Saturday, November 21, 2009

Notes on Constantine's Sword - by James Carroll

Carroll begins the book by recounting the Pope's (John Paul II) visit to Auschwitz and the wooden cross erected there in memory of Christian martyrs. His concern is that the death camp, which has come to stand for "the abyss in which meaning itself died" for the Jews has become "the sanctuary of someone else's recovered piety" (page 5). This is indeed a poignant symbol of the flavor of the rest of the book. Carroll is himself a Roman Catholic - having been a priest. His sympathy for the Jews makes the book an important effort of reconciliation between the two great faiths. I learned much from the book. There is much to be praised in it. The only significant criticism I have is that the author often seems to compromise his own faith in an overweening attempt to heal old wounds, to admit the errors of the Catholic Church.

There is a memorial in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is the first memorial of the Holocaust. The legend reads, "Forgetfulness is the way to exile. Remembrance is the way to redemption." (See page 5.) This is powerfully true, especially as it refers to the God of Israel. Whether it was intended as such or not, it also implies the correct means of reconciliation that Carroll seeks. If the cross at Auschwitz is a symbol of how the Catholic Church has obviated reconciliation in the past, the memorial at Yad Vashem might be used as a truly effective symbol of reconciliation. Carroll does not mention (nor would the Jews probably admit) that it is Christ that seeks to gather Israel together "as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Mathew 23:37.) This is the scriptural affirmation of the Yad Vashem memorial. It is also a Christian affirmation. This symbol is from the New Testament and modern scripture, not from Israel's cannon. It is a reminder that Jesus' message has always been more redemptive of Israel than that of any, or all, of Israel's prophets. (It is primarily Isaiah that can be seen as a voice of redemptive optimism among them.) Israel's exile is a symbol of our universal mortal exile from God's presence. But like any exile, it is helpful only to the extent that there is remembrance - but remembrance of God, not just our many mortal sufferings.

But this is largely the problem. Many Jewish voices (especially Elie Wiesel and others) insist that the Holocaust (or the Shoah to the Jews) is without meaning. The murder of a million children requires this. To this accusation I can answer only from my own experience. I have never lost a child to such a horrible end. Nor do I impose my answer on others that have. But I do know that I have never been forsaken in my own, not insignificant, sufferings.

But Carroll is right that the cross at Auschwitz is wrong. It is the symbol by which Christians have indicted the Jews for centuries as Christ killers (see page 7). Even if this was not the intent of the Catholic Church in placing the cross there, the least suggestion that it might be so interpreted should have kept it away.

Carroll also suggests that the unspeakable events at Auschwitz, if viewed too closely with the cross, might infer their own expiatory significance - types of atonement themselves for having killed Jesus. This also brings up the problem of the very word "holocaust", which in Greek means a burnt offering. Accepting the word seems to imply to some that the murders were justly meted to the Jews for having killed Christ. Of course this interpretation is egregiously offensive. Jews have turned from this implication by shunning the very word in many cases. They prefer the word "Shoa" which is a Hebrew word meaning catastrophe. In its biblical sense, shoah means an absence of God's presence. It is the opposite of ruach, which is the breath of God. Ruach in Genesis is how God drew order out of chaos. Shoah is the undoing of this ordering (page 11). Of course I sympathize with this. I am pained at one of the implications though. It implies that God has abandoned part of Israel - at least in the eyes of the Jews.

This Jewish / Christian conflict of misunderstanding, as represented by the cross at Auschwitz, seems almost incapable of resolution. The centuries of hatred and accusations that Carroll's book narrates are examples of this. How can this be otherwise? The Jesus of Palestine was a Jew. The Christian Jesus after Nicea is a philosophical construct. They are clearly not the same being. I believe that the Jews, when they come to truly understand the nature of the divine son of a carpenter's wife from Bethlehem, will begin to feel again the breath of God. He will be, after all, one of them. Most certainly this will not be experienced before a cross at Auschwitz, nor will it be experienced before a papal tiara. When it happens, it will be in God's way. I look forward to that day.

But Carroll goes too far, I think, in his focus on the cross of Auschwitz. His comparison of the cross to the cross hairs of a spotting scope is offensive (page 20) to me and I'm not even a Catholic. Another reason for the perpetual misunderstanding through millennia has been the Christian perspective of the Jews. This perspective has been largely Biblical (page 19). The recognition of Jews as a legitimate contemporary culture, on par with any other culture, seems to be lacking. In a way this is inevitable for Jews have maintained their identity through centuries by remembering their roots. This certainly is impressive and may turn out to be a virtue if viewed strictly from a Jewish standpoint. For Christians, it would do better in many ways to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a state, unencumbered by the past. This is true because the Jews have been seen as a primitive faith superseded by the higher Christianity. Or maybe better, the Jews, that at one time were a favored family among Israel, have forsaken the truth and rejected the higher and purer Christianity. This perspective clearly fails to recognize, let alone accept, the Jews as a people worthy of their own right. It also seems to have doomed the Jews to the chronic stigmatism of being "Christ killers".

It seems to me that this trap may also be the reason for the apparent abuse of evolutionary thinking about religion in our time – even strangely enough from Christians. A Christian church that has supplanted a less favored Judaism imagines a religion that must evolve, or supersede, a malingering past. The seeds of the reformation, and even the enlightenment, may have been sewn in a tradition of restoration or purification but they have been frequently understood subsequently in evolutionarily terms. The restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, has significant implications for the validity of this mindset. First of all, it is a restoration of the ancient truth and not an evolution of it. Its claim is not that of superseding Judaism, but of restoring even the faith of Israel to its original true form. It is grounded on eternal principles and as such implies, and even testifies of, the reality of eternal truths. It also draws into question the validity of reformation, enlightenment, and evolutionary ideologies that seem to be outgrowths of the old Jews-as-primitive mindset that we have inherited from the Jewish / Christian misunderstanding that Carroll narrates.

A central point of the book is the responsibility for the holocaust that rests squarely on the Catholic Church. Part of this stems from the fact that Jew hatred was made a holy sentiment. In its more subtle manifestations we see the art, jewels, and even funds of the pre-holocaust Jews showing up in museums and banks, never having been acquired via just compensation. Apparently, even Volkswagen, Krupp, Ford and others benefited significantly from Jewish slave labor.

Another implication of the church is what it could have done to eliminate, or at least lessen, the significance of the holocaust. Hitler, at one point, eliminated 70,000 people in his euthanasia program. Many thousands more were also scheduled to be eliminated but were not because of the concerted effort of the Catholic Church. The historian Deborah Lipstadt suggests that, "had the Nazi hierarchy encountered unambiguous and sustained revulsion by non-Jewish Germans at their antisemitic policies, there would have been no Final Solution." (Page 30.) Similarly, Cynthia Ozick asks, "How is it, that indifference, which on its own does no apparent or immediate positive harm, ends by washing itself in the very horrors it means to have nothing to do with? Hoping to confer no hurt, indifference finally grows lethal; why is that?"

This is indeed a troubling question. No doubt, much of the answer lies in the truism that the sentiments of self-preservation are usually stronger than the sentiments of moral justice. We are, after all, mortal; and as such are constrained by our physical natures to avoid risks. Nonetheless, the awareness of our immortal souls does occasionally shine through. Unfortunately, this is usually only the case in a small minority of situations. Acts of life-giving altruism are uncommon, but they do exist. To many of these examples, scientists are incapable of giving adequate naturalistic explanations. These examples show that some extraordinary individuals can live by a higher law than those that constrain the rest of us. Sadly, these examples are uncommon. Most cases of altruism are explained as efforts of preserving our genes by saving those of our relatives. The fight against euthanasia in Hitler's Germany can be seen as an example of this. The efforts to save another people, the Jews, cannot. This would have involved those truly altruistic cases that science really has not adequately given naturalistic answers to. People with this kind of awareness are indeed rare. Far too few of these extraordinary people could ever be expected to have lived at once in Nazi Germany. Thus indifference can become lethal, because most of us fail to live by other than mortal laws.

Chapter five is a look at the Passion Plays of Germany, where they were particularly common and influential, especially around Good Friday. Carroll points out that these plays, though intended as reminders of Jesus' suffering (His passion), were also very much indictments against Jews. They were examples of how "the Church defines itself entirely by its enemy" (page 32). For Carroll's youth this seems to have been the case. For many years, he remembered only one Jew, other than his friend Peter Seligman, and that was Judas Iscariot. Judas' acts were particularly symbolic of Jews, at least in the eyes of Catholics, because he chose suicide instead of repentance. Perhaps stated more succinctly, Judas was a traitor. Carroll is right in denouncing this.

To me the suicide of Judas should never have been a symbol of Jewish cupidity. His end was indeed tragic, but it is also a testimony. It is evidence of at least a partial understanding of Jesus. After all, how does one go about asking forgiveness (as some have suggested he should) for causing the death of Christ? One might ask forgiveness, though with difficulty, for betraying a friend. But how does one do the same for the Son of God? To make out of Judas an example of venality, betrayal, and then unrepentant suicide only trivializes his understanding of Christ's deity and ultimately of the atonement itself.

Since the Holocaust, the Catholic Church has made significant efforts to make things more right with the Jews. In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Vatican Council, which brought forth the declaration Nostra Aetate (page 38). This declaration essentially shifted the Church's blame of the crucifixion from the Jews to the Romans. This seems to have been a jolt to Carroll at the time. He had been taught the difference between anti-Semitism, which the Church deplored, and anti-Judaism, which the Church taught as an important part of defending the Faith. Nostra Aetate seemed to compromise this apparently important distinction.

John XXIII’s efforts of reconciliation are strongly contrasted with Pope Pius XII, who has often been referred to as Hitler's Pope. Pius XII is most strongly criticized for his silence during the Holocaust. His supporters insisted that he could have done nothing to stop the Final Solution. His critics insist otherwise. They contrast his influence against communism where he excommunicated all communist members with a stroke of the pen. This is troubling enough, but Carroll shows that even the local Catholic authorities in Germany supported Hitler, either by encouraging submission to authority, or in outright support of the volk. Carroll cites Gordon Zahn on this (page 45). It seems to me that both authors are a bit tendentious on this subject, although I don't believe they are completely wrong in their assessment.

Judaism has without doubt been poorly understood by Catholics; and I might add, by most Mormons. Carroll explains his own early understanding of Judaism as that of an antiquated religion that had been superseded by the "new Israel", which of course, was the Catholic Church. This attitude conveniently vindicated the church in all condescending relationships with Jews. It also failed to recognize Judaism as a living faith. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have also found it convenient to understand Judaism only in a Biblical sense. Carroll uses the example of Abraham Joshua Heschel as an example of recent Jewish thought that has not been adequately considered by Catholics. Heschel was a longtime professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His two books: Man is Not Alone and God in Search of Man are important examples of the dynamism of actual Jewish thought. The central theme of these books is that of the living God (page 47). Heschel is cited saying. "The craving for God has never subsided in the Jewish soul."

This need of God should be compared to the traditional Catholic understanding of man seeking God, exemplified in Augustine's, "My heart is restless, Lord, until it rests in Thee." This Jewish contribution to our understanding of God is powerful, but I think the polarization between God needing man, and man needing God is misplaced. I certainly do believe that God greatly desires that we depend on Him. What a powerful concept that this need runs both ways. If this polarization is indeed a defining distinction between Catholics and Jews, then the truth of a mutual dependency, recognizing both beliefs, is also an important distinction of Latter-day Saints.

I certainly believe that self-sufficiency is an important gospel truth. So is a divine dependency. These two principles should not be mutually exclusive. To need God, to depend upon him, is really just another way of saying that we have faith in Him. This is the trusting part of faith that transcends mere belief. Heschel's understanding of God's need of His children certainly affirms the Biblical jealousy of God for man's religious attention. God does not want us to trust in manmade deities. Nor does he want us to trust alone in mortal technology. In this sense, divine jealousy requires self-sufficiency - a self-sufficiency that ultimately means our emotional and spiritual longings are not mortal.

Carroll then relates the reaction of Rabbi Heschel to the silence of American Bishops about Vietnam. Heschel called it blasphemy. Carroll equated the silence to the silence of German Bishops during the Third Reich. To me this brings up one of the most difficult and delicate religious issue confronting organized religion. To what extent are advocates of truth justified in compromising their advocacy out of political expediency? Two extremes of this question might be seen in the cases of Pius XII and Wilford Woodruff. Pius XII represented a powerful Catholic Church, and was not threatened politically by making strong statements against political regimes such as communism. By remaining silent about the Holocaust, his advocacy of truth must be questioned on moral grounds. Wilford Woodruff, on the other hand, was deeply troubled about the issue of plural marriage, yet was willing to stand behind it indefinitely if required to do so, even though it was politically unwise. He was the leader of a relatively small church and very susceptible to political leanings in America at the turn of the 19th Century. He stands historically vindicated in my mind because he refused to be swayed by uncomfortable political realities. It required a revelation before he changed the Church's practice of Plural Marriage. This revelation is very instructive. It shows that the Lord can withdraw, or temporarily stay, eternal principles or truths if this is politically necessary - especially if it would otherwise mean the destruction of the church. Those who seek truth in history have vindicated Wilford Woodruff. Pius XII does not stand vindicated. Should the American Bishops that were silent about Vietnam be vindicated? I'm not ready to say. I will say though, that this failure makes me wonder how much we have really learned from the Holocaust.

Carroll argues (on Page 54) that when the cross and the crucifixion became central to Christian piety, this focus also indicted the Jews, who were seen as being responsible for the death of Christ. The Cross and anti-Semitism developed together, perhaps inevitably. The cross became a symbol of contrast, defining Christianity in apposition to the Jews. This insight is useful. As a Mormon missionary in Catholic Spain, the cross represented apostasy. When asked, though, why this was so, we never really had a good answer. It sometimes implied a corrupt Catholic clergy. We also believed that it focused attention too much on the death instead of the resurrection of Christ.

Since my mission, I have become less critical of crosses and crucifixes. I suppose this is because I have become more sympathetic to the immense devotion that sincere Christians have expressed through these images - devotion that it is not my intent to destroy. But it has become clearer to me that the cross became important in church history as the Catholic Church lost divine direction. If crosses rankle with Jews, who see the centuries of abuse they have received from Christians in the symbol of Christ's death; I, as a Mormon, see it as a symbol of the corruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am much happier with the symbol of the fish - an older symbol, a symbol that the early Saints, still sincere followers of Christ's true gospel, recognized.

The issue of supersessionism is addressed on page 58. The word seems to come from the Latin 'supercedere' meaning 'to sit upon'. A footnote in the text lists eight points in which the Catholic Church has claimed to have advanced beyond Judaism as the chosen of God. In fact Catholicism partially defines itself by the faults of Judaism. There seem to be similarities between this contrast of faiths with comparisons and contrasts of opposing ideologies in science. It seems to me that the Mormon Church being a restoration is not plagued with this impulse of criticizing the roots from which it sprang in order to vindicate its own existence; an impulse typical of almost all faiths and ideologies. To be sure, Mormonism, like early Christianity started as a small group with a message contrasting with the religious milieu into which it was born. Both suffered persecution as a result. The difference between supersession and restoration is more easily seen when these faiths are successful. Christianity, even after Constantine, retained the impulse to criticize Judaism, that is, it continued the criticizing impulse of supersession. Mormonism, on the other hand, after having passed through its (major) period of persecution, retains no impulse to criticize the Christian community even though it continues to be criticized by many. I believe this must be due, in part, to the fact that the restoration does not need to define what it is by contrasting it with what it is not. Prescription as a means of political wisdom is clearly of value in a fallen world. The true gospel of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is revealed at once and understands itself by this revelatory process, and not by a history of other faiths.

On page 60, Carroll indicates that the cross at Auschwitz was erected, in part, to show that the Jews did not have a monopoly on suffering. In fact Carroll suggests that suffering has been used as a source of identity among Christians and even as a source of imagined superiority. This is, of course, lamentable and involves a gross misunderstanding of suffering. It is true that many righteous people have suffered due to no sin of their own. Sometimes these individuals suffer so others don't have to. Sometimes they suffer for any number of other reasons. It is a source of comfort to me that both Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith suffered greatly even though they were clearly instruments in the hands of the Father. Certainly our suffering does not imply unrighteousness. In fact, I believe that suffering must be viewed neutrally in the abstract. Individually it can provide invaluable meaning to life and of our relationship to God. But to use it as a claim of pious superiority is to obviate any sanctifying power it might have. Followers of a faith that has epitomized martyrdom and holy suffering should know better.

Notes on later pages may be forthcoming.