- Sacred Violence in Early America by Susan Juster
Does religion inspire violence? In her new book, Sacred Violence in Early America, Susan Juster does not attempt to answer that question directly. Instead, she [End Page 820] analyzes evidence from dozens of early modern European and American writers that demonstrate the prevalence of words and stories that were often deployed to destroy some facet of the religious "other." This potent and destructive rhetoric, Juster argues, "formed and shaped behaviors that communities enforced on God's behalf." This study is thus a brilliant and jarring reminder that it was words—in the form of imagery and linguistic formulations—that promoted, celebrated, or justified violence in the name of faith were commonplace, and at times inspired action, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Juster focuses on four common tropes found repeated in religious texts: blood sacrifice, holy war, malediction, and iconoclasm. In the chapter on blood sacrifice, she describes the pervasiveness of violent religious imagery that even today shocks with its gruesomeness. Stories of decapitations and dismemberments, babies slaughtered in front of mothers pleading for mercy, and human body parts dangling on meat hooks and cooking over fires were commonplace in Protestant depictions of both martyrdom and Catholic New World conquest. Yet these descriptions of brutality were not always literal representations of actions or desires. Some, for example, were linked to a broader debate about Transubstantiation and what it meant to consume Christ in the Mass, thus highlighting a critical theological difference between Protestants and Catholics. In the chapter on holy war, Juster demonstrates how this rhetoric shaped the horrific violence against Native Americans that started chiefly in the 1640s and was brought to "truly astounding levels in the last third of the seventeenth century." Again, however, there was complexity, with Protestant thinkers disagreeing about whether God would truly want "His" people to take up arms against one another. Behind basic religious labels lay a much more complicated story of the limits of defense of faith.
One of the highlights of this book is the chapter on malediction—blasphemy or a "sin of the tongue," as described in the Catholic Encyclopedia—and the "word magic" that punished the blasphemer with grotesque (and at times, humorously ironic) physical afflictions of supernatural origin. Such fables of the "terrible power of words to wound" speak not only to historical circumstances but to contemporary ones as well. Yet the record of prosecutions for blasphemy illustrate another point: change was possible. For example, consider the years around the English Civil War, when groups like the Ranters reveled in profanity and challenged prevailing orthodoxies with abandon. The religious experimentation of these years eventually led to a loosening of blasphemy laws (the last execution for blasphemy took place in England in 1695). As Juster shrewdly notes, there was often a disconnect between the existence of these laws and their enforcement.
The final chapter, on iconoclasm, is a fascinating consideration of the targeted destruction of religious objects. Killing humans in God's name gave some early modern Christians pause. But "killing" their tools of worship—statues, books, or entire buildings—presented less of a moral conundrum. Iconoclasm was thus a "safe" outlet for the impulse to commit sacred violence. [End Page 821]
Sacred Violence in Early America is an intense and disturbing read, but Juster's beautiful and organized prose keeps the reader engaged. And the author strives to demarcate the world of rhetoric and the world of action. At times, however, a reader easily can lose track of that all-important line that separates historical events from violent fantasies. Readers looking for a chronological treatment of specific historical incidents influenced by religious factors will not find it here. But those who seek to answer different questions—of the expressed and creative violence of certain early modern religious ideas, of their pervasiveness in print culture, of common formulations of religious enemies—will not be disappointed.