The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

By Andrew R. Murphy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 24
The Transformation of Failure
and the Spiritualization
of Violence

Ian Reader


Introduction

On February 27, 2004, Asahara Shôkô,1 founder of the Japanese new religion Aum Shinrikyô, was sentenced to death for his role in Aum’s criminal activities, including the Tokyo subway attack of March 20, 1995 and the manufacture of chemical weapons for use in Aum’s “war” on its opponents. Asahara was, according to Aum, the ultimate liberated one (saishû gedatsusha), a saviour leading a cosmic struggle against the forces of evil in an apocalyptic end-time, though which the current materialistic civilization would end and an Aum-inspired spiritual age would dawn. As such, Asahara claimed the spiritual authority to kill those who opposed his “truth,” and as a way of “saving” them the “sin” of opposing Aum’s teachings.

From claiming the authority to kill others to being found guilty of murder and sentenced to death signified a dramatic fall, especially as it was evident to observers that Asahara had undergone a mental collapse since his arrest, with his erratic court behavior indicating a seeming incapacity to grasp what was going on around him. Asahara’s fall from savior to broken criminal was redolent with images of failure, and it is this theme – failure – and its role in Aum’s change from a peaceful religious movement claiming a mission to bring about a new spiritual age, into a violent apocalyptic group that I focus on here. This topic has not been given adequate focus in studies of religion and violence hitherto, at least in the context of new religious movements – movements that appear, as this chapter suggests, particularly prone to outbursts of violence as a response to failure.2 Some studies have touched on the issue, including studies of Aum by myself (Reader 2000a; 2000b) and Robert Lifton (1999), Davis’s (2000) study of Heaven’s Gate in California in March 1997, and studies of the Peoples Temple (Maaga 1998). More generally, Mark Galanter (1989: 98–116) has discussed how new movements that fail to convert those they proselytize can be destabilized as a result, and he cites the Peoples Temple, whose leader Jim Jones preached to over 50,000 people but only appears

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