Lessons from a History of Religious Violence

More violence in the Middle East. More land and lives lost. The sudden rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (al-Sham), or ISIS, has left most of the world terrified and baffled as to how to stop the seemingly unprecedented ascent of this very violent religious group.

But ISIS’s ascent is not entirely unprecedented. In fact, humankind has experienced religious violence time and time again, and history may be able to teach us a thing or two, says Christine Shepardson, Lindsay Young Professor in the Department of Religious Studies.

shepardsonShepardson has traveled the globe, including areas which have since become ISIS territory in Syria, to study early Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean. Her research began with investigation into the confluence of piety and politics in the fourth-century Christian church and led her to publish two books. She’s now working on a third book, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), to examine fifth- and sixth-century splits within the early Church. Her current research focuses on Syrian Orthodox Christians and seeks to understand how this minority group was able to survive despite persecution by government and church leaders. The lessons she is learning may well have implications for religious violence plaguing our world today.

The Syrian Orthodox Church separated from the imperially sanctioned church of the Roman Empire following the politicized religious controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries. In the decades that followed, the small religious group often found itself the subject of persecution. Religious leaders were kidnapped and killed. Politicians sided against them. Yet, this group survived. Even today, these Christians are sometimes seen on the news as the latest ISIS victims. How are they still here despite all the bloody odds?

Shepardson, a 2016-2017 NEH fellow, a 2009-2010 American Council of Learned Societies Fellow, and a 2008 American Philosophical Society Franklin Research Grant recipient, has an idea. Searching for clues in religious manuscripts that she translates from Syriac or Greek, she has found that minority Christian groups are often able to survive by drawing on an early history of martyrdom. Identifying their current suffering with these early martyrs creates a strong sense of legitimacy and community identity.

“We see this language of martyrdom time and time again throughout Christian history,” said Shepardson. “It draws these groups together by saying that ‘we are the true people of God and we need to stand up for our traditions even if we are persecuted’.”

Shepardson’s hope is that by looking at a historical case of religious violence in the Middle East, we can learn something about the process by which religious minority groups are able to splinter into new groups, and what strategies they use to survive—whether they are the perpetrators of violence or its victims.

ISIS, for example, is a small minority group within Sunni Islam. They use violence against others, but they also use violence committed against them as evidence that they are suffering for God and defending religious truth.

“By looking at the historical example of sixth-century Christianity, we can get a sense of what kind of propaganda leaders use to persuade people to persevere through violence, and sometimes also to justify its use against others,” explained Shepardson.

Shepardson theorizes that better understanding religious conflicts in the Middle East in the sixth century might offer one more tool to try to understand, predict, and intervene in religious conflicts in the same regions today. She enjoys sharing her knowledge of early Christian history with the public, often speaking at senior centers, churches, and synagogues. To her, a large part of the pleasure of being a professor is being able to share what she has learned.

“The purpose of a land-grant institution like UT is to give back to the community. As a humanities professor, one important thing I can give back is some of the ideas and knowledge from my research, in the hope of giving people new questions to think about, new ways of seeing old problems, and new information that might help them make the choices they face in the world,” she said.

Shepardson became interested in studying the history of Christianity while an undergraduate student at a college whose community was much more diverse than her small hometown. She grew fascinated by how many different ways people interpreted Christian scripture to justify ideas on all points of the religious and political spectrum. Today, she aims for her students to have the same exposure that she had to a variety of interpretations and ideas.

“I love teaching early Christianity, especially in this part of the country, the Bible belt. There is so much passion about religion here,” she said. “Often the historical information I teach is new to my students, whether they’re Christian or not, and that always leads to interesting questions and good discussions, especially if that information at first seems at odds with other things they have heard.”

Shepardson aims for her students to leave her classroom empowered to ask their own questions and gather their own information about whatever it is in the material that catches their interest. Because, from her experience and research, a lesson in history can be a very powerful thing.