Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence

Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence, Jon Pahl

In this scholarly but generally readable monograph, Lutheran Theological Seminary professor Pahl traces the confluence of violence and religion in the United States. He argues with scholars who situate religious violence largely outside of American borders, claiming instead that it is a recurrent feature in the formation and development of the United States. Pahl emphasizes the ways in which, throughout U.S. history, the notion of sacrifice has rendered killing justifiable and even holy. Building on the work of theorists like René Girard and Mark Juergensmeyer, Pahl lays out four historical case studies—about youth, race, gender, and capital punishment—to develop his theory: Americans have found ways to consider blessed some rather brutal attitudes and behaviors… in patterns that are identifiably religious. His examination, in the epilogue, of the fusion of Christian symbols with military domination in the war on terror, while no longer a unique idea, is more extended and nuanced than most. Particularly helpful is Pahl’s term innocent domination, describing a cultural attitude that champions violent systems while remaining convinced of its own virtuous intent.

“A true achievement of Empire of Sacrifice is its untangling of the ‘blissful logic’ that preserves American virtue at all costs… Illuminating the cultural and religious assumptions that justify subtle and not-so-subtle forms of violence, this book invites a healthy self-critical stance on American civil religion and social practices. After reading Empire of Sacrifice, it is impossible to avert one’s eyes to the disturbing, complicated confluence of religion and violence in American culture.” Jennifer Beste, Xavier University “By uncovering the many ways Americans have misused religion to justify violence, Pahl holds up hope to end the histories of dead men walking. His work contributes to a more peaceful, forgiving, loving and just future for America.” Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking
“A true achievement of Empire of Sacrifice is its untangling of the ‘blissful logic’ that preserves American virtue at all costs. Illuminating the cultural and religious assumptions that justify subtle and not-so-subtle forms of violence, this book invites a healthy self-critical stance on American civil religion and social practices. After reading Empire of Sacrifice, it is impossible to avert one’s eyes to the disturbing, complicated confluence of religion and violence in American culture.”
– Jennifer Beste, Xavier University

“By uncovering the many ways Americans have misused religion to justify violence, Pahl holds up hope to end the histories of dead men walking. His work contributes to a more peaceful, forgiving, loving and just future for America.”
– Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking

“Pahl exquisitely illumines the pathway by which religion has made possible American empire and poignantly sketches those who have had to sacrifice to create the superpower we know today. Empire of Sacrifice is an admirable experiment in pulling back the curtain on the religious and cultural mechanisms that are often lost in what Pahl calls our national obsession with ‘innocent domination.’ His case studies are finely tuned windows into the ways in which religion has both abused and freed Americans along lines of gender, race, and class. This book acts as a clarion call for us to think twice when we are called upon to ‘sacrifice’ in the name of God—a strategy that all too often hides our violence in the cloak of religion.”
– James K. Wellman, Jr., author of Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest

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