Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A personal take on the Afghan War

As most of you on this blog know, I’m Indian by descent. A very Westernized and deracinated Indian, of course: I was born in the United States, raised in a family that spoke English far better than they spoke any Indian language, and without much Indian culture in an obvious sense. I never formally learned any Tamil, for one thing, though the ‘sound’ and ‘feel’ of the language is familiar to me and I can understand a little; nor was I raised a Hindu, nor was I deeply educated in Indian history. Nevertheless, my descent and my cultural roots sometimes have an effect on me, I think, in subtle ways that I might not be able to perceive at the time.

I was around 20 when the United States army entered Afghanistan, in response to the terrorist attack on New York, and began the long and bitter war that has occupied us for most of the last decade. I had just begun another semester at college when the call came from my mother at eight thirty or so in the morning, that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was just two days after the Lion of the Panjsher, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had been murdered by two Taliban agents posing as reporters, which gave the green light to Osama bin Laden to order the attacks on America, and thus to begin what many have already started referring to as the Third World War.

My reactions to that horrible day were probably the same as most Americans’ and I won’t belabour them here. When the United States went to war with Afghanistan, two months later, however, I found myself at odds with much of the undergraduate student community, and I’m still at odds with much of America’s youth today: and perhaps more interestingly, I found myself at odds- in a curious and strange way- with what I had previously believed. I’ve always, since I became old enough to read about politics and history, been bitterly opposed to most American foreign policy over the last two centuries. The Second World War, of course, was a noble cause to end all noble causes, and so was the Civil War: but our post-WW II history, and much of our dealings with our southern neighbours in the previous century, filled me with loathing or disgust. I saw- and I still do see- most of our Cold War policies in places like Vietnam, Greece, and Latin America as blatant and ugly power-plays, meant to defend the interests of the rich and powerful, and I was as incensed and ashamed by the United States interventions in Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic as by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Perhaps more so, since it was my country that had done them. I was deeply disgusted by America’s conduct during the Cold War, and almost equally so by the foreign policy of our first post-COld War president, the insufferably smarmy and sleazy Bill Clinton. Clinton put a liberal face on the quest for American hegemony, just as Reagan had put a conservative face on it, but I saw them as two heads of the same rotten coin, and I saw American power and international hegemony as ugly things, the sooner ended the better. Clinton’s intervention in Ecuador in 2000, to suppress a revolution there, struck me as just more of the same, nor was I particularly sympathetic to his interventions in Yugoslavia, or his support for globalized capitalism. If someone had told me in 1999 that within two years the basically soulless, meaningless and self-centered culture of late twentieth century America was to be ended, I would have been all for it.

Well, it ended, though not in a way any of us could have hoped for, or even foreseen. I did have a premonition that something terrible was going to happen: when my best friend at the time graduated in the summer of 2001 I remember walking with him around Boston, on a cool spring night, talking about this and that. I had just read St. Augustine’s ‘City of God’, as well as the Apocalypse of St. John, and though I wasn’t then a Christian, I was very struck by both of them; I had also taken a class on medieval Europe, and was struck by the similarities between Rome in its heyday, and America in our time. I said to my friend that I had a sense that something was about to break- this was in August 2001- and that soon America would face a calamity akin to that which Rome had faced in the fifth century, when Alaric and his Goths stood at the gates of the City on Seven Hills.

When the World Trade Center fell, and it became clear that the bearded villain in Afghanistan, who had previously run drug farms in the Sudan with the labour of Ugandan slave children, was responsible, my longstanding hostility and distrust of American capitalism and imperialism took a back seat. I am still as anti-capitalist as I ever have been, of course: but I began to feel, in the fall of 2001, that as much as I sympathized with the enemies of globalized capitalism in Latin America and in the Slavic world, the primary fight in our time wasn’t against capitalism. Not any more. In the 1960s it had been, just as it was against Fascism in the 1930s and against Stalin in the 1950s: but today it was, first and foremost, against the barbarians at the gates, the prophets of a new Caliphate, who would enslave us to the words of an epileptic camel driver, and drown the world in blood to do so. I got into some heated arguments in the fall of 2001, because in contrast to the generally pacifist sentiments on many college campuses, I was all for war with Afghanistan. I was driven largely by a mixture of fear and outrage, and I wanted the Taliban and their allies to pay for what they had done to us.

But there’s something more to it, I think. As I mentioned, I’m Indian by descent, though a fairly deracinated one: and to Indians, however deracinated or Westernized they may be, Afghanistan- the name itself- means something different than it means to most Americans. To most Americans, at least prior to 2001, Afghanistan was just a remote place with a funny sounding name: someplace impossibly far away. That was the genius- to Reagan’s mind and those of his allies- of funding the Mujahideen. They were on Russia’s doorstep, not ours: they were impossibly far away from ours. Whatever nasty elements might exist within the heart of Pashtun militancy, they weren’t our problem.

Of course, they were on India’s doorstep too, and there’s the rub. Throughout Indian history, for at least a thousand years, the name ‘Afghanistan’ has had a deep and chilling resonance. It means something like what ‘Assyria’ connoted to the Biblical Jews, or what ‘Norway’ connoted to European peasants of the tenth century. Afghanistan was a hidden, obscure land beyond the Khyber, veiled in the snow and clouds that form around the peaks of the mountains, full of green pastures and dry valleys: it was known for many things, including its apples, its almonds, its sheep and goats. But most of all it was known for one thing, that came out of Afghanistan with depressing regularity: vast hordes of men on horseback, heavily armed and deeply skilled in the arts of war, brimming with self-confidence and with the conviction that they, the descendants of the Tribes of Israel and the carriers of the banners of Allah the One, were entitled by right to all the land, gold, and political power that they could seize.

As it turned out, they could seize a hell of a lot. I don’t know a hell of a lot about the history of pre-Islamic Afghanistan, but I do know that beginning in the tenth century, when the new faith spread from the deserts of Arabia to the shepherds’ villages and almond groves of the Pashtunwali, the Pashtun- they are the dominant group in Afghanistan, and traditionally the two names were synonymous- they aquired a new driving spirit and thirst for conquest. No longer were they merely motivated by the lust for power and for gold: now, like the Spanish Conquistadores, they were motivated by the desire to spread the One True Faith, and to smack down the Hindu idolators. In wave after wave they came, one Afghan dynasty after another: often with one Afghan king supplanting another, and establishing a new dynasty: as the Ghor family overthrew the Ghaznavids, as the Slave Dynasty overthrew the Ghorids, as Babur of Kabul overthrew the previous Lodi dynasty, also of Afghan origin, that had held the City of Delhi. Over the fertile plains of the Gangetic Basin they established their power, and from the point of view of the long-suffering peasantry of the northern Indian plains, who struggled each year to raise enough wheat, rice and lentils to survive and pay their taxes, they brought a long dark night of tyranny. The stories of the Muslim invaders’ depredations became legion, and passed from the realm of history into that of folklore. You can read today the legends of Muhammed of Ghor, who was chivalrously released by his Rajput enemy Prithviraj, and repaid that chivalry by coming back in greater force, capturing Prithviraj, and gouging out his eyes. You can read the history of Muhammed of Ghazni, who slaughtered fifty thousand unarmed pilgrims at the temple of Somnath, so that the rivers ran red with blood and the water was undrinkable. You can read the memoirs of Tamerlane, Emir of Samarkand, who boasted of building a pyramid of human skulls outside Delhi, in the name of the One True God. You can read of how temples were razed to the ground and mosques built on their ruins, including by Babur himself. You can read of the mad Sultan Muhammed bin Tughluq of Delhi, who arbitrarily moved the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad and from Daulatabad back to Delhi two years later, causing immense death from thirst and famine both times. You can read of the opium-addicted, orgiastic Nawabs of Lucknow, and the fantastically kleptocratic Nizams of Hyderabad, both of whom initially won power in the name of the Mughal Emperors of Babur’s line. You can read of the massacres of Sikhs and Hindus, of the martyrdom of the Sikh Guru Arjun, who was roasted alive on a hot plate on the orders of the Mughal: of the usury with which the Afghans, Mughals, and other invaders exploited the peasantry: of how the poor were worked to death to profit the merchant and the moneylender. All this, and more, was the legacy of the invasions from beyond the mountains.

For the better part of a millennium the invasions came, again and again. One after another native Indian power, each of different cultural and ethnic origins, rose up to establish itself in the northwest of India, and each time they were forced to resist Afghan incursions and win the independence of their motherland. The Jats, the Chauhans, the Rajputs, the Marathas, one after another, fought to push back Afghan expansionism: sometimes ending in success, sometimes in defeat. Towards the closing days of the eighteenth century, an eighteen year old boy succeeded to the baronetcy of his late father in a small Punjabi fiefdom, and would eventually become the man who would resist the Afghan imperialism more successfully than any Indian leader ever had. This youth- handsome, self-confident, beloved by beautiful women, a brilliant military leader and a fearless knight, respected by his Afghan and British rivals as much as by his own people- was Ranjit Singh, the Misldar of Sukerchakia, and who was later to become (at the age of twenty) Maharaja of the Punjab.

The Sikhs, of which Ranjit Singh was one, were a minority in their own homeland of the Punjab, which was majority Muslim and had many Hindus as well. They had sat out the last series of wars, between the Afghans and the Maratha confederacy, waiting to see who would win, and when the Afghans won, it became clear that the next great rivalry would be between Sikhs and Afghans. In the event, Ranjit Singh unified most of the western Punjab, and defeated the Afghans, who a half century earlier had destroyed and defiled the Golden Temple, the holiest citadel of the Sikh faith. He drove them back to the borders of what would later become the Northwest Frontier, won back Kashmir from them, and for the first time seized part of the Pashtun homeland, the border city of Peshawar. (This might not have been such a good idea: when the British conquered his empire in 1849 they were stuck with the border he had established, and that’s why the Pashtuns today are divided between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has promoted destabilizing irredentist sentiment). Ranjit was famed throughout India, and is well spoken of today, not merely for his military prowess and the economic growth of the Punjab, but for his tolerance and ecumenicism. This was, after all, a Sikh king aided by a largely Hindu intellectual class, ruling over a mostly Muslim population, using Persian as their court language, and aided by British, American and Italian advisers. Unusually for the time, there was no religious persecution, nor forced conversion, nor discrimination under Ranjit’s rule.

No good ruler lasts forever, of course, and when they shuffle off the mortal coil there always comes the problem of succession. The Sikh Empire was a big prize: it contained some of India’s most fertile farmland, and stretched from the peaks of Tibet to the marches of Afghanistan, including what is now Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh as well as the western Indian Punjab and northern Pakistan (the easternmost parts of the Punjab were in the process of being absorbed into the British Empire). It had an immensely powerful army of sixty thousand, well trained and well armed, self governed by elected soldier’s councils, conscious of its own power; that army had fought the Chinese Empire to a standstill in Tibet, had successfully invaded the Afghan homeland, and not even the British wanted to mess with it. They had originated as a religious order, formed to resist Muslim persecution, and were inspired by religious fervor and the chivalric ethos as much as the Knights of the Crusades had been: their very name, ‘Khalsa’, meant “the Pure”, and was steeped in mystical meaning. Factional fighting ensued between various pretenders to the throne when Ranjit Singh died in 1839, none of whom lived long (the second successor, Nau Nihal Singh, reputedly died when a building suspiciously collapsed on him, and another queen was murdered in her bath). In 1845 the British went to war with the Sikh Army under the boy king Dalip Singh and his mother, Regent Jind Kaur (whose own drug-addicted brother had been assassinated by the army the previous year): they were outgunned and outnumbered, and some contend (I don’t know how accurately) that the British only won because the Sikh military commanders, distrustful of their own army, decided to turn traitor. The British took over part of the Sikh empire in that war, includeing the northern fastnesses of Kashmir, and in 1849 after the second Anglo-Sikh war, took over the rest: and they integrated the Sikh military into their own colonial army, to make a fearsome and powerful military force, that would stand loyal to the Crown in the rebellion of 1857 and, among others, help ensure the rebellion’s defeat.

The British were the next power to try intervening in Afghanistan: they had done so first in 1839, around the time Ranjit Singh died and the Punjab began sliding into disorder. They entered Afghanistan with an expeditionary army, to secure the country against Russian influence and prop up the unpopular Shuja Shah, and sat in Kabul for two years while the country became increasingly hostile to them, and as their own political agents were assassinated: in 1842 they left, and out of a party of over 15,000 British and Indian men, women and children, only a single survivor, the doctor, made it back to India. All the rest were either killed by Afghan tribal raids, or died from cold and the hardship of the journey. The British would fight two more wars against Afghanistan, but the country would resolutely maintain its independence: in 1979 the Soviets would try their hand, doing in the name of Socialism what the British had done in the name of capitalism and the Sikhs had done in the name of their faith, and again, like the British and Sikhs before them, would find Afghanistan too tough a nut to swallow.

This is the history between Afghanistan and India: a history of well-justified fear and resentment, on the part of India, towards their neighbour to the northwest. Perhaps this history plays a part in the way I have felt about the Afghan War since 2001. On the day that Osama bin Laden’s death was announced, I acted like I was happy since it seemed the thing to do: a wicked man had paid for his crimes. But in truth, I wasn’t sure what to think. It made me realise that at some level, my support for the Afghan war might have been tied into some deep, hidden sense of ethnic nationalism, and resentment over the fact that for a thousand years, people who looked like me had been oppressed, invaded and murdered by the Afghans. Afghanistan was the ancient enemy, for India far more than for America, and as someone with cultural roots in India, perhaps at some deep, subconscious level I saw in the Afghan war an opportunity for a great and final retribution for a thousand years of invasion and tyranny, for the Hammer of the Lord, held in the hand of a rather stupid and incurious businessman-politician from Texas, to descend upon the heirs of Ghazni and Durrani, and an opportunity to finally and permanently pacify the Pashtun nation, and rule over it until the last vestiges of extremism and militarism had been burned out, the same way that they were burned out of Japan and Germany. I think I hoped that the defeat of Afghanistan and the Pashtun would be as final, as total, and as terrible as the defeat of Japan or of Germany, and that out of the American occupation would come a total transformation of the Pashtun culture into something as innocuous and milquetoast as Japanese culture today. This, the pacification of the Pashtun nation, was a sacred duty, something we simply could not escape, and even if it took America fifty years, or a hundred, it would be worth it if the threat to India- which now took the form of an ideological, religious and terroristic threat rather than a military threat- could be ended. All my burblings over the last ten years about the existential threat of Jihadic Caliphates, all the comparisons of the Taliban to the Vikings and the Visigoths, all the dire warnings about women getting their noses chopped off: maybe this is what was always at their heart. And then again, maybe not. Psychological motivations are difficult to tease apart, especially when they’re youre own.

On a rational level, of course, I know this is nonsense. Cultures simply don’t change that easily, and why would I assume that America could succeed in doing what the Persians, the Sikhs, the British, and the Russians couldn’t do? Evil, too, is in the long run indestructible, because as long as humans have free will, evil is always a possibility: it will never be possible to eliminate the threat of your neighbors deciding to go to war with you, because the will to power, and the temptations thereof, is an inescapable result of original sin. And finally, on a moral level, the atrocities the American Government has committed in Afghanistan- destroying wedding parties with drone strikes, razing the countryside, holding people for years without trial, torture- are unacceptable, no matter what we hope to gain by them. As evil as the Taliban are, and as boundless a rage I feel against the history of Afghanistan, and as critical my feelings about Islamic doctrine and about Jihadism in particular, that we are fighting a wicked enemy does not leave us exempt from the moral law. “Ye shall not do evil that good may come of it”, said St. Paul to the Romans, and if that applies to anything, it certainly applies to bombing a wedding party in the belief that there MIGHT be a terrorist in the vicinity. As well as torturing suspects to death, which we have done, too.

On a rational and moral level, I know these things. But of course, a lot of this isn’t decided on a rational or moral level at all, but on an emotional one. I’ve come to realise, I think, why St. Paul says that “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and I will repay,” when he counsels Christians against trying to seek revenge. The thirst for retribution is a natural one, and not inherently a bad thing: justice demands that people be rewarded for doing good and punished for doing evil. But retribution needs to be limited by the laws of justice, and of mercy, and of love, and needs to be their servant, not their master. Because if we separate the idea of retribution from the broader context of justice and mercy, it becomes an insatiable lust that can never be satisfied. How do you avenge a thousand years of tyranny, after all? Is it over when Osama dies, and can we then say ‘That’s enough, the debt has been paid?’ How would we possibly know? How could the Greeks be ‘paid back’ for the four centuries they suffered under Turkish rule? Was the Megali Idea a fair way to pay back the Turks? Who knows?

Any subordinate love, when we separate it from the broader context of our love for our neighbour and for God, can become, not a goddess, but a demon. This is true of the love of justice, as much as of anything else. Wanting to see the guilty pay is perfectly understandable, but we always need to limit that desire, to constrain it by the general requirements of morality, and especially by the desire to seek our neighbour’s good as well as our own. Because the danger of wanting payback, by itself, is that it’s a lust which just keeps on growing, an itch that gets more itchy the more you scratch it. Osama is dead, and he has paid for his crimes, which is a very good thing. But I’m not sure that I really feel any less resentful over the sack of Amritsar or the massacre at Somnath than I did before. It’s like I ate a sweet dessert and I’m totally unsatisfied, and feel like I didn’t eat anything at all. Maybe the thirst for payback is actually something dangerously addictive, and perhaps that’s part of the reason that St. Paul counsels so strongly against it, as does Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.

I have no suggestions about whether we should stay in Afghanistan or not. Nor do I promise that I won’t revisit this post in a few days and disagree with what I have just written. Much of our political thought, I think, comes down to our mood on a given day. But right now I’m in a reflective mood, and this is my thought for the day: that perhaps, before we think about what we want as the endgame in Afghanistan, we should pause and re-assess our own motivations

Sunday, March 27, 2011

St Photina at the Well: Part 1

This is a reflection on today’s reading; I’d especially like to hear Lynn Gazis Sax’ thoughts on it, since she often writes on the interface of Christianity, gender, and sexuality).

“Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

“Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.”

-John 4:5-29.

This is (part of) today’s reading, from the Gospel of St. John. I quote it here in the contemporary language of the NRSV: though normally I prefer the King James version, the translators of the King James for some reason decided to put this passage into the historic present tense, which is awkward and grating on the ear. It sounds better this way.

There’s a lot that this passage says to us- and a lot, as our priest (FTR, it’s a woman priest) said today, that it doesn’t say, and that we have read into it. And then of course there is a lot that isn’t said or even read into the passage, but that the tradition of the church has supplied for us. This woman isn’t named in the text, but the tradition of the church gives her a name- ‘Photina’, or ‘Light’ (in the church of Russia she is called ‘Svetlana’, the near equivalent), and a whole story of what happened to her after she met Jesus. There is a lot we are told about St. Photina, Equal to the Apostles, after this fateful encounter with Jesus at the well. But about her life before she met Jesus, we actually know less than we think.

The passage is powerfully interesting to us, in twenty first century America, for a number of reasons, some good and some ill. It’s interesting on one level because it shows us an example of the miraculous, and the supernatural, though on a fairly subtle level. Here Jesus breaks the veil that his humanity cast over his divinity, and for just a moment appeals to the gift of divine clairvoyance. He wasn’t from Samaria, and shows no sign of having been to the town of Sychar; we know he wasn’t coming from there, since his disciples had just made a trip to get meat, leaving Jesus behind. So it wasn’t through listening to gossip, or talking to friends, that Jesus had learned of her story. It was through peeling back, for a moment, the limitations of his human nature, and seeing with the eye to whom all is revealed. He glanced, for a moment, into that pool of wisdom that C. S. Lewis writes about in his ever-evocative children’s book ‘The Hose and His Boy’, in which a desert hermit is able to see, in a moment of time, everything that is happening in the world, anywhere, at that moment. He saw with the eye of true and perfect vision, and showed that woman who he was, as he said of himself decades later to John: “And all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:23).

We live in a skeptical age, when it often seems that miracles have faded away, when it seems to us, too often, that the world is a machine working along purely natural processes, and we long for a miracle, for a drawing back of the veil (the literal meaning of both ‘apocalypsis’ and ‘revelatio’), when we see that supernatural realities exist after all. The clairvoyance and supernatural vision that Jesus showed on that hot afternoon at Jacob’s well are one example of that kind of unveiling, that we crave to see, and that no doubt the men and women of first century Palestine craved as well.

The passage is also interesting to us, of course, because it ties in three of our preoccupations in twenty first economy, three topics that are endlessly interesting for us to talk about: race, gender, and sex. The woman that Jesus talked to, called in tradition St. Photina, had several strikes against her in the eyes of first century Judaean society, which is probably why she was getting water in the hottest part of the day, when everyone else would have been taking a siesta. She belonged to the Samaritan people, who were looked down upon by many first century Jews, as being partly Assyrian in origin. Her people were viewed as practicing a degraded form of Judaism, and as being traitors and impure Jews: the passage makes that clear, and puts into context how much Jesus was perturbing the comfortable sentiments of his time when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. She was, of course, a woman in a patriarchal society. And then, of course, there’s the history of her marital and sexual life. She had had five husbands, Jesus tells us, and the man she was currently living with was not her husband. This would have been enough to brand her, under the law of Moses, as guilty of sexual immorality, and of what was called then, ‘fornication’. And possibly, depending on the circumstances of her previous marriages, of adultery as well. Many people reading this passage have immediately concluded that she had divorced five husbands, or been divorced by them, and was thus an adulteress five or six times over. It’s not difficult to see why she would have been viewed as a woman set apart and cast out, and one who went to fetch water during the most unpleasant part of the day, to avoid contemptuous eyes and nasty tongues. And it’s been easy for all too many people to dismiss this poor woman, Photina, as a ‘sexual sinner’.

And yet, and yet. One of the interesting things about her discourse with Jesus is the tone that Jesus takes. He draws out, pretty quickly, that there is something irregular about her marital situation: “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” One thing he doesn’t do, however, is condemn her himself. And nor does she respond to his remarks by expressing guilt, and falling at his feet and saying, ‘Yes, I have been living immorally, and I want to give up my life of sin.’

This is quite different from the encounters that Jesus had with people who were, genuinely, living lives that neither we, nor they, nor Jesus would want to defend. When confronted with people guilty of serious sins, Jesus normally either asked them to repent, or else they themselves were only too happy to acknowledge their sin and repent themselves. Consider the woman taken in adultery, to whom Jesus said, ‘ Go, and sin no more’ (John 8:11), or consider Zacchaeus the tax collector, who on meeting Jesus almost instantly said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore to him fourfold” (Luke 19:8). Or consider the woman in the house of Simon, who no sooner sees Jesus than she begins weeping all over his feet, that she might wash them with her tears. Or consider the repentant thief on the cross, Dismas, who as soon as he saw Jesus, before he even implored him for remembrance and heard the words of the promise, acknowledged his own criminality, and that he and his companion ‘received the due reward of his actions’. Or consider the crippled man healed at the Pool of Bethesda, to whom Jesus bade to sin no more, lest a worse fate befall him. The encounters of Jesus with genuinely guilty people tend to have a theme of repentance, of people being confronted- either by Jesus, or by themselves- with their own need to change. Of course this woman needed to change, as do we all, but it’s interesting that neither Jesus, nor she herself, appears to bring up the theme of guilt and sin here.

In fact what we see here is that almost instantly the scene slides into a discourse between Jesus and the woman, about theology; it goes from there into a scene where the woman expresses her faith, and Jesus reveals himself to be the final end and the goal of that faith, and following that, she runs into the city, declaring Jesus to be the Christ. And is believed. Jesus in his discourse with her almost skips over her sex life, bringing them up merely as a tantalizing hint that he knows every detail of her life, and in this way revealing himself as more than an ordinary man. It leads us pretty quickly- especially in an age where we are spending a lot of time, words, and ink on debating Christian teachings about sexuality- to this question: what did Jesus, actually, think about this woman and her sexual life. If he condemned them, then why didn’t he do so more explicitly; and if he didn’t disapprove of them, then why bring them up at all?

In answering this question it’s important to deal, first of all, with the issue of why this woman would have been viewed by her society as a sinner, because this is a different question than whether she had, objectively, done something wrong in the eyes of Jesus (as well as what we, today, would think about her life). And it’s also important to separate the issues of her five husbands, and the issue of her current nonmarital relationship. Let’s take the first issue, first.

There are at least three ways that a woman could have ended up with five husbands: through actively leaving them, through being divorced / deserted by them, or through being repeatedly widowed. The first would raise eyebrows both in our society and in hers, and assuredly would fall short of Jesus’ ethic about divorce as well. The second would probably not raise many eyebrows today, and would make us sympathetic to her more than anything else. It would, though, still fall short of Jesus’ strict ethic on marriage and divorce. Christian teaching, beginning with Jesus himself and continuing for the first few centuries, prohibited remarriage for the innocent party as well as the guilty party in a divorce. Cf. the Shepherd of Hermas, that intriguing and mystical text that was read as inspired literature in the early church, regarding the duty of an innocent party to a divorce:

“And I said to him, ‘What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her [adulterous] practices?’ And he said, ‘The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery.’” (Shepherd of Hermas, Fourth Mandate, 1:5-6).

The Eastern church relaxed this prohibition in, I believe the fourth century, but they viewed this as a loosening and a departure from the teaching of Jesus, and from the strict ideal that he had set forth. Nevertheless, we would certainly have more sympathy for this woman if she had been the innocent party in her divorces.

To my mind, though, there’s no real reason to believe she was divorced at all. One could equally well postulate that she was widowed. Because we have ample reason to believe that a woman who had survived five husbands, would be viewed with scorn and contempt by the society of her time: as a kind of adulteress, or perhaps even as a witch and a murderess, and certainly as a disreputable woman. Consider the hypothetical story that Jesus’ intellectual opponents asked him, testing him, regarding a woman who had had seven husbands.

“Then came to him certain of the Sadducees, which deny that there is any resurrection; and they asked him, Saying, Master, Moses wrote unto us, If any man’s brother die, having a wife, and he die without children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. There were therefore seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and died without children.And the second took her to wife, and he died childless. And the third took her; and in like manner the seven also: and they left no children, and died.Last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them is she? for seven had her to wife” (Luke 20:27-33).

Implicit in this story is a bit of contempt for the woman; there’s certainly no question raised about her husbands, whether they are adulterers, but only about the poor woman. Some argue (in a few cites I was able to dig up, but I have no clue about how accurate they are) that remarriage on the part of a widow was frowned upon in first century Judaea, as it was in Hindu culture until very recently. It’s certainly possible that the Samaritan woman was an outcast not for being serially divorced, but for being serially widowed. We get a hint of this response when we look at the story of Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, who had married seven men and had each one die on their wedding night, slain by the demon Asmodeus. (Asmodeus is an Old Persian name, meaning literally ‘demon of wrath’: the suffix ‘dai’ from ‘daeva’ is apparently cognate with the Latin deus and the Sanskrit deva,which ironically both mean ‘god’. Asmodeus is said to have been a powerful dark being, that King Solomon had some command over; he plays a big role in Jewish and Christian mystical and extracanonical writings, and this evocative name gives us a hint of the influence that Zoroastrian demonology had on later Jewish and Christian though).

“On the same day, at Ecbatana in Media, it so happened that Raguel’s daughter Sarah also had to listen to abuse, from one of her father’s maids. For she had been married to seven husbands, but the wicked demon Asmodeus killed them off before they could have intercourse with her, as it is prescribed for wives. So the maid said to her: “You are the one who strangles your husbands! Look at you! You have already been married seven times, but you have had no joy with any one of your husbands. Why do you beat us? Because your husbands are dead? Then why not join them! May we never see a son or daughter of yours!” (Tobit 3:7-9: New American Bible).

It’s very likely, then, that Photina of Samaria wasn’t an adulteress at all, but a widow, a serial widow. In the context of that time, a patriarchal desert culture in which women could easily be blamed for anything wrong that happened in her household, and especially to her husband. One need only look at the kind of honour killings that happen in the Middle East today, or the long and sad history of women being accused at scheming to betray or kill their husband. It’s not at all unlikely that Photina had been accused, unfairly, of the same sort of faithlessness that Sarah had been accused of, and was viewed as a woman set apart and accursed, if not actually a schemer and a murderess. This would provide a good reason that Jesus refused to explicitly condemn her: it tells us both why he brought up her sad family history (to prove his divine clairvoyance) and why he refused to judge her as guilty. It’s quite possible that, like Sarah, she was guilty of nothing but bad luck: something that would make her a sinner in the eyes of the town of Sychar, but certainly not in the eyes of the God that sees the heart.

All this, of course, still leaves the second aspect of her sexual history that she would have been criticized for: living in a (presumably sexual) relationship outside of marriage. There’s much to say about that: regarding what scripture and church tradition have said about sexuality, why they said what they did, what Jesus actually said (which is actually not a whole lot), what underlying principles are meant to guide sexual behavior, and underlying it all, what reason and intuition, illuminated by scripture and tradition, tell us about what sex is for. There’s a lot to say about that. But that’s another story, for another time. Hopefully I will get to it later this week. In the meantime:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lazarus and Dives: a meditation on heaven, hell, and repentance

Today's Sunday reading (in the Anglican, Catholic, and many mainline Protestant churches) is a very interesting one. The Gospel reading focuses on the story of Dives and Lazarus. This story, found (as with many of the really interesting stories of Jesus) only in Luke 16: 19-31, deals with the nature of the afterlife, with the promise of ultimate justice for the downtrodden, and with the magnitude of our human capacity for evil and indifference to the needs of our brothers and sisters.

It tells the story of a rich man (generally called 'Dives', Latin for 'rich man'), indifferent to the suffering of his poor neighbor Lazarus. Lazarus suffered from hunger every day, 'desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table', while Dives ate sumptuously and was clothed in purple and fine linen. It's implied that Lazarus was a leper, for 'the dogs came and licked his sores'. When the two of them die, Dives, who lived his life indifferent to the hunger, poverty, and sickness of Lazarus and those like him, and who delighted in the pleasures and pomp that great wealth had bought for him, ended up in hell. Where Lazarus ended up is less clear; it's important to remember that this happened before the Incarnation, when presumably human beings could not yet enter heaven. The traditional belief is that he was in some kind of blessed state but outside the true Heaven; the medieval church called this intermediate place 'Limbo', and the story simply refers to it as 'Abraham's Bosom'.

The story goes on from there:

"And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

"But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

"Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."

This story probably refers to real people- Jesus refers to Lazarus by name, which is unlike all the parables he told, so it suggests that he intended this story, not as a parable, but as a real description of the afterlife. It's a powerfully ironic story when we remember that Jesus Himself was telling it. It features Abraham scoffing at the idea of one returning from the dead, and saying essentially that would change nothing. But we know that very soon after this story was told, quite possibly in the same year, Christ Himself would die, and rise from the dead. His resurrection would be the miracle that would turn millions to God, and would once and for all reconcile God with man. It would, pace Abraham, 'persuade' innumerable men and women to turn away from sin and dedicate themselves to faith, hope, and love. And more than that, it would bridge the gap, not just between Lazarus and Dives, but between Lazarus and God. No one, not even good people like Lazarus, not even the greatest of the saints or prophets, had been able to enter heaven prior to the death of Jesus, for his blood was the price of our salvation, and our ransom from the bondage to sin, death, and the devil. As big as the difference between Lazarus and Dives, it was nothing compared to that between Lazarus, and other imperfectly good men on the one hand, and the perfect, unfallen goodness of Heaven. Yet Christ himself, within just a couple short years, would bridge that gap, and open up the way to heaven for all those who would accept it. Lazarus would sit, no longer, in 'Abraham's bosom', but in the Paradise of God.

This story ends on a chilling note, for it seems to tell us that the gap between Lazarus and Dives is unbridgeable. From this story we get the traditional Christian teaching that hell is definitively eternal, a place from which there is no return, and in which there is no longer any possibility of repentance. The traditional teaching of orthodox Christianity about hell is that the damned are forever fixed in their sin, like Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggiero eternally gnawing each other's flesh in the ninth circle of the Inferno, and that death, or the moment immediately after death, is the last moment we have to repent. The dead, we are told, had their chance while on earth, and must pay eternally for refusing to accept it. Some of the early heresies, including (I think) the Donatists, went even further and held that some sins were so grave they could never be repented of even while still on earth. Read alone, the story of Lazarus and Dives would seem to support this kind of harsh, uncompromising interpretation. But of course, it's always a bad idea to read any piece of scripture alone; it needs to be read in the context of other scriptures, of tradition, and of reason.

That teaching about hell is hard for many of us to accept, and it's worth remembering that it's never been fully or universally accepted in Christianity. One of the most common themes in the visions of heaven and hell which proliferated in the patristic and medieval periods, is that God's mercy is present even in hell, and that He will intervene in some way to make their sufferings less then they would be otherwise. Some of the medieval mystics claimed that God would grant 'vacations' to the damned, allowing them to wander on earth or even to visit heaven; at least one such mystic personally claimed to have spoken with Judas on one of his holidays from hell. Others claimed that God would grant to the lost a reprieve from suffering- for Easter Day, for Easter Season, or for Easter and Pentecost. Some of the visionaries hinted that God would listen to the intercession of the saints, and for their sake would forgive the damned. In the last few centuries, a much bolder (and, in my view, wrong) teaching has become increasingly popular in Christian circles, called Universalism. Universalists hold that in the end, all will be saved. They take inspiration from the third century Bishop Origen, who held that in the end even the devil would be saved.

Personally, I _don't_ agree with universalism, but I also don't agree with the idea that there is no mercy, and no possibility of repentance, for those in hell. I suppose my thoughts are somewhere in between. I believe, in short, that God's mercy is present even in the uttermost and farthest depths of hell, and that He will always welcome to his embrace anyone who is truly repentant: but I also believe that he respects our free will, that He will not force his love on anyone who rejects it, and that corrupted human nature is such that there will always be those who do reject it, even in the depths of hell. I think if we read the story of Lazarus and Dives closely, it's not incompatible with this kind of view, that ultimately everlasting torment is not something God imposes on us, but something we choose for ourselves.

Listen again to Dives' lament in hell. All he can think about is himself. He thinks of Lazarus, but only in terms of what Lazarus can do for him; he imagines him as a servant, bound to give him a drink of water: "Send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue...". He then asks Abraham to tell Lazarus to go attend to his brothers. Never once does he ask about Lazarus' own well-being, or his experience in heaven. He wants to be saved from torment, but he is incapable of even beginning to step outside his own needs and his own suffering. He doesn't pray, or implore, or ask forgiveness, he thinks of his own needs and those of his brothers. "Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house..." Never is there a hint that he understands why he is there, or that he's genuinely sorry for his own sins.

The reply that Abraham gives him isn't really a statement that repentance is impossible; it's more a statement that Dives is not, at least at present, in a truly repentant condition. Heaven is a place characterized by pure, self-giving love, which takes as much delight in the joy of those around us as it does in our own joy. Until we have begun to step outside ourselves, and attempt to love each other as we love ourselves, we haven't begun to take the first steps towards heaven. Dives, in hell, knows that he is in pain, and that he wants to be out of it; but as yet he shows little sign of true self understanding, or of attempting to become capable of repentance and of love. Like the lost in Dante's Inferno, all he can talk about is himself.

In this passage, Jesus is warning us away from one error about the afterlife: that hell is a myth, that it doesn't really exist, that we will all be happy and comfortable in the end. He is seeking to warn us that hell is real, that it's a place of unimaginable pain and torment, a place of cold worse than the farthest wastes of the Arctic, and heat worse than the Arabian desert, and worst of all a place from which love is absent, in which human beings, the devils, the fallen angels, and the Enemy himself are all divided against each other and against themselves. And he seeks to warn us, too, that there is an ever present danger that we will condemn ourselves to that place of suffering and hatred, by choosing self-interest over self-giving, pride and hatred over love, and by being as indifferent to our neighbours as Dives was. Even if repentance is possible in hell, a lifetime devoted to serving ourselves can make it very, very difficult for us to truly repent and to truly love.

Yet it's important not to fall into the opposite error, too. We should remember that this story happened before the Incarnation, and that it even features Abraham saying- incorrectly, as we all know- that it would make no difference if 'one rose from the dead'. The Incarnation changed everything: it made possible things that had been impossible before. It made it possible for a virgin to give birth, for lepers and blind people to be healed with a touch, for the dead to be raised, and ultimately for God Himself to descend into hell and free the lost. And maybe it made it possible for the gap which Abraham called unbridgeable, to be bridged. Dives was among those sinners who Jesus descended into hell to save, and we don't know if, when he beheld the face that "was like the sun shining in all its brilliance" (Revelation 1:16) he at last repented and believed.

We know that suffering can be redemptive, that through suffering we can empty ourselves of pride and self-love, and lay our souls open to be filled with humility, love, and submission to the source of everything good. Perhaps it was so for Dives, and perhaps on Holy Saturday he looked at Christ and loved him. We don't know. We do have the assurance that no one who, in the end, truly seeks salvation, and truly has a heart full of love for God and their neighbour, will be denied it. "Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and ye shall find" says the Lord (Matthew 7:7) and he makes no exception for those even in the depths of hell.

St. John says in his vision of heaven that 'the gates of that city will never be closed by day, and there shall be no night there' (Revelation 21:25), and what can this mean but that heaven is always open, always welcoming, always inviting to anyone who truly desires to walk in the light of God and of the Lamb. For a city to throw open its gates and leave them open forever is the clearest token of welcome and invitation that there could possibly be. "The spirit and the bride say 'Come'," (Revelation 22:17) and it's implied that that invitation is extended to everyone, not just the righteous, and not just those who died in a state of grace. Those who remain in hell, in the long run, will be those who choose it for themselves, for no one who truly seeks salvation, knowing what it means and what it entails, will be denied it. I can't read the magnificent vision of the city of God, in the last chapters of St. John's Apocalypse, and think that anyone will be stuck outside the gates craving to be allowed in. Those outside will be those who prefer their pride to the humility of the city of God, who prefer their self-interest to the self-giving of the city of God, and who prefer self-love to the love of others. If the gates of hell are closed, as C.S. Lewis said, they are closed on the inside, and only on the inside.

I think, in short, that we should hope that salvation is a gift available to anyone who will accept it, even in hell, and that we shouldn't give up on the salvation even of those who died, seemingly, outside a state of grace. But we should also take warning, and the story of Lazarus and Dives gives us good reason for that warning. The reason Jesus told us this story was to remind us that hell is a terrible place, and that while it need not be eternal, it can be eternal: for those who, like Dives, find themselves unwilling to love, unwilling to empty themselves of pride and self-love, unwilling to truly repent or turn to God. Milton's Satan said, 'Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven', and it's more than likely there will be those who agree with that credo, into eternity, though of course none of us can be sure. The apocryphal 'Gospel of Peter', dating from the early second century, recounts the same story Luke tells us of the repentant thief on the cross, who received this beautiful promise from Jesus: "Verily I say unto thee, this day shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). But he goes on to say that the Roman soldiers, seeing this unmerited, unaccountable display of grace and love, responded by becoming even more spiteful and cruel: "And having become irritated at him, they ordered that there be no leg-breaking, so that he might die tormented" (Gospel of Peter 1:14). This is the story of corrupt and fallen human nature, that repeats itself in every age: we see love in action, and find ourselves hating it. Just as those who react this way in this life, I think it's likely there will be those who react that same way in the hereafter, and for those people, who are always prideful, always self-sufficient even in their pain, always intoxicated by themselves, it can be truly said, "the smoke of their torment rises for ever" (Revelation 14:11). A moment of real, true love on their part would set them free, but it would also involve them giving up their pride, their vision of themselves, their self-love, and that's a sacrifice some of us are unwilling to make. Now, and probably in the hereafter too. That's the true lesson, in my view, of the story of Dives and Lazarus, and of all the chilling scriptural passages about hell.

The story of Lazarus and Dives gives us reason to be warned, just as St. John's vision of heaven as the welcoming city with its gates cast open gives us reason to hope. To deny the warning would be just as big an error as to deny the promise. As we go through the next few weeks, and try to allow the grace of God to infuse us and makes us better people, let's try to live less like Dives, and more like those people in the Gospel whom Jesus commended for their love and their charity. Every choice we make changes who we are, and makes us either more of a heavenly creature or more of a hellish one. That even death isn't a final and irrevocable Rubicon isn't a reason to put off trying to change our lives: it's a reason to try to make ourselves better people now, because what we do today affects who we will be in the future. But let's also remember that as human beings, all of us will fail at some point or another, and that in spite of that, in spite of even the greatest failings and mistakes we may make, that ultimately no one whose heart is in the right place will be denied salvation if they genuinely and sincerely long for it with all their heart. Justice is important, but ultimately hope is greater, one of the three greatest virtues in the world (1 Corinthians 13:13), and Christ has given us reason to hope that in the end, we will all have what we truly seek.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner

Today, August 29th, is the day that the Church has chosen to remember the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, or as the feast is sometimes picturesquely known, ‘The Beheading of the Forerunner.’ It’s a fairly minor feast day (except apparently in Puerto Rico, whose patron saint is St. John the Baptist, and perhaps some other places) so most of us probably didn’t observe it today. But the story of John’s death is a powerful one, and well worth writing about. It’s one of the Christian feast days- like Good Friday, and like the Feast of the Holy Innocents- that remind us, painfully and starkly, of the magnitude of human evil, and the darkness that our species is capable of.

Many of us probably find it difficult- I find it almost impossible- to think about the Beheading of St. John strictly through a biblical lens. When we think about John’s death, we almost inevitably think of Oscar Wilde’s play, ‘Salome’, which makes the story come alive for us through vivid poetry that’s alternately ethereally beautiful and horrifyingly dark. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The best art, after all, has the same source as scripture has; like all good things, it comes ultimately from God, and whether or not Wilde’s version of the story is true in every detail, it conveys powerful truths to us; it serves the function, in other words, that myths are intended to serve. It might seem strange to call Mr. Wilde a Christian poet, but it’s none the less true for all that. Oscar Wilde’s famous ‘aestheticism’, and his often expressed view that art and morality had nothing to do with each other, were, I think, never something that he truly accepted at the deepest level of his being. While he converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, he was haunted by Christ for a lot longer then that, and there are deeply moral, and deeply Christian messages running through so much of his plays, poems, and short fictions. ‘Salome’ is no exception. The play is sometimes called ‘pornographic’, which would be annoying if it weren’t so absurd. I detest real pornography with a passion, and it saddens me that so many people nowadays, especially young men, patronize this kind of unnatural, antisocial and immoral rubbish, but as Justice Potter Stewart once said, ‘This is not that’, i.e. ‘Salome’ is not by any stretch of the imagination pornographic. On the contrary, it’s a deeply moral play, and a deeply religious one.

I’d call it a deeply religious play because it gives us a demonstration of what Bulgakov, in his ‘The Master and Margarita’, calls ‘the seventh proof of the existence of God.’ Namely, the demonstration of God through the demonstration of his opposite. The seventh proof relies on an evidential step: amassing evidence that this world is an evil place, in which people and other beings routinely exploit and abuse one another in truly horrific ways. It relies, then, on an intuitive sense; it asks us to accept that the magnitude of evil in this world is greater than what we would expect in a strictly materialistic and naturalistic world, and that we can explain the amount and degree of evil in this world only by postulating an agent of supernatural evil, the devil. And it relies, finally, on philosophical and theological reasoning, to infer the existence of supernatural good from supernatural evil. For shadows are only comprehensible if there exists such a thing as light; shadows are the absence of light, and the existence of shadows testifies to the existence of light. As another great twentieth century work of fiction ruminating on the nature of good and evil put it, “It is folly to think that in the triumph of evil there could be a winning side, in terms of anyone’s gaining anything by it. Without good to oppose it, evil is simply meaningless.’ Precisely, and this is why- according to Bulgakov, and I think correctly- the existence of supernatural evil implies the existence of supernatural good. Intuitively I accept the existence of supernatural evil- and the amount of evil in this world tells me that such an agent must be truly awesome in his power, intelligence, in the force of his will and in the ability to master nature and the world. “He doeth great wonders, such that he maketh fire come down from heaven on earth in the sight of men’ (Revelation 13:13). If there exists an even greater source of supernatural good, and it’s not hard to deduce why there must, then that source must be truly eternal, truly unbounded and unlimited by the laws of nature, truly perfect in power, in goodness, in vision, and in love, and truly a being ‘greater than which none can be conceived.” And as St. Anselm said, “You, Lord God, are this being.”

‘Salome’, like ‘Titus Andronicus’, is a deeply religious play in that it portrays for us- brilliantly and vividly- the horrific nature of a world from which God is absent. It gives us a snapshot, as clear as glass and as bright as the morning sun, of the City of Man in all its glory. And through our revulsion at what human beings are capable of doing to each other, at the magnitude of our capacity for lust, greed, hatred and pride, we are sent running away from the City of Man like frightened toddlers running away from a bear at the zoo. And when we run away from the City of Man, we sooner or later find us running towards its opposite pole, the only ultimate alternative to that city: the eternal, perfect, and superlatively beautiful alternative of the City of God.

Wilde’s play ‘Salome’ consciously echoes images from the ‘Song of Solomon’, that enigmatic book of the Old Testament which can be interpreted- correctly, I think- as a paean to romantic love, as a celebration of the erotic, as a prefiguration of the Ever-Virgin Mary, and as an allegory of the love of Christ for his people. Captivated by passion, Salome speaks thus to St. John as he stands before her in chains:

"Thy mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. It is like a pomegranate cut in twain with a knife of ivory. The pomegranate flowers that blossom in the gardens of Tyre, and are redder than roses, are not so red. The red blasts of trumpets that herald the approach of kings, and make afraid the enemy, are not so red. Thy mouth is redder than the feet of those who tread the wine in the wine-press. It is redder than the feet of the doves who inhabit the temples and are fed by the priests. It is redder than the feet of him who cometh from a forest where he hath slain a lion, and seen gilded tigers....:

But Wilde cleverly twists the imagery of the Song of Solomon, turning all that beauty to ugliness, by putting these verses into the mouth of Salome, a young woman for whom love and hate are inextricably tied together. She desires John the Baptist, and when she can’t have him, all her love turns to hate, and she wants to destroy him. The biblical narrative said that Salome was prompted by her mother to ask for St. John’s head: “And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist” (Mark 6:24). But Wilde makes the decision to ask for John’s head the fault of Salome herself, prompted by her bitter anger, and by her longing to destroy the man who spurned her caresses. He shows us, brilliantly, what eros, sexual and erotic love, can become when it’s separated from caritas, the love that seeks the good of the beloved, and not one’s own good. These two kinds of love were intended to be connected to each other, to be tied together within the context of romantic relationships. And when we separate them, as our society risks doing with its increasing acceptance of casual sex, we risk unleashingly truly dangerous storms of passion that set us against each other and against our own deepest natures, that drive us apart instead of bringing us together. As C. S. Lewis said, if you try to make eros into a God, she will become a demon. Wilde’s portrayal of Salome is a great example of this, a great portrayal of the nature of passion when it becomes centered on our own good and our own desires instead of on the good of our beloved, and a warning to his time- which in its way had even more erotic sin then ours, as the widespread prevalence of prostitution shows us- as well as to all times since.

Of course, in Wilde’s portrayal, Salome was a victim as much as a perpetrator of evil, and as guilty as she was, greater still was Herod’s guilt. The biblical account doesn’t make this especially clear- it says that Herod was ‘pleased’ with her dancing: “And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod, and them that sat with him…” (Mark 6:25). In Wilde’s play, however, it’s very clear, and explicit, that Herod lusts after Salome, and that his desire to see her dance is rooted in sexual desire. This desire, one can quickly see, was incestuous; in truth, it’s triply incestuous, for Herod and Salome were related in three different ways (due to the Herod family’s long history of practicing incest, and to Herod’s incestuous marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias). Salome was simultaneously the niece, the grand-niece, and the stepdaughter of Herod, and if you wanted an explicit biblical text warning of how evil and unnatural incest really is, you couldn’t pick a much better example (which may be part of the reason that this episode made it into the very short, and very concise, Gospel of St. Mark.) If Wilde was right and Salome secretly desired John, then the fact that she was presumably the object of sexual molestation by her stepfather/uncle/grand-uncle hints that she may have been a victim as much as a perpetrator of evil. We’ve learned over the centuries that people who are victims of abuse often become abusers themselves- a glance at the crime stories in the newspaper tells us that much- and personally, I can’t think of a much better example of the power of evil to beget more evil, or a better testimony to how much this is truly a fallen, and corrupt world.

Beyond just the relationship (which isn’t even suggested in the Bible, but which Wilde makes clear) of Salome and John, the connection of Herod and Salome, then, makes it clear that this is a story about sexual sin and the dark side of sexual passion, as much as it is a story about political tyranny and the death of a prophet. Herod, inflamed with wine and tempted by incestuous desire; Salome, frustrated in love and willing to turn all her lust into hate; Herodias, willing to leave her husband and enter an incestuous relationship with his brother; all of them show us Romantic love, at its best, is a mirror of the love that exists between the Persons of the Trinity, and between God and man. But when we separate the physical aspect of love from its spiritual and emotional aspects, when we separate desire from affection, when we separate the good that we seek for ourselves from the desire to seek the good of the person we love, then we open the door to a set of stairs that lead ever downward, into the black cellar where Herod’s executioner went to seek John the Baptist, carrying an axe on his shoulder and wearing the tetrarch’s Death Ring on his finger.

Down those stairs lies the path to the central square of the City of Man, the city founded by ‘the love of the self even to the contempt of God,’ and Herod’s pained cry at the end of the play, “I have committed a great crime, a crime against some unknown God’, tells us all we need to know about that City. Wilde’s play, and the biblical text on which it is based, give us all the reason we ever needed to set our feet in the path leading away from that city, and to start walking- as far as it may take us, as difficult as the path might be, up the highest mountains and through the hottest deserts- towards that other city, the City of God, which stands forever ‘as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Revelation 21:2), in a permanent and perpetual symbol of the beauty of true, genuine, and sincere romantic love.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A third year's reflection on the Assumption of the Mother of God

Today, August 15th, is the Feast of the Assumption (for the Roman Catholic church and for many Anglicans), and the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos for the Orthodox and Oriental churches. (‘Assumption’ comes from the Latin ‘assumptio’ = ‘taking up’, do not be confused that it’s used in a sense contrary to the common English sense.) The two names connote more or less the same thing, with slight differences of emphasis: the day that Mary the Mother of God, most glorious and ever-virgin, was taken up into heaven, ‘body and soul’. You can look all throughout the world for the remains of Mary, for her tomb and her bones, but you won’t find them; they aren’t here. Mary, with her whole being and person, body and soul united, is in heaven. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just about Mary’s soul rising to heaven. Of course her soul is in heaven; we knew that, for where else would it be? The meaning of the Feast of the Assumption is a bunch more bold and startling one: that Mary’s body did not remain here on earth either, but was lifted up to heaven, and that she is there in her full corporeality, body and soul, as all good people shall be when Christ returns and we experience the resurrection of the body.

There are slight differences of emphasis between the West and the East in regards to the question of whether she died and was then resurrected, or whether she was transported to heaven without dying. My understanding is that the Eastern churches tend to believe the former (this was the older belief) while Catholics and Anglicans who accept the doctrine believe she went straight to heaven, body and soul, without dying. I tend to favour the second interpretation: it seems to fit better with some enigmatic verses that seem to foretell the Assumption, for example, ‘In kinship with Wisdom is immortality’ (Wisdom 8:17, using ‘Wisdom’ of course as a symbol of Christ), but in fairness, the early legends and apocryphal writings concerning the Assumption do include references to her soul ascending to heaven first, and her body ascending three days later, in an echo of Christ’s resurrection. Of course, it’s not impossible that this did not represent _death_ in the sense we understand it, but rather some alternative temporary interruption of the relationship of body and soul, some hypothetical means of leaving this earth, that would have been meant for an unfallen humanity. C.S. Lewis speculates a little bit about what the end of life would be like for an unfallen race, in his book ‘Out of the Silent Planet’, and his account of ‘unbodying’ a dead creature on Mars bear some similarities to the accounts of the Assumption. It’s death in a sense, but not death in the sense we understand it on earth (he makes this point very clearly in the sequel, ‘Perelandra’.) Death had no power over Mary’s body, as St. John makes clear when he depicts her escape from the clutches of the dragon: “And to the woman were given two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly from the dragon’s wrath….” (Revelation 12:14). Understood in this way, the Catholic/Anglican and Orthodox understandings of the end of her life may not be incompatible at the deepest level.

The apocryphal stories about the Assumption aren’t history, of course, nor canonical scripture, but it seems reasonable to take them as having some core of remembered traditions and some kernels of truth which were passed down over the roughly five centuries, and it’s worth taking a look at them to see what we can extract. One particularly touching aspect of the accounts of the Assumption, purportedly deriving from the memories of St. John himself, suggests that Christ responded to a direct prayer from his mother. It wasn’t a prayer for her to be assumed into heaven- quite the opposite! One can’t imagine the embodiment of humility and modesty, she who had said of herself, “For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” (Luke 1:48) and submitted to her God by saying, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” (Luke 1:38), asking for the estate of Queen of Heaven. In contrast, she asked for something much more modest: “As the all-holy glorious mother of God and ever-virgin Mary, as was her wont, was going to the holy tomb of our Lord to burn incense, and bending her holy knees, she was importunate that Christ our God who had been born of her should return to her”.

Picture this woman, who had lost her only child, whom she had loved more than anything in this world, and seen the Apostles go their separate ways, left behind with only St. John to take care for her. St. John tells us that she regularly burnt incense at his tomb as an act of worship, but that in her loneliness, she was pining for her lost child and wishing, no doubt with any hope of the wish being granted, that Christ should return to her. It’s a wish that we can all identify with, at some level. I lost my father when I was about seventeen, and for a year or two afterward I would have periodic dreams where he was somehow returned to my family, and where he was talking with us and living with us again. How much more does this have to be the case for someone who loses a child? When I lived in Madagascar I knew quite a few families who had children die, and it tears people apart like few other things can. One couple I knew ended up separating after their child died of malaria; the relationship had been forever destroyed by the memory of what they had lost. And for Mary, it was even worse in a sense, for her son had been returned to her for forty days, before leaving again, this time for good. She had had a taste of the sweetness of resurrection, the wonder and joy of having her dead child returned to her, in the fullness and strength of new life; but all too quickly, the taste turned bitter as she realized this was just temporary, and that she would soon have her child taken from her again. Of her experience of the Lord’s resurrection, it could truly be said, “It was in my mouth sweet as honey, but as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter” (Revelation 10:10) and I’m sure St. John, who had lived with her and cared for her every day since Christ ascended, was thinking of her when he wrote these words.

Of course, on another level, what she was asking for was impossible, and I’m sure she realized it. The dead don’t return to this earth; even when resurrected, their destiny is somewhere else. I’m sure she knew that, and she was praying more than anything to console herself, asking for something she knew was impossible, more out of blind, baseless hope then out of any belief that the prayer could be answered. She had no idea, of course, that God had plans for her that were much greater, deeper, and richer then she could ever have imagined. The goodness and glory of God, and the destiny he has planned for each of us, is something that with our limited imaginations, and our horizons and thoughts limited by the contours of a harsh, fallen, and often painful world, we can’t even conceive of. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9) says St. Paul, and there are good reasons for this: our ability to think and envision the future is limited by our experiences and by our capacity to imagine, and finite creatures that we are, these are limited and often pitifully small. God doesn’t share our limitations, and while we can’t see or even accurately imagine the destiny he has in store for us, we can be assured it is greater and better than anything we could ever conceive of; any analogy we make to heaven must necessarily fall short of the reality. Imagine the best thing in this world you can, take it to its perfection, and even still, we can be sure heaven will be better, for God loves us and wants the best for us even more than we do for ourselves. So it was with Mary, the Mother of God.

Christ had mercy on his mother and granted her prayer, but he granted it in a way that she could never have foreseen, something beyond the capacity even of this sinless and morally perfect woman to imagine. Rather then descending once again to share life with his mother, he promised her, and his promises are always fulfilled, to raise her into heaven, where she would be crowned forever as its Queen, and where she could remain forever close to her Child; as it was said of old, “Upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir” (Psalm 45:9), and as much as this was true of Solomon, it was fulfilled even more truly when the Mother of God took her place in heaven. The most St. Mary could imagine, the greatest promise she could ask for, was for her son to return to her, at least for a little while; but God the Word, who had taken human nature from her, was able to imagine a greater and better good for her than she could imagine for herself, and where she had hoped to be united with her son on earth, he summoned her to be united with him forever in heaven, perfect in her corporeal being, with no need of death or resurrection. In her earthly life, Mary never imagined what she would one day become. We can search the New Testament for hints that Mary was aware of her full glory, and find nothing, for she seems to have seen herself as nothing more than a carpenter’s wife, socially downtrodden and economically poor, living off bread and occasional broiled fish. Perfect in other virtues, as tradition tells us, St. Mary the Mother of God was perfect also in humility. But God had greater plans for her, and of this meek and humble Palestinian peasant girl, he one day intended to make the Queen of Heaven. He granted not only her prayer, but those of her parents who had asked, “Bless her with the last blessing, that shall be forever” (Infancy Gospel of James 6:4). No doubt they had merely meant ‘forever’ to mean a very long time, in the figurative sense that people normally use it; perhaps they were asking for a blessing that would last all of Mary’s natural life. But God understood them more deeply than they even understood themselves, and granted them a blessing that would, truly, last forever; the blessing of immortality, spiritual and corporeal, that would raise Mary to heaven and allow her a resting place there for all of eternity.

Consider again St. John’s beautiful and haunting vision; consider it in detail, and let the words wash over you like the ocean’s wave at high tide; drink their beauty as you would drink the water of a cool and pure mountain lake. “And there appeared in heaven a great portent: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and crowned with twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1). The stars, sun and moon represent, I think, the holy angels, for St. John calls the angels, “the stars of heaven…” (Revelation 12:4).. It’s a very old tradition in the religions of the world to associate various gods, or angels, with the sun, moon, and planets of the solar system (C. S. Lewis, again, uses this tradition in his Space Trilogy, in which the moon and various planets are associated each with their own tutelary angel, which he identifies with the Greek gods). In the Hindu temple near my hometown, there’s a piece of devotional statuary depicting nine important deities, associated with the highlights of our night sky: the sun, the moon, and seven of the planets in our solar system (the seven of which we were aware before modern astronomy). Of course this association isn’t literal, it’s symbolical; the sun, moon, and stars (or planets; in ancient times the distinction wasn’t clearly made) are used to represent and symbolize high spiritual powers- as we can see, in Hindu, Greek and Christian tradition alike, and in other traditions as well.

St. John borrows that imagery here, and by showing Mary clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars, he is illustrating that, though a created human being with human limitations, she has been raised to a rank higher then the highest angels. As the ‘Axion Estin’ tells us, she is ‘more glorious than the cherubim, and incomparably more honourable than the seraphim.” Who could possibly have expected, or hoped for this? How far had she come, this Palestinian peasant girl, wife of a carpenter, a consecrated virgin who had seen her only son handed over to horrible death, who had spent her life in poverty and oppression, mocked as Galilean provincials, struggling for each day’s food, enduring heat and drought in a dusty backwater of a vast and tyrannous empire. For this unassuming, humble, gentle and giving young woman who said ‘Fiat’ to the angel’s entreaty, was raised to a throne higher than any of the angels, and far higher than any other human being could ever aspire to. “Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased,” said Jesus, “and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14); could there be a better fulfillment of Our Lord’s saying than the assumption of Mary? For above us are the holy angels, but above them is the Mother of God; and her heavenly throne she owes to two things; to the humility that led her to give up all she had been planning for her life, and to submit to the request of the heralding archangel, and even more importantly, to the boundless and limitless love of her Son.

This is always the way with the promises of God: that the good that He desires for us is greater than the greatest good we can desire for ourselves. Ask yourself what you desire in life, and remember that the most and best we can desire for ourselves in a shadow of what God has planned. The trees of heaven, after all, will be green, fruitful, and life-giving to a degree that the trees of this earth can only be pale copies or shadows of. The light of heaven will be a light so bright that the sunlight we experience on earth is only a shadow of it. So it is with everything good that God intends for us. We spend so much of our time pursuing the things of this earth- food, sex, wealth, fame, beautiful things- but we forget that these things, good in themselves, derive their goodness from God, and that to pursue them to the detriment of pursuing Him is only to harm ourselves. Because the greatest good and most intense happiness we can enjoy on our own, is always less than the joy we will one day enjoy when we are in his presence, and enter into what he has prepared for us. “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34); how happy will we be when we can hear these words spoken and know that they are sure and true? Because what the Assumption of Mary tells us is that what God has prepared for us is greater than anything we can hope for, and that he has a plan for us, as he had for St. Mary, greater than any plan we could possibly make for ourselves.

Mary’s sojourn in heaven, of course, was not to be continuous. The prayer of the Abbe Perreyve invokes her thus, “Most blessed virgin, in the midst of thy days of glory, forget not the sorrows of this earth….” This prayer, devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes, was inscribed on a Marian prayer card that was given to me by an Episcopal priest of my acquaintance. This happened just before I left for Madagascar, on an adventure unlike any I could have expected, and on an experience that was to change me, as much as (I hope) I was able to bring change into the community where I worked. When I started the three years of my life in Madagascar, I was often lonely, worried about the future, unsure whether my work would bear fruit, and whether I would be welcomed, and concerned about a whole slew of tropical diseases. I would take solace, often, in looking at the prayer card, remembering the love with which it had been given to me, and praying in Abbe Perreyve’s words. I felt protected while I was in Madagascar, watched over by a guiding and protective force, and I felt that, in some sense, the Mother of God was looking out for me. I was already on my road to the Christian faith then, but my experience helped me to realize the importance that the Mother of God has to our faith, and helped to push me in the direction of those traditions, like Anglo-Catholicism, that give her due honour.

Many people have experienced the presence of St. Mary in their lives of course, and not just as a protective force as I have, but in much deeper and richer forms; through direct mystical experience. I had a friend once who, when travelling through South America, spoke with an imprisoned former drug lord; the drug dealer had had a change of heart, abandoned his life of crime, and handed himself over to the police, when he looked into the clouds and had a vision of St. Mary in all her glory. Some of these experiences are explicitly commemorated as sites of pilgrimage today, like the town of Fatima where the three children had a direct experience of the Virgin Mary and were given visions of the future, including the re-conversion of Russia to Christianity. This must have seemed impossible when it happened; Russia was then a Christian power, so it must have seemed unlikely it would turn to atheism. But the turn did come, less than a year after the three children at Fatima has their vision; and twenty years later, at the darkest hour of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, it must have seemed impossible that the words of St. Mary at Fatima would ever be fulfilled. Yet fulfilled they were. Stalin died twenty years later, possibly poisoned at the hands of his own henchmen, and gradually that long-suffering country began the slow process of dismantling his terror-state that had enforced atheism by the sword. The Soviet regime fell in 1990, which brought many evils to an end, but brought more, equal and opposite evils to replace them; yet one sign of hope amid the turmoil was that Russia began returning to its spiritual roots. Who could have imagined this, in 1928 or in 1948? Yet by that same token, which citizen of Nazareth in A.D. 12 would have imagined that the peasant mother of the precocious boy Jesus, would one day be exalted higher than the angels, ‘more glorious than the cherubim?” God always has a plan that we can see only dimly, if at all, but is better than anything we could imagine.

The Mother of God is not merely passively enthroned in heaven, but continues to try to help us, and to seek our good, in heaven and on earth. St. John, at the culmination of his brilliant vision of heaven, tells us that ‘the Spirit and the Bride say, Come……and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely’ (Revelation 22:17). The image of the “Bride” is often taken to represent the church, but that can’t be the case here, for just previous to this John makes it clear that he is speaking to the church, not speaking of it: “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches” (Revelation 22:16). I think that the Bride here represents St. Mary, the Spouse of the Spirit, as described by Prudentius, "The unwed Virgin espoused the Spirit", and figuratively spoken of in the Song of Solomon. St. Mary, always full of pity and solicitude for the human race, cares for us with perfect human love, just as her Son cares for us with perfect Divine love. She pleads for us, at the gates of heaven, just as her prototype, Queen Esther, pled for her people in the court of the Persian King. To those outside the gates of heaven, she says, along with the Spirit, “Come!” None of us can be good on our own, we can do so only with each other’s support and help, and one of the most precious supporters and helpers we have is the Mother of God, who in her charity and love cares and prays for each of us from her throne. And we can be sure that her Son hears and honours her requests and prayers, just as he did at Cana. Her cry, “Come” at the end of St. John’s Revelation is a reminder to us not only of what she does for us, but of what we can do, and must do, for each other.

This week following the Assumption, let’s remember the power and love of God, that brings glory out of humility, strength out of weakness, and splendour out of poverty and oppression, and let’s remember too, how much we need St. Mary, and how much we need each other; and that whatever God has planned for us will be as far beyond anything we could hope for, as His plans for St. Mary were beyond her meek and humble prayer.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A reflection on the Feast of the Transfiguration, and the dawn of the Nuclear Age

This Friday, August 6th, is the Feast of the Transfiguration. This is the day on which Christians commemorate the appearance of Our Lord to his disciples, on the holy mountain, in dazzling white clothes, infused with light and splendor. This is the day upon which Peter, John, and James saw him talking with Moses and Elijah, and on which they knew with a certainty- with no need for testing, for doubt, for skepticism, or for proof- that the carpenter whom they followed was truly the Second Person of God, the Word made flesh. I had the opportunity to go to a beautiful cathedral in Pittsburgh this Friday, for a short weekday Eucharist, and heard a great homily. The priest emphasized that the Transfiguration can’t be taken as a myth or a metaphor, or a pretty story. It was a miracle, but it was also a piece of literal history, a moment when heaven literally, for a moment, opened up and allowed three of the Apostles to see a glimpse of the world beyond this one. St. Peter mentions that he personally witnessed it: “And this voice we heard brought from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mount” (2 Peter 1:18) and his recollection probably found its way into the Gospels of Mark and Luke as well. If we are to accept that he wasn’t lying, or crazy, then we pretty much need to accept that the story happened as he described it.

Here’s St. Luke’s description of the event.
“And it came to pass about eight days after these sayings, He took Peter and John and James, and went up onto a mountain to pray. And as He prayed, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistening.
And behold, there talked with Him two men, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep. And when they were awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. And it came to pass as they departed from Him, Peter said unto Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- not knowing what he was saying.

While he thus spoke, there came a cloud and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, "This is my beloved son; hear him!" And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.”
It would be nice to focus on this miraculous, strange, and mysterious event on the feast day dedicated to it, and to meditate on the vision of the transfigured Christ that the apostles were privileged to see. But of course, August 6th, especially this year, has another resonance for people in the modern era, a darker and more morbid one that nevertheless has strange echoes of the Transfiguration. On August 6th, exactly 65 years ago, the United States used nuclear weapons- alone of any country in human history- upon the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Just a week later, we repeated that act, using them upon Nagasaki, the ancient port city of Japan and its gateway to the West, and in doing so won the war for good. We bought peace, security, and an end to the bloodiest war in human history, at the cost of some two hundred thousand civilian lives. This date, as much as the Feast of the Transfiguration, is also run through with theological meaning. As the early church lived in the shadow of the Transfiguration, our own age lives in the shadow of Hiroshima. What happened on that morning of August 6th, 1945, changed our world forever. Our thoughts, fears, dreams, worries, the language of our moral discourse and of our political debates, has been shaped permanently by the fact that we live in the world of total war and the atom bomb. For good or for ill, we live haunted with the knowledge of how to make and use nuclear weapons, and with the legacy of actually having used them, and with the fear that they may be used again in the future. This is, in truth, the age of Hiroshima. And so it’s worth stopping a minute, and thinking about the strange connection of these two events.

The Reverend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, in a radio talk that I heard while driving back from Pittsburgh, and also in a piece released the same day on the Huffington Post, draws some interesting parallels. He isn’t the first, of course- people have been drawing these connections since the bomb was dropped 65 years ago- but his piece was a powerful and compelling one, and I’m indebted to it for my own thoughts. He points out, first of all, that there are some strange similarities and parallels in the imagery of the two occasions. On August 6th, 1945, the world saw a blinding light, more brilliant and fiery than any light the hand of man had ever been able to create. On that day, a cloud enveloped the city of Hiroshima and rose up to the heavens, as it did on the day of the transfiguration. On that day, the world was struck with fear and trepidation, as we contemplated the reality that we had just entered into a new and unpredictable age, with many more questions than answers. And on it, we knew for the first time that we held in our hands an unfathomable power, that we weren’t really sure what to make of, just as the Apostles on the holy mountain got some vague and dim sense of the divine power that was inherent in their Master.

In the transfiguration of Christ, we see the City of God plant a small outpost on this earth, and we see, through the eyes of Peter and Luke, a glimpse of what that city will look like: a city in which the dead are raised, in which our clothes are washed to a pure and glistening white, and in which we are illuminated by the light of Christ himself, whom the Nicene Creed calls “Lumen de lumine”, Light of Light. And in the destruction of Hiroshima, and in the deliberate killing of two hundred thousand civilians- women, babies, the aged, the sick, schoolchildren, farmers and industrial labourers who had never done anything to any one of us- we saw, in the vivid halo of the burning city, and in the light of that fire that burned to death tens of thousands of people in unspeakable agony, a vision of the ultimate opposite of the City of God. We saw, in all its peacock-bright glory, the City of Man.

St. Augustine gives us a good definition of these two cities. “Thus two cities are formed by two loves: the city of God by the love of God to the contempt of the self, the city of man by the love of self to the contempt of God.” The city of man is, he goes on to say, that city formed when we see ourselves as masters of our own fates, entitled to choose and to make our own good, rather than cleaving to the true Good which comes from God. We see the difference between these two cities in vivid detail, when we consider the image of Christ talking with Moses and Elijah. We don’t know exactly why Christ chose to have this conversation, but one part of it might be to show that, as he did with Lazarus, he had the power to call the souls of the dead out of the shadowy afterlife. In this scene he showed that his Father- and by extention, he himself- had power over life and death, and in particular, the power to conquer death and to bring life and renewal back to the dead. Christ brought life out of death, just as we, on that dark day of August 6th, chose to bring death out of life.

The morality of what we did then is a controversial issue in America today. But it shouldn’t be a controversial issue for those of us who believe either in a natural-law moral framework, or in Judeo-Christian morality. (Most Christian churches, including mine, also believe in natural law, so the distinction is somewhat vague. As Pope Benedict said at the Regensburg address some years ago, our God is a God characterized by reason. God doesn’t forbid things because He likes to forbid; He forbids them because they are inherently wrong, contrary to our good, to our natures, and to our ultimate purpose). One could argue the morality of the nuclear attacks back and forth, and people have done so for six decades, spilling reams of ink: but my position is simple and straightforward, and I’ll make no bones about it. It was a war crime, a violation of the laws of God and man, against natural law and against sacred tradition, a spilling of the blood of innocent civilians on a grand scale, and can’t be plausibly defended within any just-war moral framework.

Defenses of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki generally revolve around the idea that 1) it was necessary for our safety and survival, 2) the Japanese were far worse than we were, and have no grounds to complain, and 3) it saved lives in the long run. All may well be true, but they’re also irrelevant. For a variety of reasons, Christians, and other people who believe in natural law moral reasoning, tend not to judge actions solely by their consequences (I’d argue that consequentialism, judging solely by consequences, is ultimately an insupportable and self defeating way to think about morality, but that’s a separate argument for another time). But before I get into just why Hiroshima was so wrong, let me deal with these three points.

Most people, at some point, have a line that they won’t cross, for any reason whatsoever, including their own survival. I’d hope, and suspect, that most of us would decide that there are certain things we would never do, even if our lives- or the lives of those we love, or of our countrymen- was at stake. As Elizabeth Anscombe put it eloquently in her essay on Hiroshima, would you boil a baby alive to save your own life? If you wouldn’t, then you’ve conceded that some things are wrong even if our survival or that of our country or loved ones depends on it. Now all we have to decide is whether Hiroshima fits on the far or near side of the line. I’d point out that this isn’t a bad thing- it’s indeed, exactly what makes us human. Quite a few animals are driven by the goal of survival, and do whatever they need to ensure their own survival (though not all- there are many examples of animals sacrificing themselves for their kin, which should give us pause). One of the evidences that we are rational, moral, human creatures with a mind and a soul, is the fact that we can choose to obey drives beyond just physical survival. If we didn’t, then we would be no higher and no different, ultimately, than a wolf or a sea slug. But we can so choose, and we do, all the time. Christians and Jews alike, for example, honour the memory of the Maccabean martyrs, killed under the regime of Antiochus Epiphanes, king of the Seleucids. These seven brothers chose to be boiled alive rather than eat pork: “For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our forefathers” (2 Maccabees 7:2).. If this is true- and we have no reason to doubt the story, for many people throughout history have chosen such sacrifices- then how much more must we believe they would have chosen to die rather than commit murder? These seven brothers preferred to die rather than ignore a minor dietary law, how much more would they have preferred to die rather than transgress one of the greatest laws of all, the command that the Israelites were given to “Choose life?”

Necessity, then, can’t excuse _everything_, unless you’re willing to swallow Anscombe’s gambit and boil the baby alive. Which we did, at Hiroshima, deliberately targeting what we knew was a civilian city, full of noncombatants including many, many children. Most of us agree that a line exists. I hold that what we did to end World War II- deliberate destruction of a whole city- was well on the far side of that line, and violated the laws of war, of nature, of morality, and of God.

If necessity can’t excuse it, neither can the greater good. It’s said that the bombing saved lives, American and Japanese, in the long run. Maybe so. But the distinction is that those lives that would have been lost, during a hypothetical invasion, would have been the fault of the Japanese military, not ours. They could have stopped it at any moment, and who knows, God willing, they might have. Such deaths would have been foreseeable, but not _intended_. Our intent- impossible as it might have been- would have been a quick surrender following an armed military invasion. The Japanese would probably have resisted, and there would have been many deaths, but those deaths, again, would have been _side effects_ of our decision to invade, not the direct _means_ or _end_ of the invasion. In that little distinction, what the moral theologicans call the doctrine of double effect comes into play. It’s sometimes permissible to do things you know will have terrible side effects, as long as you don’t intend those terrible things either as a means or an end. It’s _not_ permissible to use the killing of children or other innocent noncombatants as the direct means of achieving a military goal. In the destruction of Hiroshima, those 200,000 deaths were the direct means- not a side effect, but the whole intended purpose of dropping the bomb. It was done to terrorize the Japanese into submission, and it achieved its goal admirably: those 200,000 deaths were the means of achieving it. Had only a dozen people died at Hiroshima, our whole effort would have been in vain, which tells you right away that there was something immoral about the whole enterprise.

And neither, of course, can the horrible acts of the Japanese military excuse it. That our enemies behaved abominably doesn’t excuse us from following the moral law. It’s said, by Our Lord himself, “Repay not evil for evil”. Our Lord overturned (in the main) the law of Moses, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, blood for blood, stripe for stripe, life for life”, but even the Law of the Talion, eye for eye, is incomparably superior to the ‘law’ that we followed when we bombed civilian cities. The ‘law’ of World War II would be something like, ‘If you pluck out my eye, I’ll pluck out, not yours, but your baby daughter’s.” For those people that we destroyed at Hiroshima weren’t predominantly the soldiers or (much less) the military, political and economic elites who had waged war on us and had spread death, torture, and oppression across Asia and the Pacific. They were innocent civilians- labourers, industrial workers, farmers, teachers, doctors, librarians, priests- going about their daily lives, who shared nothing in common with Tojo and his armies besides a nationality. (And not even always that- a seventh of all the people killed at Hiroshima weren’t even Japanese, they were imported slave labourers from Korea. Wonder how we would have explained that to their families.)

I am not a pacifist, to say the least. I believe most rules have exceptions, and the general rule against killing has exceptions, too. It’s permissible to kill soldiers in war, as long as the war is a just one. It’s permissible, I think (though this is more controversial) to kill tyrants and the elites (military, political, economic) who are carrying out direct acts of oppression in such a tyrannical regime. In context of a just revolution, killing government officials, soldiers, and police of a fiercely oppressive regime can be justified. You can push this a little- though you start getting into morally murky territory- by executing collaborators, spies, enemy agents, and the like. Execution of people responsible for the worst crimes- think the Saddam Husseins, John Gottis, Jeffrey Dahmers- can, I think, be justified too. Abortion is the great ‘life’ issue being debated in our time, but even there, though I’m generally pro-life, I’d recognize exceptions on the ground of self defence, when the baby is a serious threat to the health of the mother. But all of those, with the exception of the last, involve people who are actively doing harm to others, or who have committed grave acts of harm in the past, and by their crimes have placed themselves liable to judgment. This is the difference, in other words, between using violence against the guilty and using it against the innocent. As the Mosaic law said, again, “The just and innocent man ye shall not put to death” (Exodus 23:7).

Why do Judeo-Christian morality, and natural law, make such a distinction between the guilty and the innocent? It would take a while to explain, but in part, it stems from the fact that it’s implicit in our nature to be rational moral agents, to make free choices to do good or evil, and to treat us in a way reflective of our human dignity means that the treatment we receive should in some way be reflective of the consequences of our choices and our actions. This is why we don’t sentence insane criminals to prison, because we recognize that a person can’t be held responsible for something they didn’t choose to do. In order for our choices to have meaning they must have consequences, and that means that the treatment we should expect when we do something wrong, or harm others, is different from the treatment we should expect when we have done nothing wrong. When we harm another person unjustly, they have a right to resist us by force, because we have merited that by our actions. But when someone else has harmed them, we’ve merited no ill treatment whatsoever, and to harm us would be an injustice by itself. It’s been said that you should never use violence against someone unless you can give them a good explanation of why. Some explanations work- they would be convincing to me, if my opponent were right on the facts. “You’re an enemy soldier, actively trying to kill me.” “You’re a tyrant who has murdered your opponents and stood by while your subjects starved and died of poverty and neglect.” “You grew rich off directing murderous gangs.” In all these cases, these explanations are plausible because they refer back to something the person has chosen to do, and show that the use of force is justified because of their own actions. But some such explanations are completely unworkable. “You must die because you’re Japanese”, or “You must die because you live in this city”. Would anyone find that a plausible reason they should die? Being Japanese, or living in Hiroshima, are incidental, accidental facts about a person, they’re not _essential_ to who they are in the same way that their moral choices are essential, and that’s part of the reason why, if we take natural law seriously, killing the innocent and those actively doing (or having done) serious harmful or unjust things, are two very separate enterprises. No one would want to suffer for something that they personally didn’t do, or weren’t responsible for. And if we wouldn’t want to be killed for something that wasn’t our doing, how can we decide that we should do this to other people?

It’s worth thinking back to the Transfiguration, and to remembering who was speaking with Christ: one of the two, of course, was Moses. Moses was, among other things, a war leader as well as a lawgiver, and was at the same time a deeply flawed man, and one through whom God chose (in some sense, maybe in a fairly attenuated and indirect one) to work. He was a controversial figure in early Christianity, and remains one today, not least because of his status as a war leader. (Some of those wars, and his guidelines for conducting a war, are rather hair-raising; I’m not up on my Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but I don’t think they quite match up to either the modern or the medieval ideas about conducting war in a just and moral fashion. To say the least, though I’m not about to start quote mining Deuteronomy. Spare me.). Quite a few of the early Christian heresies threw out the Old Testament entirely. The Marcionites and the Manichaeans were among them, and they pointed out, reasonably enough, that all the business about killing the men and male children of hostile tribes, and taking the women as wives, were incompatible with the law of Christ. And that’s quite true (Judaism, just like Christianity, evolved over time, and to judge the whole religion by some of its earliest and murkiest writings would be quite unfair). The broad Christian tradition, though they did accept the Old Testament as scripture, never saw Moses as a perfect man, or his writings as a perfect record of morality (Christianity didn’t agree with the Mosaic law on divorce, for example, and neither Christians nor later Jews followed its views on the conduct of war). Revelation is a gradual process, and moral progress happened between the time of Moses and that of St. Augustine.

We see this in what the Christian tradition tells us about Moses himself. We are told that the devil argued with the Archangel Michael over Moses after he died: “Yet Michael the Archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed over the body of Moses, durst not bring a railing accusation….” (Jude 1:9). This is apparently a reference to some Jewish apocryphal texts which I haven’t read; I should though because they sound interesting. The apocryphal tradition is that the devil claimed Moses’ body, on the grounds that he was a murderer. Now the Enemy is a liar, but he is also a smart cookie, and doesn’t claim things unless he has a hope of getting them. Implied in this passage is that the Enemy had a hint of a legitimate claim, in that Moses, as great as he was, had some serious flaws and limitations, and one of those moral flaws was an overly sanguine approach to war and to the ethics of war. Moses wasn’t welcomed into heaven because he was a perfect man, or because his moral code was perfect, or a perfect reflection of God’s commands; on the contrary, his flaws ran deep, just as his virtues did, and he was welcomed into heaven because of divine grace (as with us all), not because of his righteousness. He wasn’t a perfect moral authority any more than we are, as the story of the Enemy’s claim to his body makes clear, and that means that we need to look for where he was wrong as well as where he was right. And tradition tells us that the most questionable thing about him was his approach to war. The story of Jesus conversing with Moses on the holy mountain is a perfect reflection of how the new ethic of just and limited war overcame and superseded the old ethic of total war, Assyrian style.

Of course, Jude didn’t know, nor did Peter, that total war was gone but not forgotten. And that it would come back, on a grand scale, starting in the nineteenth century and reaching unheard of abysses of destruction in the twentieth, and would come close to drowning civilization in blood. St. John, another witness to the Transfiguration, gave us a hint of the terrible future, when he suggests that the powers of evil in this world would use the powers of nature to do strange and terrible wonders, and to envelop the world in flame. “And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on earth in the sight of men” (Revelation 13:13). As we reflect on the horrors that we wrought 65 years ago, this quotation seems particularly prophetic and chilling. When the world heard the radio broadcasts on that August day, it must have seemed to many that indeed, at last, fire had been made by human hands to come down from heaven on a greater scale than ever before. And they must have wondered whether, as St. John had foretold, this new age would be one in which the Enemy would have found a great new tool to work in the hearts of men to bring about hatred, evil, and destruction.

The nuclear age, unfortunately, is the age that we live in. Lamenting the destruction of Hiroshima is something we ought to do, but it isn’t enough. It happened 65 years ago, and most of the people involved have left this earthly coil; I hope all of them, Americans and Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, British and French, Russians and Australians, have been able to make their peace with God, and that the people on both sides who did evil that good might come of it, have repented and found forgiveness in the light of God and His peace. What’s left for us is to strive for a world in which that kind of horror never happens again. I’m glad that President Obama is striving for a world without nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction, but that will never happen without great and massive popular pressure. All of us- not just Jews and Christians but all of us- should be striving to ensure a world free of the weapons that could destroy all life on this planet several times over. And all of us should hope and pray that our military men and women are safe, healthy, and preserved not just from physical danger but from moral danger, and that the United States Government does not ask of them to break the laws of war, to deliberately target civilians and innocent noncombatants, and to do evil that good may come of it. Let’s hope and pray that there will be no more deliberate killings of the innocent in the name of the United States government, not now and not ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.