An Unrighteous Cause: How the radicalization of faith has become a cultural poison for America
With armed militia groups trying to take down our democracy, from January 6th to invading state capitols, things seem bad, maybe even Civil War bad. But if they hook up with the Christian right, with one small change to their ideology, we could be plunged into a hellscape right out of the tenth century.
There is a thin line between what we call “civilization” and the kind of grim barbarism created by ISIS, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda. That line is defined by a single and simple tweak of a culture and its main religion’s primary story-line with a variation that, from time to time, infects human cultures.
Societies that believe one gets to heaven by doing good works define the baseline for today’s “civilized” cultures. But the one characteristic of barbarous cultures, consistent across the ages, is the belief that the surest path to forgiveness of sins and instant entry into heaven is to die while killing others in a “righteous” cause.
We all recall how, after 9/11, followers of Al Qaeda’s founder Osama Bin Laden were ridiculed for believing that there’d be “72 virgins” waiting for them when they reached heaven, as if this were some sort of weird, anomalous belief unique to Bin Laden’s sect. And, within modern Islam, it is both weird and anomalous.
But throughout recorded history, this single difference in one of the many stories that make up cultures and their religions is the defining line between civilization and barbarity. Multiple cultures, at multiple times (including western culture) have embraced the idea that dying in battle is the instant route to heaven. Every culture that embraces this belief turns monstrous until the story is purged.
If the hard-right fringe in American and European culture adopts this belief, western civilization will face its most serious and historic challenge. And we may be closer to that dystopian possibility than most people realize. Recently I have been reminded of this since Louise and I binge-watched Vikings, a dramatic series originally produced for the History Channel of Canada that begins with the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, a famous Norwegian raider who terrorized Europe – and even seized Paris – in the 9th century.
As the series moves through its mid and later years – keeping in mind this is a violent drama, heavily fictionalized and based on more legend than history; these times predate Gutenberg by half a millennium, it begins to delve deeply into the differences between the Catholicism of that day and the “Pagan” religion of the Vikings.
The most notable difference is that at that time the Vikings believed the highest parts of heaven — Valhalla, where one would spend eternity with the Gods — were reserved exclusively for warriors who died in battle, transported to Valhalla instantaneously upon death. Additionally, the highest value one could attain in life was to become a “legend” about whom stories would be told for generations to come. Particularly legends about ones’ battles and death.
It made them formidable enemies on the battlefield. Just a bit over a century later, Pope Gregory VII inserted this meme into that era’s Christianity to encourage his warriors in the first Crusade to Jerusalem (1095-1099); subsequent popes continued the tradition for several centuries, promising remission of sins and an instant pass to heaven for any who died in battle “on behalf of Christ.”
On November 27, 1095 Pope Urban gave one of history’s most famous speeches to the Council of Clermont in France, calling for a holy war against Islam to unite factious Europe:
“God himself will lead them,” the Holy Father proclaimed, “for they will be doing His work. There will be absolution and remission of sins for all who die in the service of Christ. Here they are poor and miserable sinners; there they will be rich and happy.”
The result, as I wrote in a 2002 essay for the 9/11 anthology From The Ashes: A Spiritual Response to the Attack on America, was a group of Christian warriors willing to use the most extraordinary brutality to take on any foe. Medieval historian Raymond of Agiles wrote an eyewitness account of the attack and seizure of Jerusalem in 1099 by the triumphant Crusaders:
“Some of our men cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses.
“But these were small matters compared to what happened at the temple of Solomon, a place where religious services ware ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.”
This is part of the reason they called that time in history the “Dark Ages.” Life was incredibly grim, and brutality was the first response to conflict, be it legal, political or ecclesiastic.
The power of this “honorable death in battle” meme wasn’t limited to western culture. When my dad volunteered to defend the free world in World War II, the most feared enemy facing the Allies’ Pacific Fleet were Japan’s Kamikaze pilots, steeped in the Bushido code of the ancient Samurai and revived by the Emperor in 1944 as a last-ditch effort to win the war.
The Kamikaze pilots knew that if they died by crashing their plane into the deck of an American ship they’d be immediately transported to paradise.
All three of the world’s monotheistic religions have, at various times, taught that if their adherents died in righteous battle they’d go directly to heaven (read the Book of Joshua for example). In each case when this belief was predominant, a type of warrior mentality arose that was nearly impossible to defeat and retarded the forward march of culture.
There is nothing more powerful than a warrior who doesn’t fear dying but instead lives in anticipation of a “good death” on the battlefield. So far, Trump’s well-armed shock troops — the white supremacist “militias” the FBI has labeled as domestic terrorists — are only fighting for their vision of an apartheid white-power ethnostate, as laid out in their holy book The Turner Diaries and on websites like Stormfront.
They hate people of color, are wary of women in power like Nancy Pelosi and consider themselves superior to every other race; but they’re still generally unwilling to go to prison or die for their cause. But if a modern-day Christian version of Bin Laden — a wealthy, charismatic leader who has such religious magnetism that he can change heaven-and-hell stories back to where Christianity was in 1100 — rises in our country, everything changes.
Imagine if ISIS with their pickup trucks, semiautomatic weapons and giant flags were to take over America, beheading “blasphemers” and political enemies while setting up kangaroo courts based on their reading of scripture. Only this time the “ISIS” folks claimed Christianity and the Bible as their justification for violence and political power.
We’re moving in this direction. Folks adhering to a slightly softer version of this ideology are, Lawrence Wilkerson writes, already pushing the edge of hardcore fundamentalist ideology into our military.
Rightwing pastors who today are merely encouraging people to expose themselves to COVID and die would instead, if this meme became widespread, encourage people to die on the “battlefield” of America in actual combat. Even armed civilians with military training would find it difficult to fight against people intoxicated by such an ideology.
We think it can never happen here in America, but we came close once before: in the 1600s when “witches” and other uppity women were tortured and killed by religious leaders across Massachusetts and any man who dared oppose them faced brutal violence. Its close cousin, religion-wise, also played out in the religious justification for the brutality of slavery, slaughter of Native Americans and a century of Jim Crow. Violent racism and patriarchy are breeding grounds for this kind of ideology.
And now the Moonies are talking about “a good way to die” fighting for fascism. In a more modern incarnation, those who “give their lives” for the cause would become martyrs, venerated and even one day prayed to. We’re already seeing an attempt to get us there, as NBC News notes with the headline: Trump makes Ashli Babbitt, killed in the Capitol riot, into a martyr. Why that’s so dangerous.
Some argue the “mass killings” that are so unique to America — young white men wanting to die and take others with them just to produce a “legend” about themselves — are an early warning of the kind of cultural collapse this ideology could produce in its early stages.
And Business Insider notes how violence as a solution to political problems is now embraced by about half of America’s Republicans:
“Less than a year after a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol, nearly half of Republican voters (47%) say that ‘a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands,’ per a new nationwide survey by George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. …
“The poll also found that a majority of Republicans (55%) say ‘the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast we may have to use force to save it.’”
Meanwhile, the radical right pastors have found their “demons” — liberals. Pastor Greg Locke comes right out and calls progressives “crack-smoking, demon-possessed leftists.”
Qanon has built an entire pseudo-Christian Protocols of the Elders of Zion-like mythology around plain, vanilla Democrats like Hillary Clinton “drinking the blood of white children.” The venom they direct at genuine progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad is even more severe, including frequent death threats.
This is cultural poison, and hard-right billionaires and wealthy foundations are pouring hundreds of millions into promoting politicians like Donald Trump who are aligned with or near to it.
Here in America on 9/11 we saw the outcome of Bin Laden’s religious sect infected with that ultimate belief that death in battle takes you straight to heaven. It was an early warning. If that meme jumps into hard-right Christianity and then gets exploited by political demagogues, all bets are off.
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as A Warrior’s Instant Pass to Heaven Would be Cultural Poison for America
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