Violence, in its most basic form, is to be blamed on evolution. Not the theory of evolution, but the fact of it. More precisely, violence is a reflex of the struggle for existence. To live animals have to eat and to eat, many have evolved to kill. While violence is endemic in the world, it isn’t so rampant that species overkill their own kind. That’s rather rare, actually. Human beings have engaged in violence against one another for our entire history, and it is only within the last century or so that we’ve made any concerted efforts to stop violence against those who are different than ourselves. Among the impulses both advocating and quelling violence is religion. Bruce Chilton’s important study, Abraham’s Curse, scours the monotheistic family tree for information on why all three major Abrahamic faiths advocate martyrdom. Or more disturbingly, why they insist on sacrifice, even of our own species.
Chilton begins with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Akedah—the binding—or near-sacrifice of the beloved son. Since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share this story, and since it sets the tone of a God who seemingly demands human sacrifice, Chilton explores its implications and possible origins in sacred violence. Sacrifice predates any written records, although, as Abraham’s Curse points out, it became an established fixture in urban culture when temples began to play an important role in ancient society. No one knows why we sacrifice. By the time writing came along, it was already an established part of the picture. When the book of Genesis was penned, the story of the binding of Isaac became sacred scripture. Even in the earliest days of biblical interpretation scholars puzzled over what was going on here and its chilling implications. God, after all, comes up with the idea that Abraham should be tested with the cruelest of tests. Although the Bible isn’t explicit on the point, Abraham and Isaac never appear together again after the incident until Abraham is safely dead.
Building on this common story, Chilton takes the reader through the stories of the Maccabees where Judaism develops the concept of martyrdom, through Christianity where some actually begged for it early on, and into Islam, which still practices animal sacrifice. The idea that it is noble to lay down your life, and worse, the lives of others, points to a guilty Abraham who is a paradigm of faith. An Anglican priest, Chilton is no angry atheist. He does not, however, pull any punches. If monotheistic traditions gave us a violent heritage, they can also work to dismantle it. Ironically, it is when religions are in the ascendent that they exercise their power to perpetrate violence. All three major monotheistic religions officially advocate peace and justice. But somewhere in our deepest human experience, we know what it is to feel hunger and what an opportunistic animal does about it. Abraham’s Curse does offer solutions, however, if only we could get human beings to put down their spears and read.