Charity & Violence

We are often told either that religion is a force for good or that it is the cause of violence. But what if both were right? And what if religions can be so effective at promoting and funding violence because they are also a force for good?

Charity and Violence explores the social effect of religious charitable giving on the support and promotion of conflict by bringing together insights from the new economics of religion and from the history of religious practices. As anyone who follows the religious polemics of the Mediterranean basin will know, the Christian crusades of the 11th-14th centuries are not simply historical events. Rather, they function for many people as a founding narrative to justify and explain violence from all sides. Any theological discussion of the practices of charity will thus have to address this dark episode. These episodes also raise questions related to the economic behavior of religious persons and institutions. How were religious authorities guaranteeing the social trust money requires? How were religious communities forming bonds that guarded against defection? And in what ways did religious thought provide the rationale for the fungibility of money? These questions can only be properly addressed through detailed historical analysis of how the practices and discourse of almsgiving was ultimately subverted to fund and promote the crusades.

But this is no mere ‘medieval’ phenomenon. The promotion of charitable works as a strategy for funding and encouraging violence continued through early modernity into the 20th and 21st centuries. 

This research grows out of my work at UVA in the Initiative on Religion, Politics and Conflict. In Spring 2018 I will be teaching a course on this topic (see the God, Money and Terror Syllabus below). Beyond that I hope to formulate these thoughts into a monograph (see the Charity and Violence Description below).