Two books on war, religion and evil

This column was published on the S-T editorial pages April 10, 2003.

by Greg Stone

War can be a lot uglier than you may think - and so can religion. That's the message from two new books which explore these topics and draw some shocking conclusions. Both play into the current environment of war talk mixed with religious talk from leaders as different as Osama bin Laden and George Bush.

"War is a Force that Gives us Meaning," is a book in which veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges explores how societies and individuals get trapped by the drug of war and end up doing things that are terrible beyond imagination. Hedges knows what he's talking about - he's spent plenty of time in the front lines of the ugliest little wars of the past couple of decades.

And religion can be a big factor leading to war, as Charles Kimball explains in "When Religion Becomes Evil." Kimball, too, speaks with authority. He is an ordained Baptist minister, aprofessor of religion at Wake Forest University, and lived and worked in the Middle East for many years, dealing with that over-heated political/religious environment.

Hedges hits his main theme in his introduction:

"I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years."

In a statement relevant to our own experiences after 9/11, he goes on to say that war

"is peddled by mythmakers - historians, war correspondents, filmakers, novelists, and the state - all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death.

"Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it's over."

That's saying a lot, but Hedges backs it up with specific events and comments drawn from covering wars in the Middle East, Balkans, and Central America for the New York Times and others.

From war to religion and back again

And while Hedges gives a grim, fascinating picture of the face of modern war as fought by many countries and guerilla groups, Kimball writes about that other fundamental force that drives so many, religion. Religion is often assumed to be "good" - in fact, the height of goodness. But as we have seen throughout history - and are seeing today in suicide bombers and the attacks of 9/11 - religion - all religions - can be turned to evil purposes. They can be used by the unscrupulous to mislead the frightened and unwary.

This is not a book that simply condemns the Islamic extremists. Rather it puts them in perspective, pointing out the extremists who have, from time to time, hidden under the mantle of many different faiths. This is a down-to-earth approach from someone who has seen the evil uses religion can be put to and feels there are five practical warning signs we all can use to tell us when religion is on its way to becoming evil.

Warning signs

These five warning signs of corruption in religion are:

1. Claims of absolute truth - such as this religion gives the one true path to God.

2. Blind obedience - do as the charismatic leaders say - don't think.

3. Establishing the "Ideal" time - such as, "the world is fast approaching a seventeen-year period of great tribulation during which Satan's forces will rule under the leadership of the Antichrist."

4. The End Justifies any Means - it's ok to kill if it's for the right ends

5. Declaring Holy War - in which he also explores the full meaning of the often misunderstood term, "Jihad."

Taken together, these two books gives us a penetrating look at our society and ourselves. It's not pretty, but in a day when the threat of nuclear weapons grows, when new weapons, capable of inflicting unimaginable horror may fall into the hands of small groups of religious-driven terrorists, war and religion are two subjects we can’t afford to ignore.

"War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning"
Chris Hedges, Public Affairs, 2002, $23

"When Religions Become Evil"
Charles Kimball, HarperCollins, 2002, $23.95

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