Religious violence? The politics of a higher law

The graphic killings, captured on video and posted for the world to see, are horrific enough—and they only begin to tell the tale. The insurgent force known as ISIS, ISIL, or, as it now demands, the Islamic State has slaughtered more than a thousand civilians and practiced ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. Leaders of the Islamic State have justified these acts as part of the process of establishing what they have declared to be a caliphate, a political entity governed by a successor of the Prophet and ordered by Islamic law. In the name of this higher law, the Islamic State has committed acts of violence that seem to know no limit.

From crusaders to colonizers to bombers of abortion clinics to revolutionaries of many kinds, people who declare their loyalty to a higher law have been responsible for terrible violence. To justify their actions, they may appeal to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or other religious traditions or to traditions that are not usually identified as religious. What they share is a commitment to some code that stands above the established laws of the land.

This long history of violence has led many people to reject any kind of appeal to a higher law. Andrew Delbanco, a scholar of American literature and culture, criticizes what he calls the “abolitionist imagination” (in reference to some fervent 19th-century Americans’ effort to abolish slavery). “All holy wars,” he writes, “whether metaphoric or real, from left or from right, bespeak a zeal for combating sin, not tomorrow, not in due time, not, in Lincoln’s phrase, by putting it ‘in the course of ultimate extinction,’ but now.”