Along with their swastikas borrowed from Nazi Germany, white supremacists marching in the U.S. and elsewhere have in recent years displayed crosses embellished with the Latin phrase “Deus Vult” – “God wills it.” Taken from the medieval crusades, the slogan’s misappropriation by today’s far right seeks to cloak violent ideology in religious justifications.
As a professor of medieval history, I know this phenomenon is nothing new. I have amassed an arsenal of examples of the holy violence that ancient and medieval people believed God encouraged them to commit. In my seminar on sacred violence, my students and I also consider modern instances of violence that gets sanctified even absent a religious frame.
The violence of yore
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God played the part of an authorizing agent, encouraging hurtful and aggressive acts. In the Bible, God demanded that Abraham show obedience by killing his son Isaac.
Moses followed God’s instructions in annihilating external enemies, such as when the pharoah’s army drowned in the Red Sea, and smashing internal dissent – for instance, by stoning to death a man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath, a day reserved for rest.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses’ successor Joshua followed God’s command in destroying the ancient city of Jericho, home to the Israelites’ enemies the Canaanites. Every man, woman and child was killed in the process.
Perpetrators of medieval violence similarly deemed God a co-conspirator. It was in 1095 that the crowd assembled in Clermont, modern-day France, shouted “God wills it” as they listened to Pope Urban II’s speech.
Even if shared by warmongers across centuries, the slogan in itself is not proof of divine motivations. The first waves of those who followed Urban’s call were motivated more by greed than heavenly zeal and never got around to retaking the Holy Land. Instead, they stole food and money in the German Rhineland, slaughtered Jews in Mainz and Cologne, then went back home.
Modern scholars recognize that many biblical, medieval and modern narratives of violence cloak human agency in divinizing propaganda. They have looked for explanations that make humans rather than God the chief agents of sanctimonious harm.
In his 1972 book “Violence and the Sacred,” French historian and philosopher René Girard observed that when a society’s sense of order breaks down, its leaders often look for a scapegoat, someone to blame. After harming or even executing the scapegoat, the society can create myths of atonement that sanctify social structures.
Even if Girard’s theory seems to fit some ancient God-centered societies – for example, the crucifixion of Jesus as an early Christian sacrificial atonement – better than modern secular ones, he made an important realization: Societies use violence to construct, renew and sanctify their self-image.
British anthropologist Mary Douglas explained sacred violence not as a tool for achieving social stability but as an outcome of the rules that separate good from bad, insiders from outsiders or pure from impure. Her formulation starts with the ancient Jewish text, the Torah, but it ends in insights about modernity.
Douglas uses the example of the ancient Israelites taking pork off the menu, making it a forbidden food. In prohibiting pork, they followed rules established in Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. Academics do not find convincing the diverse religious, biomedical and other explanations for the prohibition. Some rabbinical and Talmudic scholars who agree that the rule seems arbitrary, fall back on the most straightforward of irrational justifications: “God says so.”
But Douglas suggested in her 1966 book “Purity and Danger” that the pork prohibition was not meant to explain the world. It was meant to divide. It is a boundary marker distinguishing Jews from Romans and others who consumed pork.
As Douglas saw it, societies, not gods, manage and distribute power through the rules and boundaries they make. Humans set the social limits and then determine which boundary transgressions will be sanctioned or punished.
On the face of it, aversion to pork may appear to have little to do with violence, but all boundary markers – especially those defending a holier-than-thou identity – imply violence against those who cross the boundaries.
Following Douglas’ insights, researchers have seen violence doing the work of protecting sanctified boundaries in many places and periods. For instance, in 14th-century Catalonia, where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in close proximity, the most dangerous boundary was sex. Miscegenation was often punished by death.
In 15th-century Valencia, slavery operated along religious lines – Christians could own Muslims as slaves but not other Christians, and vice versa. Slavery got racialized a few centuries later, when white Europeans and Americans sacrificed Christian teachings about love of others on the altar of economic and cultural advantage.
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By the end of the U.S. Civil War, after the 13th Amendment abolished legal slavery, white Southern elites established new boundaries and new ways to discriminate that had little to do with religious divides, since Christianity predominated among both white and Black Americans at that time.
In this way, all societies, whether ancient or modern, religious or secular, produce written and unwritten rules that wrap violence in a religious “How God wants things done” or secular “how we do things here” normalcy.
Today’s violence is tomorrow’s wrong
The news is not all bad. Individuals and societies can learn to shake their violent dispositions.
Violence that was once given biblical sanction – the kidnap of a woman, murder of a man or the annihilation of a community –- is now mostly condemned and punished as criminal behavior. Similarly, racism and other current forms of structural violence are under attack. Even beneficiaries of a racist past admit that it is no longer worth defending because the social costs have grown too high.
The biblical parable of the Good Samaritan is instructive here. In the story, a man is robbed and left at the side of the road, beaten and half-dead. Two members of the Jewish ruling elite deliberately ignore the man and walk past. Only the Samaritan, a member of a socially marginalized group, shows enough compassion to stop and give aid. Having felt the pain of social denigration, he sees what the others do not.
It is evident that societies can grow less violent, although slowness and reversals are common. But social change happens only when individuals take a few steps. The first is to refuse to ignore pain when it is in plain sight. Doing so helps to develop an awareness of the harm done by the sanctified status quo. The final step is to take a positive action, even a simple one, to make things better.