct.

[4] This motif is extended to his final case study in chapter 5 of human sacrifice as likewise basic to the legacy of American nationalism. In this chapter, Pahl focuses on the policies and executions aimed against Quakers in Boston between 1659 and 1661. The Quakers, represented in the person of Mary Dyer, were sacrificed during this time, Pahl suggests, in order “to produce cultural power for the Puritans” (p. 11). Pahl then draws direct connections between this instance of performative violence and the critique of capital punishment as portrayed in Dead Man Walking (1996) which is, in effect, an adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s memoirs depicting her ministry with prisoners on death-row.

[5] The same “hybrid religion” that authorized internal cultural and social forms of violence and whose religiosity Pahl uncovers in each of the aforementioned case studies is what, according to the epilogue, eventually legitimized the crusading undertones of the misnomer known as the “war on terror.” “‘[T]he war on terror’ fused traditional Christian symbols with elements of the civil and cultural religion. Such a hybrid religion,” Pahl explains, “extended the sacrificial logic that…led to the execution of Mary Dyer, that caused so much suffering in the life of Abigail Abbot Bailey, that cost the lives of six million or more Africans in the slave trade, and that has had tragic consequences in the lives of young people victimized by the ‘war’ on drugs in the late twentieth century and by the nearly perpetual foreign wars on the part of America during the last four decades” (p.167).

[6] As stated, this synthetic effort to connect the various sites of violence in order to explain and debunk the “patina of innocence” (for the use of this phrase, see pp. 168 and 170) that authorizes interconnected “blessed brutalities” is precisely what Pahl set out to accomplish in this work. This crucial normative challenging of the patina of innocence that calls upon a process of self-interrogation is what is most appealing about Pahl’s analysis. However, connecting the execution of Mary Dyer, the domestic abuse endured by Abigail Abbot, representations of teens in horror films, Lee’s Malcolm X, and Frederick Douglass’s critique of the “religion of slaveholding” to the contemporary manifestation of an “American empire” appears highly selective, ahistorical, and thus methodologically vulnerable. This approach to the analysis of the motif of American innocent domination begs a methodological probe: how precisely the continuous and interlinked forms of violence and sacrificial patterns could be demonstrated beyond Pahl’s argument that they are not only interlinked and continuous but also convey a relation of causality?

[7] This line of questioning finally takes me back to my initial reflection: the functional Girardian tone of the analysis does not sit easily with the particularistic claims extracted from the analysis of cultural products as they relate to the particularities of the American empire. Accordingly, the incessant identifying of sacrificial patterns in order to convey the religiosity of such practices as domestic abuse, slavery, capital punishment and incarceration (mostly of African Americans), and cinematography leaves much to inquire about the particulars of American religiosity and histories (domestically and globally). This is especially the case since what is really under scrutiny is the construct of an American empire and its authorizing discourses. Indeed, in his epilogue, Pahl anticipates this worry: “I do not need to argue that these patterns [the cultural patterns and sacrificial practices under scrutiny] are unique to the United States. Nor is it necessary for me to show that such patterns are not found in justifications for religious violence elsewhere.” “It is enough,” he argues, “to show that they have been found in American history, that religious violence has been a recurrent feature in the formation and development of the United States” (p. 172). It is my sense, however, that a more specific analysis of and attentiveness to the “contents” rather than “patterns” of American religiosity, history, and culture is necessary in order to accomplish the task Pahl sets out to accomplish, namely, exposing the patina of American innocent domination by illuminating the deep history of particularly American forms of religious violence. After all, he is attempting to locate a link between the images from Abu Ghraib of tortured Muslim prisoners and the executions performed in Puritan Boston (p. 2).

[8] To reiterate: there is a lot about this undertaking that is highly beneficial. Especially welcome is Pahl’s explicit intervention in the growing scholarly and popular writings on the topic of religion and violence, an industry on the rise since the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, and his penetrating critique of the violent messages that permeate the American social and cultural landscapes. Joining other critics who identified how reigning paradigms for the analysis of religion and violence convey a rather skewed perception of Euro-American and intra-Christian histories (Talal Asad, for instance), Pahl’s account challenges western liberal triumphalism in that it asks to turn inward the discussion of religious violence: religious violence is not only a foreign phenomenon but a definitional and persistent aspect of U.S. history. It also manifests in more forms than just millennialism or theological doctrines. Instead, for Pahl, violence permeates through a variety of interconnected cultural, social, and political institutions, all of which manifest patterns of “blessed brutalities” or “sacrifice” and it is through his identifying of such patterns of sacrifice that Pahl assigns religiosity to “age-based domination, racism, gender discrimination, and land grabbing” (3). However, here again the explanatory force seems to be partial since these forms of structural and cultural violence just enumerated are not unique to the American case. A scrutiny of orientalism and Judeo-Christo-centrism, for instance, it seems to me, will need to be worked into the analysis in order to explain the authorizing discourses of the American empire.

[9] Additionally, while importantly broadening the scope of the meanings of violence (in a manner that coheres with similar efforts in conflict and peace research) alluding to post-colonial critical theory, Pahl remains beholden to theoretical framing that underscores the special qualities of “religious” violence (see his allusion to Mark Juergensmeyer’s own Girardian approach to “performative violence”, p.31) as supposedly distinct from other “secular” modalities of violence. This reliance on the Girardian frame (with some allusions to David Carrasco’s work on sacrifice) does not anticipate critics such as theologian William Cavanaugh (The Myth of Religious Violence, Oxford University Press 2009) who, by selectively deploying Talal Asad’s genealogical footwork, illuminates how authorizing secular and rational western violence is predicated on a presumption that such rational and secular violence combats the irrational religious violence (supposedly primarily manifested by Muslims) around the world or religious voices at home who threaten to subvert the rules of liberal civility. Consequently, Cavanaugh argues that the assumption of a categorical difference between secular and religious violence does not sustain a historicist critique. Pahl’s focus on the special qualities of “religious violence,” therefore, is revealing of his constructive aspiration for a more “authentic” religiosity, one that by a Girardian design functions to overcome violence—the “religion to end all religions.” Pahl’s aspiration for recovering a more “authentic” religion is vulnerable to the same kind of critique that exposes Girard’s own Christo-centric assumptions and the universalizing violence associated with such assumptions.

[10] Pahl’s thesis and deciphering of cultural artifacts and of the interlacing historical moments of American blessed brutalities (excluding the genocide against native Americans) indeed effectively argues for the need to debunk the “elective affinities” between religious and violent discourses as they manifest on the various sites of sacrifice: youth, race (slavery), gender, and human (the execution of Quakers). Such a debunking, he argues, will then delink the connection between religion and violence and enable embracing the nonviolent authenticity of religions. “Religions,” Pahl exclaims in a Girardian fashion, “exist in order to end violence” (p. 175). I am attentive to this last point concerning the potential constructive role of religion (as embodied in religious people) in contesting, renegotiating, and transforming the interlocking modalities of subnational and global violence. However, Pahl’s envisioning of “disestablishment of religion and flourishing of religious liberty that allows religions to communicate effectively those deepest truths and purest practices aimed at eliminating violence” (ibid) relies on the tradition of political liberal theory as evident from his concluding quote from Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” Being authentically “religious” therefore carries particular political designs and assumptions about personhood and cognition that are rooted within particular intra-Christian and Euro-American histories and are thus implicated in various forms of structural, cultural, and direct violence that likewise should be the subject of scrutiny.

[11] Hence, Pahl’s gesturing toward a sequel that will engage the constructive and peace-seeking dimensions of religion as one entailing overcoming the sacrificial motif will have to devote a sustained analysis of and engagement with R. Scott Appleby’s work on religion, conflict, and peacebuilding. In the same way that Pahl’s deployment of Asad’s critique is a partial one, so is his engagement with Appleby’s work. In the present book, Pahl critiques Appleby for an overly psychological theorizing of religious violence (p.144). Citing passages to this effect, and without contextualizing them within Appleby’s broader thesis in the Ambivalence of the Sacred (Rowan & Littlefield: 2000), leads him to conclude that Appleby’s observation of religious militancy as entailing a form of “ecstatic asceticism” is too generic of an observation unaware “that this pattern might have a very peculiar cultural origin” (p. 144). Incidentally, a similar critique can be directed at Pahl’s analysis in that it identifies ubiquitous sacrificial patterns that can be found everywhere, regardless of national cultural specificity, and yet asserting a uniquely American focused argument, without attending to the religio-cultural specificity of his own Girardian lens or to the religious particularities of the American case. Pahl’s critique of Appleby is puzzling especially considering Pahl’s affirmation of a revised Eliadean perspective (p.24), which, of course, is also located in the intellectual/theological lineage of Rudolph Otto who offers a theoretical background for Appleby’s thesis of the ambivalence of the scared. It is further curious that Pahl considers Appleby’s writing on violent religious militancy without engaging the analytic framing that compares and contrasts violent and nonviolent religious militancy within specific historical and conflictual contexts and with a definitional focus on the internal pluralities of religious traditions and how such pluralities play out on a case by case basis. Indeed, Pahl’s path toward conceptualizing religion and peace does not need to travel necessarily through a Girardian paradigm.

Atalia Omer

Atalia Omer is Assistant Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN. She is the author of When Peace Is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism and Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).