books
January 21, 2010

Empire of Sacrifice - The Religious Origins of American Violence
by Jon Pahl l New York University Press
Review by Jeremy Biles
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 15, Number 2)

The cover of Jon Pahl’s Empire of Sacrifice, at once alluring and lurid, bears the now iconic cruciform figure of an Abu Ghraib torture victim, here silhouetted within a crimson aura. Though the heart and hope of Pahl’s book is the idea that “religions exist in order to end violence,” Pahl is acutely — indeed painfully — aware that religion in America has, in sundry ways, produced and legitimated violence, often under a veil of righteous “innocence.” The figure on the book’s cover emblematizes the “blessed brutalities” Pahl seeks to expose and critique.

Pahl believes that “‘America’ has become an empire, and that empire is not innocent, even though many citizens of the United States seem to imagine that their nation has some sort of divine right to dominate that does not implicate Americans in anything that might deserve blame.” Though Pahl is surely not alone in making such an observation, his account reveals, with a balance of scholarly poise and engaged passion, previously overlooked religious origins of this presumed “divine” right.

Interwoven concepts of religion, empire, sacrifice, and “innocent domination” inform Pahl’s account. Synthesizing ideas from major scholars, the author stipulates a multifaceted definition of “religion” as a relational network of discourses, practices, and social structures “through which people construct, consolidate, regulate, and defend cultural power around projections of transcendent authority.” These projections “compress or condense” — and thereby channel — collective desire, toward the elimination of violence.

Though discharging desire may be the function of religion, projections of transcendent authority too often abet dangerous purposes. Sacrifices—“systemic exclusions, prejudices, or biases” in the form of “ritualized incantations or performances” — are frequently committed in the interest of authorizing and maintaining structures of power and oppression. Religion may legitimate exclusions through ritualized acts that appear to serve a transcendent good. “Innocent domination” refers to those instances in which religion sanctifies violence.

Patterns of innocent domination have produced an American “empire,” i.e., the “centralization of material resources around ‘American’ nationalism and its corporate extension and also . . . the way that ‘sacrifice’ has produced these centralizations by obscuring the operation of interests and exclusions, displacements, or violence involved in their execution as a policy.” While some may take issue with the characterization of America as an “empire,” this term proves to be a productive heuristic in the four case studies that follow.

Pahl’s first study investigates how American youth have been constructed as “abject objects suitable for ‘innocent’ sacrifice.” The “cinema of adolescence” — everything from Rebel Without a Cause to Scream — is part of an American cultural religion in which youth “eliminate violence by facing violence, ritually represented on a screen in ways that enlist youthful identification.” Under the aura of “innocent entertainment,” films promote “violence itself” as a transcendent authority, and thus help enable wartime “sacrifices” of youth on behalf of the nation.

Pahl turns his attention to race as another locus of sacrifice, offering a religious history of slavery in America. The category of “whiteness,” Pahl argues, is a construct that emerged alongside particular readings of scripture authorizing slavery in antebellum America. Pahl’s examination of Frederick Douglass is particularly engaging in its treatment of language, literacy, and gestures of violence in the context of American slaveholding religion. Pahl also examines the “bodily anxieties and obsessions in the religion of slavery” through a study of the way in which early 19th-century religious leader Jarena Lee “[embodied] power through religion.” He concludes with a reading of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X as a stimulant for imagining new and more just discourses, practices, and communities within and beyond America.

Contemporary problems also orient Pahl’s religious account of gender and the entrenchment of patriarchal power in America. Women, gays, and lesbians have historically been excluded from cultural participation through sexual ideologies sanctioning violence in the name of “purity” and “innocence.” The enshrining of heterosexual male normativity as a transcendent value has functioned toward eliminating “public expressions of gay and lesbian desire.” For example, today’s DOMA laws constitute a form of religious violence, “scapegoating” gays and lesbians, and thereby “consolidating cultural power by eliminating public recognition of their relationships.”

The final study centers on the Puritans of early America, with an examination of the ritual processes behind the execution of Quakers on the Boston Common. Here Pahl draws upon René Girard’s theory of sacrifice to illuminate how theses executions functioned to expel a “spiritual threat” to the Puritans as they undertook the building of a nation. In a startling but effective denouement to the chapter, Pahl compares the spectacular sacrifices of the Aztecs to the Boston executions, arguing that sacrifices have been used to establish economic order, maintain community boundaries, and exert political strength — functions comparable to those of capital punishment in contemporary America.

Empire of Sacrifice is a wide-ranging, amply detailed, and ethically intelligent book with clear political stakes. There are, to be sure, areas that would have benefitted from amplified discussion. For example, given the cover image, one might have expected a more sustained treatment of the war on terror; only the brief epilogue is dedicated to the subject. And further direct engagement with the contemporary discourse on American exceptionalism might have been in order for a volume so rightly and righteously obsessed with the hypocrisies behind this nation’s history of bloodshed and oppression.

But this is not to fault the present book so much as to express a hope for future work by Pahl, who seems abundantly equipped for providing religiously informed responses to these and other matters. In fact, this book closes with the promise of a follow-up volume, in which the author intends to develop a program for “a coming religious peace.” The diagnostic and critical achievement of Empire of Sacrifice, so worthwhile on its own, has thus laid groundwork for the constructive aims of a sequel.