July 3, 1997 The Chronicle of Higher Education, A15-16
An English Professor Explores the"Dark Side" of Monotheism
Regina Schwartz finds the seeds of future violence in the Bible
By Christopher Shea
Evanston, Ill. -- In a course on the Bible at Duke University, Regina Schwartz was talking about
Exodus, giving it the standard left-liberal twist: An oppressed people shake off the grip of Pharaoh,
endure hardships, and find fulfillment in a land of milk and honey.
She stressed how Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and liberation theologians working with
oppressed people in Latin America had drawn inspiration from the story. Then a student's hand shot
up, and his words cut through the warm feelings in the classroom:"What about the Canaanites?"
Even as God blesses the fruit of Jewish wombs and the fruit of their land, He orders the merciless
slaughter of the Israelites' enemies -- women and children included. God decrees that Canaanite idols
must be burned, their altars smashed, their groves burned. Any Israelite who dares to marry a
Canaanite will kindle His wrath.
Again and again in the Bible, Dr. Schwartz came to realize, one people's freedom is won at the
expense of another's.
This is what she calls the "dark side" of monotheism, which she relentlessly attacks in
The Curse of
Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism
(University of Chicago Press), her in-depth answer to the
student's question. One true god and one true people implies lots of untrue gods and infidels -- people
whose lives are rendered worthless.
"The Bible sets up a way of thinking about identity as us
them," Dr. Schwartz says, sitting in her
office at Northwestern University, where she moved two years ago."We came into existence at
someone else's expense, and that way of thinking about identity then pervades all kinds of secular
thinking about identity."
The legacy of the idea that there can be only one true people and one valid faith, she believes, is the
self-righteous slaughter in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, in Israel. All of these struggles -- often over
land, as in the Bible -- come down to a primal fight between the Israelites ("us," whoever we may be)