Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Jerusalem“Jerusalem, Jerusalem´ was the outcry of Jeremiah in his Lamentations, and of Jesus when he was rejected by the leadership in in the holy city. James Carroll’s searingly excellent book of this title is an extension of this outcry with historical, theological and spiritual depth.

This book is not so much a history of Jerusalem as a history of the idea of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the imagination. The history of the city itself, of course is deeply affected by the ideas and imagination projected on it, almost always to its detriment. Jerusalem is an image of the ideal, the perfect city and yet this great ideal has shed more blood than could fill an ocean and at the present day the ideal threatens the survival of humanity and the planet we live on. How can this be?

Carroll finds the groundwork for an answer to this troubling question in the thought of René Girard. The anthropological insights into mimetic desire and the resulting rivalry often arising from it is most apt a framework for working through the troubled history of the city on the hill. Carroll’s introduction of Girard’s thought is concise, pointed, and highly insightful even for those familiar with Girard’s thought. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

The sacrifice of Isaac, imagined to have been nearly committed on the rock where the temple was later built, is another underlying motif of the book and is a powerful illustration of how God’ revelation of peace and love gets twisted towards violence. A story that almost certainly was intended to reveal the wrongness of human sacrifice got twisted to praising the obedience of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son which then lead humanity to be willing to sacrifice its children, not just “half the seed of Europe” but at least half the seed of the whole world, “one by one” in the words of Wilfred Owen’s powerful poem on this story. (See Abraham out on Highway 61.)

The Jerusalem of the imagination is narrated through the Jewish establishment of the city as the capital of Judah, a city that became loved when it was lost during the Babylonian exile. It is the city where Jesus ended his preaching ministry and died under the Roman authorities. It is the city the first Moslems wanted because of their share in the tradition of Abraham and the prophets. It is the city that swirled through the Christian imagination, spurring a virulent anti-Semitism that reached its climax in the Shoah. Jerusalem inspired the crusading ideal that lead millions of soldiers and civilians to their deaths. The Battle Hymn of the Republic powerfully sings this violent ideal of the crusade in its purple poetry and Hubert Parry’s noble hymn tune gives force to the ideal of conquering the holy city anew.

It is not possible to do justice to the scope and depth of this book. Anyone interested in religious studies, theology, history, human culture and almost anything else would do well to give the reading of this book a high priority and to read it slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. I do not agree with quite every detail in Carroll’s analysis. Some of his interpretations of the New Testament seem to confuse the content with its reception history, although his analyses of the reception history is fully accurate. The overall thrust is highly compelling and will give every reader, whether Jewish, Christian, Moslem, atheist, or anything else a stiff challenge to one’s thinking, imagination, and relationship to violence, most especially supposedly “noble,” “redemptive” violence.

Abraham out on Highway 61

sideAltarsIcons1The near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, the Father of Faith, is the most troubling of stories. It should be. Chaim Potok’s young protagonist Asher Lev remembers the shiver he felt when he first heard the story. What is most troubling is the suspicion that Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice his son. But was he? Jeremiah says Yahweh denounced the sacrifice of children, saying “that such a thing had never entered my mind.” (Jer. 19:5) Perhaps we are right to be troubled by any notion that Abraham was right to even let the idea enter his mind and even more troubled by any thought it ever entered into God’s mind.

Bob Dylan makes a bitter burlesque of the story in his song “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “god” who requires the sacrifice is a bully, warning Abraham that if he doesn’t comply: “Next time you see me, you’d better run.” To the question: “Where do you want to see this killing done? God said out on Highway 61”, the place for “a thousand telephones that don’t ring” and where to “put some bleachers out in the sun” to stage the start of the next world war. As with so many Dylan songs, the imagery reveals a society filled with mimetic rivalry and victimization where sacrifice and war become a spectator sport.

Soren Kierkegaard’s searing Fear and Trembling is at least as troubling as the biblical story. SK’s category of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” raises fears that the author celebrates Abraham’s willingness to do the deed. (What the fancy phrase means is: anything at all God says to do is right—end of story.) However, this troublesome category is coupled with what SK called “infinite resignation.” This is what Abraham had when he was willing to kill his son by God’s command. However, infinite resignation falls far short of faith and faith is what the biblical story and SK’s book is all about. Faith is receiving back what is given with infinite resignation “by virtue of the absurd.” Still troubled?

The most clear and piercing critique of this “infinite resignation” I know of comes in the powerful poem retelling this story by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Abraham builds parapets and trenches around the wood, suggesting the sacrifice of sons sent off to the war. But when the angel of the Lord admonishes Abraham to “slay the ram of pride instead of him . . . the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” This poet, one of many young victims of the war, and the creator of the bitter irony that poets like Bob Dylan use so well, has revealed once and for all the sacrificial horror of “infinite resignation.” That is, anyone infinitely resigned to sacrifice oneself without faith and will also sacrifice others, especially one’s own children, also without faith.

The typological interpretation of the story where it stands for God the Father’s being willing to sacrifice His only begotten son is also troubling. But Jesus did not go to the cross with infinite resignation. Rather, by “virtue of the absurd,” he believed that God, being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) St. Paul says we are saved by the faith of Christ, the faith that, on the cross, embraced not death, but the life of his heavenly father. The virtuous absurd, then, is the ecstatic embrace of God’s love so filled with life that there is no room for death for anybody.