Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book sat on my (literal) shelf for several years, neglected and unread because the opening was of a brutal murder and I’m not into true crime as a genre.

True crime features in the book, but this is not a book about crime. Rather, it uses the Mormon religion as a window to explore religiosity in general, and the fundamentalist end of the religion spectrum in particular. The murder with which the book begins was horrendous, and the journey of the murderers from being ordinarily religious folk to the kind of people who slaughtered a mother and her fifteen-month-old infant in cold blood is used to frame an exploration of Mormonism, and fundamentalist Mormonism to frame violent faith. Much the same lessons could be applied to, say, the perpetrators of 9-11 or the excesses of Buddhist monks against the Rohingya people or Burma (Myanmar).

Mormonism is used because it is barely two centuries old, and its early days are thus more accessible than, for example, Buddhism or Judiasm. Older religions happened (or were revealed) so long ago that all we have to go on are religious texts that, although they are authoritative to true believers, are somewhere between myth and fairy tales to unbelievers. With Mormonism, historical records are available that tell the early history from unbelievers’ points of view. Those records have all the weaknesses of historical records everywhere in terms of completeness, and of the biases and prejudices of those who wrote them, but they tell a tale of Mormonism that is quite far from the smiling faces of its missionaries.

As such, I read the book not as being critical of Mormonism, but rather of the peculiar violence to which fundamentalist belief of any kind can lead. On this reading, I think the book meets its objectives well. It is well-written, thought-provoking, and very disturbing. It is, as the author states in his concluding remarks, about his own exploration of religion and how he can’t make the leap of faith that religion – and especially fundamentalism – requires.

The book was published 20 years ago, and what I find most frightening is that the transformation from frustration to anger to fundamentalist violence documented in Under the Banner is one that, to an outsider such as me, seems to be spreading across America and the world: the Trumpian sense of victimhood writ societally large. There is much in the press at the moment about Trump’s plans for a dictatorship. No dictator comes to power purely by the power of the sword, but rather by violence that rides on the back of anger that, once stoked, has no other means to vent. The moral of this book is that, while one does not have to be a fundamentalist to be angry, the belief that you’re acting on God’s command makes violence much more likely. As the curse goes, we live in interesting times.

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