Call for a Reviewer: Dying for a Sacred Ideal

Dear Colleague,

As the Twentieth Century drew to a close, it seemed we had reached the end of history and that John Lennon’s prophecy of “nothing to kill and die for” was coming true. September 11, 2001, reminded us that some groups continue to embrace dying and killing in the name of a political idea.

Many reacted to the suicide bombings with shock and amazement—as if such happenings were unique in the annals of human history. Mark S. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country reminds us that sacrificial dying and killing is not foreign to American culture.

Schantz seeks to understand the Civil War, a momentous struggle that took the lives of 623,026 human beings and resulted in 1,084,453 casualties. Battles often took the form of organized massacre—men advancing to their deaths through close rifle fire. “Suicidal charges,” Schantz says, “punctuated the war from start to finish.” Men slaughtered each other with a zeal we “still grope to comprehend.”

The focus of Awaiting the Heavenly Country is Schantz’s hypothesis that it was religious values—Americans’ idea of heaven—that allowed the carnage to continue for four years (1861-1865). Americans who came to fight the Civil War, Schantz says, believed that a “heavenly eternity of transcendent beauty awaited them beyond the grave.”

This idea of heaven, according to Schantz, was not an “ethereal, dreamy state of the soul or a billowy universe of specified dimensions.” Rather, Americans conceived of paradise as a material place—a land in which the dead would be resurrected: “Individual bodies and souls would be perfected and the relations of family friendship restored.”

Schantz cites an 1857 book by Sarah Gould, The Guardian Angels, or Friends in Heaven. “We believe paradise to be our fatherland,” Gould wrote. “Why should we not haste and fly to see our home and greet our parents.” In heaven, she insisted, the departed would find “the glorious choir of the Apostles” and the “innumerable company of the martyrs, crowned on account of their victories in the conflict of suffering.”

If this sounds familiar, it is not because we are conversant with 19th Century Christian culture. Rather, the vision of heaven that Schantz conveys bears a striking similarity to the idea of paradise that allows Jihadists to kill and to sacrifice their lives:

Qur’an (9:111) – “Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth.”

Qur’an (3:169-170) – “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord; They rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah: And with regard to those left behind, who have not yet joined them (in their bliss), the (Martyrs) glory in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they (cause to) grieve.”

Those who fight for the cause of Allah—who slay and are slain—are not dead. Rather, martyrs find sustenance and bliss in the garden of Paradise.

Schantz comments briefly on the relationship between Civil War soldiers and Islamic jihadists, asking us to think about how ideas of a heavenly paradise “fold into the political behavior of suicide bombers in various parts of the world.” This contemporary example illuminates Schantz’s study of the Civil War, showing how “ethereal assumptions about the nature of eternity can influence the nitty-gritty world of politics.”

Michael Vlahos develops this idea more deeply in Fighting Identity. Citing a paper by Samuel Watson, Vlahos discusses the battle motivation and behavior of Southern soldiers:

At Fredericksburg some felt that they were “almost in heaven, and could hardly suppress their exultant religious shouts amid the loudest roar and din of the conflict…and the palpable peril of their own lives.” Upon receiving a wound, one man was virtually blinded by faith: “I was not only unafraid to die, but death seemed to me a welcome messenger. Immediately there came over my soul such a burst of the glories of heaven, such a foretaste of its joys, as I have never before experienced. The New Jerusalem seemed to rise before me. I was totally unconscious of any tie that bound me to earth.”

Vlahos poses a question about the relationship between these Civil War soldiers and Islamic radicals: “Was their sacrifice so different from Taliban who ambush American soldiers? Are they not armed as well with the sure foreknowledge of their death?” He concludes that the nonstate actors we face—the terrorists, insurgents and radicals—”fight and die like those men in blue and gray at Fredericksburg.”

Writing about suicide terrorism in the New York Review of Books, Christian Caryl observes that the “ethos of wartime heroism is perhaps not all that different from the forces that drive the suicide bomber.” In the Western World, the greatest hero is the soldier who has “died for his country.”

One can say “dying for Allah” or “dying for one’s country.” The object or entity in the name of which the individual sacrifices his or her life differs, but perhaps the dynamic is the same.

We find it difficult to understand sacrificial death in the name of an ideal that we do not embrace (e.g., “Allah”), but do not find it difficult to understand sacrificial dying in the name of our own ideal (e.g., “preserving the union”). The behavior of suicide bombers is sometimes described as incomprehensible. Yet we embrace and valorize the Civil War with its suicidal attacks (even though the magnitude of slaughter was far, far greater).

One may posit a “law of sacrifice”: an ideal becomes real to the extent that the members of a society are willking to kill and die for it. Sacrificial death functions to validate or verify an idea: that for which we die and kill is true.

We invite reviewers to begin with Schantz’s text—and then to interrogate the theme of the relationship between collective forms of violence and devotion to a sacred ideal.

Please join us in our project investigating the psychic and cultural roots of societal violence.

Best regards,
Richard Koenigsberg