I am grateful to Bill Cavanaugh for taking the time to respond to my blog post of two weeks ago, “Modernity Criticism and the Question of Violence,” and giving me the opportunity to clarify better the nature of my criticisms. Clearly such clarification is in order, as Cavanaugh’s response seems to have struck off in something of the wrong direction, defending theses that were not really under challenge. If I may adapt the opening from his post, Cavanaugh’s response would raise significant difficulties for the thesis of my critique if (1) the argument of that critique were directed against The Myth of Religious Violence and (2) my purpose was to endorse Steven Pinker’s triumphalist progressivism. The first of these premises is false, and the second is highly questionable.
Brad Littlejohn’s blog entry here last week would raise significant difficulties for the thesis of my book The Myth of Religious Violence if 1) the argument of that book is that modernity is more violent than previous epochs and 2) Steven Pinker has proven that modernity is in fact less violent than previous epochs. However, the first of these premises is false, and the second is highly questionable.
Debates over the virtue or vice of modern liberal political arrangements often boil down to narratives about violence, whether we are speaking of violence in its literal sense, or in the more metaphorical use made so fashionable by postmodernism, namely, the attempt to erase or neutralize difference. According to the eulogists of liberalism, it rescued us from the darker ages of religious tyranny, in which zealots of orthodoxy used political power to enforce uniformity, and even to violently persecute dissenters.
We are the heirs of Elijah’s legacy. His influence is evident within later writings of the Bible, the Bible’s earliest commentators, and within the Bible-shaped parts of our own culture. But how might we assess our inheritance? Elijah is a hero of the covenant. Moses redivivus. A witness to God’s justice and mercy for those without power. And yet. . . Elijah’s legacy is also that of a “troubler” (1Kings 18:17-18). Although the prophet denied the title, the Jewish rabbinic tradition has not been afraid to name troubling features of his ministry. He seems more pre-occupied with his own difficulties than those of the people. He does not advocate for the Israelites. He uses violence.