[with thanks to Stephanie Mendlow]
never did this before
let’s see if it’ll work
after all the unhappiness
I was ready for this
maybe you too[b]
“The UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
–Nelson Mandela (December 4, 1997)
We know who Nelson Mandela was, but who was Ariel Sharon? A larger-than-life Israeli hero who secured the Jewish homeland against its implacable enemies? Or a reckless warrior who twisted the course of Israeli-Palestinian history into its present hopelessness, fear and hatred on one side, bitterness and hatred on the other? I see the latter, and a consequent erosion of confidence in the future and a deepening anxiety on all sides, including the American. If that seems harsh, see the obituary of Sharon in The Economist: “For some he was indelibly ‘the butcher of Beirut,’ the man who in 1982 dragged Israel into a bloody and gratuitous war in Lebanon which shamed it before the world. For many more he was the hero of the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the man who led his troops across the Suez Canal and thus saved Israel from defeat by Egypt” (January 18-24, 2014, p. 90).
In Jerusalem in 2007—Sharon was then two years into the eight-year comma that followed a massive stroke—I asked a retired American business executive who had moved to Israel how he felt about the future. Without a moment’s pause he said he’d feel a lot more confident if Israel still had Ariel Sharon at the helm. Yet we must wonder: Are the Israelis more secure today, or more endangered by the slow-moving tide of international opinion, which knows that this occupation, now in its fifth decade, must somehow come to an end?
Recently the ASA, American Studies Association, voted to boycott Israeli universities; the intent is to cut off academic exchanges and cooperation in research, but many commentators have belittled the effort by saying it has only “symbolic” effect. That the ASA declaration and others like it in Europe have been met with angry howls indicates precisely that such a symbolic action has powerful effect. It delegitimizes.
Predictably, the boycott declaration has been met with charges of a “double standard” when judging Israel as compared to predominantly Muslim countries. The big difference is that the United States is not linked in economic and military alliance to these other countries as it is to Israel. The other main charge is anti-Semitism–“in effect if not in intent,” said Lawrence Summers (interview with Charlie Rose, PBS). The critics do not pause to comment on the substantive rationale for the action, but only the presumptive motives of the actors. Speaking now anecdotally, but from first-hand experience: At the Palestinian university in Nablus I asked, “Why does it appear that most of the students are women?” They answered, “Most of the young men are in military detention.” I learned from talking with Palestinians who are professionals in Haifa (in Israel proper) that segregation between “Jew and Arab” prevails in public schools, funding for the latter being a small fraction of the former. We Americans are familiar with the “separate and un-equal” formula.
Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, it is delegitimizing the long-dominant Likud bloc. To put it generously, their policies are racist “in effect if not in intention”!
As Americans know, racism has consequences. In Palestine I heard a woman tell how her son, a reporter for the Reuters agency, had been shot and killed in Jenin while photographing demolitions by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). I also heard the mild-mannered Vice Mayor of Bethlehem tell how his young daughter was shot and killed by the IDF in while sitting in the back seat of the family car on the way to the grocery store. Such cases (and thousands more could be told) are regularly explained as the unfortunate result of necessary “security” concerns. Quite apart from the way any moral person feels about such events, think about their cumulative effect on the attitudes of Palestinians!
In Tel Aviv we visited Adam Keller, whose Israeli Peace Bloc publishes ongoing commentaries on the quest for a just peace (see http://www.gush-shalom.com). A January 18, 2014 column by Uri Avnery gives a fascinating summary of Sharon’s career and character: “An ex-general, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, told me yesterday: ‘He was an Imperator!’ I find this a very apt description. Like a Roman imperator, Sharon was a supreme being, admired and feared, generous and cruel, genial and treacherous, hedonistic and corrupt, a victorious general and a war criminal, quick to make decisions and unwavering once he made them, overcoming all obstacles by the sheer force of personality. One could not meet him without being struck by the power he emanated. Power was his element. He believed that destiny had chosen him to lead Israel.”
When I was a college student travelling in Europe, I recall a suave Swiss psychiatrist (he said he didn’t smoke because it interfered with his appreciation of kirsch) asking us what we Americans thought of Zionism. It had never occurred to me to think it was anything but a noble movement to build a homeland where Jews would create a safe, democratic, and prosperous nation. I was surprised that he asked, and he seemed bemused by the innocence of our answers. This was long before Israelis came to call Ariel Sharon “the king of Israel.”
I can date my “the king has no clothes on” awakening precisely: 1982, when Sharon led the IDF into Lebanon, concealing his intentions from the world, and even from Prime Minister Begin. The onslaught was deadly and destructive; the puppet he placed at the head of the Lebanese government was assassinated within weeks, and hundreds of Palestinians were murdered in their refugee camps. For allowing the massacre to occur he was subsequently held responsible by an official Israeli inquiry; the military and moral debacle cost him his command. For the time being.
In September, 1982 I gave a sermon at the Unitarian Church of Arlington, Virginia—the Pentagon is about 2 miles down the road!—called “Israel Is Creating Palestine.” The title was perhaps too clever by half, or perhaps a century ahead of its time. My intention was to say that the very attempt to deny that a Palestinian people exists (in Israel they insist on only calling them “Arabs”) raised Palestinian national aspiration. Sharon failed to engineer a Palestinians takeover of Jordan, and failed to install a compliant ruler in Lebanon, but boasted success, nevertheless:
“Normal life has returned to the Galilee. . . . The kingdom of terror that the PLO had established on Lebanese soil is no more. . . . No army in the history of modern warfare ever took such pains to prevent civilian casualties as did the Israel Defense Forces. . . . Determined as we are to defend ourselves, it is the path of peace that is most pleasant to us.” (Op-ed column by Ariel Sharon, “Gains form the War in Lebanon,” The New York Times, August 29, 1982.)
After Sharon died, this month, Ari Shavit (author of the acclaimed book, My Promised Land) commented in an NPR interview on the irony of Secretary of State John Kerry praising Sharon: he opposed everything that the Adminstration’s peace initiative stood for! I think Kerry’s words were “diplomatic” and credit his labors as courageous, if not quixotic. The January 15 Washington Post (p. A8) reported that Mr. Netanyahu’s ministers of Defense and Housing both publicly derided Kerry’s efforts to gain support for a peace agreement by satisfying Israeli “security” demands. His reward was sarcasm: his proposal “is not worth the paper it is written on,” said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. “The only thing that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”
All of which brings us to our present, depressive state of mind. To gain peace between enemies (and it does happen in history) the parties have to both want it and believe that it is possible. We keep hearing that peace is not possible (Netanyahu said the other day about Abas exactly what Sharon used to say about Arafat: “We don’t have a negotiating partner.”) Apparently what they mean is: Peace is not desirable if it means, among other unhappy things, discontinuing settlement construction on land that the other side thinks is up for negotiation. In short, for Israel there is no downside to the status quo. Given the guarantee of American largesse in perpetuity, who needs change?
When I wrote on “The Demise of the Two-state Solution” a little more than a year ago (www.campicello.wordpress.com, December 2012), friends told me I was too pessimistic. Then last September 15 The New York Times published a lead essay in its Sunday Review section, “Two-State Illusion,” by University of Pennsylvania professor Ian S. Lustick. With far greater academic authority than I can claim, he said pretty much what I had said, and went one step further, as the sub-heading suggested: “The idea of a state for Palestinians and one for Israelis is a fantasy that blinds us and impedes progress.” In other words, we must look for radically different solutions. Lustick comments: “The issue is no longer where to draw political boundaries between Jews and Arabs on a map but how equality of political rights is to be achieved. The end of the 1967 Green Line as a demarcation of potential Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty means that Israeli occupation of the West Bank will stigmatize all of Israel.”
As for Secretary John Kerry’s ongoing effort, we can say: If it succeeds, At last, thank God! And if it doesn’t, Maybe this will help tear the scales from our eyes, however painful clear-sightedness may be. Yes, only equal political rights will resolve this conflict.
Some suggest that, if he had lived, Sharon would have found a way to withdraw settlements in the West Bank, as he did in Gaza, and reach some kind of a deal. They even called him a “warrior for peace.” Perhaps, but Ariel Sharon is dead.
And remain silent?
Arthur Schopenhauer, 30 July 1804, on descending Schneekoppe mountain
A little more than a week ago my son, Eric, grandson, Erick, and I set out to climb Old Rag Mountain, in magnificent Madison County. We got a somewhat late start–noon had already passed when we set out on the Ridge Trail, at Nethers, for the five and a half hour trek–meaning that our return by the Saddle Trail, along the gentler, south slope, would be completed in a steadily descending dusk. The autumn cool was perfect for hiking, with pale sunshine coming through the haze as we trudged the ascending trail–until the haze deepened into mist and the mist into cloud.
At 3268 feet, Old Rag is not the highest peak in the Shenandoah National Park; that would be Hawksbill, at 4050 feet, aptly named for its sharply curved face. Hawksbill stands a couple of miles southwest of Old Rag, and hosts the Appalachian Trail. But Old Rag stands apart. Instead of the smooth contours of the long Blue Ridge, it is capped by crags and huge boulders. No wonder Old Raggedy is such a popular climb–not a bother but a blessing, to have fellow-climbers at some of the wildly steep-and-tight spots, ready to give you a hand or a fanny-boost. Son Eric, a serious runner, scaled the rocks handily. Grandson Erick scrambled and leapt, scorning my warnings about the dire consequences of a sprained ankle. I labored along, as steadily as I could–what was Goethe’s motto? Oh yes: “Without rest, without haste.”
The sun disappeared as we ascended. A chilly breeze moved me to don my previously discarded sweater once again. I had been up Old Rag several times before, but had never ascended into a low-lying cloud, as we did this day. So, no grand views of the valleys far beyond and below? Just all this fog? I knew the mountain’s way of fooling you into thinking you were almost at the summit, only to discover that another summit, and yet another, lay somewhere beyond those massive rocks. What playful, superhuman forces put them here? (And how can we help personifying them?)
On the last ascent we came into the sunlight again, as if emerging from Plato’s Cave into another, a brilliant, world. We were set afloat. Arthur Schopenhauer, who crafted a whole philosophy out of pessimism, had his mountaintop experience by reaching the peak at sunrise: “Like a transparent ball and much less radiant than when one views it from below, the sun floated up an cast its first rays on us, mirrored itself first in our delighted glances. . . .”
One suspects that old Schopenhauer, who as a young man felt he could not “climb and remain silent,” came to recognize that language reaches its limits in the face of our most profound experiences. Bone-deep weary, I felt at once exhilarated and quieted. Schopenhauer has been compared to another Teutonic sage, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “What one cannot speak about one must remain silent about.”
The descent from the mountain top remained before us. Again the sun faded into the fog, as we negotiated the long, darkening, rocky path, step by step by step. Now Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seemed more sensible than Arthur or Ludwig: “Ohne Hast, aber ohne Rast.”
Here follow words written to honor the memory of a great friend, a colleague in Unitarian ministry, and one of the most extraordinary men I have known. How so? That story is told in the oral history I wrote with his cooperation several years ago, Feribacsi In His Own Words (see publications page of this blog).
My words were occasioned by the funeral of the Reverend Nagy Ferenc (Francis Nagy, pronounced “nadge,” with last name first, as in Hungarian usage), affectionately called Feribacsi (“Feri-bachi”), who died this month, aged 97 years, at his home in Sighisoara, Romania (or as the Hungarians prefer, in Segesvar, Transylvania, attached to Romania on account of the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered the old Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War.) That’s a lot of explanatory parentheses, but they should not make us think of the people and the land of Transylvania (Erdley, in Hungarian) as utterly foreign, or even weird (the home of Dracula and all that). They are friends, they are members of the oldest continuous Unitarian church community in the world–dating from the 16th century–and after several decades behind the Iron Curtain, they rejoiced in being rejoined to the Europe that was their historic homeland.
This historical background is implicit in my remarks for Feribacsi’s funeral. I did not attend in person, but the Reverend Torok Istvan, another great companion in the Transylvanian Unitarian ministry, graciously translated and conveyed my words for the service, held at Ferenc’s home church in Segesvar. –GKB
In memory of Nagy Ferenc
At whatever age a man should die, it seems too soon. Our hearts were not prepared to lose you, dear Feribacsi, from the land of the living. Nor could they ever be prepared, satisfied to accept your passing without a pang, without the heart’s silent protest. Now it must be spoken for all to hear: in your community, among your grieving kin, among all of us who loved you. For this is our witness:
We love you still, and so we know that you are present still—your great benign presence among us, living still in our hearts, living in our lives so long as we shall live, living always in the communion of saints, and sinners too, gathered round the throne of God, just as we gather here.
You received us gladly when we first came to your enchanted land, so like a fairy-tale princess under an evil spell. In your many years you saw the rise and fall of dreadful regimes, and you embodied endurance, good humor, and steadfast faith among your people. This was your triumph. Where had we Americans been all those years—cowering on our side of the Iron Curtain? Your indomitable spirit helped your people to break the spell. For us your “Let’s go!” spirit—carrying us from church to church up and down the land—helped us to break through the isolating barriers that keep strangers from being friends.
Our congregations, your Segesvar and our Arlington, became partners. We did the most radical thing in the world: introduce people to one another. You and dear Piroska came to meet our people, to preach and sing your songs with us, to see our Capitol city, to enjoy our country home, dubbed Campicello by a U. S. Navy captain, with a pond that you dubbed our “pocket sea.”
Of our many journeys to your land, most memorable was racing from Seged to Segesvar on a Sunday morning. I was to preach, in this very church your father built! Piroska played the organ on and on during our delay, but you were calm and confident of our arrival. Also most memorable, the church in Feheregyhaza that you (not to be outdone) built by dint of your own creative drive. It is a beautiful structure that binds the old and the new in one–just like our liberal faith, as you said in our oral history, published as Feribacsi in His Own Words.
Also most memorable, traveling together to Kukullosard, with its ancient church in an ancient village named for an ancient princess. Coming from afar, you said the village with its surrounding hills called to mind Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem, about the hen who gathers her brood under her wings. It is an image of the peaceable kingdom, the community of God.
Ferenc, may you rest well in the eternal community of God.
George Kimmich Beach and BarbaraKresBeach, MadisonCounty, Virginia, U.S.A.
This picture was taken last December, at the Children’s Museum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Barbara and I were visiting our new grandson, Aiden. I liked the image of the young man (16 months old) intently engaged, and the old man (just turned 78) already in the background, looking on, pondering. So I chose this image to accompany the author’s blurb on the back-cover of my new book, The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark, and I dedicated the book: ”For Aiden Charles Beach and his rising generation.”
The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark
by George Kimmich Beach
And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness, and he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him. Mark 1: 12-13
Intriguing questions addressed in the book:
Jesus proclaims, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Was this a colossal blunder, foretelling the imminent end of the world? Or was he calling people to reach out in faith and grasp the healing presence of God?
(See Chapter 4)
In Mark, Jesus’ ethics seem pragmatic or even calculating, as when he says, “The measure you give will be the measure you get,” and “Forgive so that you may be forgiven.” Do these admonitions contradict the idea ofunconditional love and forgiveness?
(See Chapters 12 and 31)
Mark says that Jesus “did not speak to them without a parable.” Never? Why would he constantly veil his message in figures of speech and obscure stories that even his disciples fail to understand? What unlocks this secrecy?
(See Chapter 14)
The oldest manuscripts of Mark end abruptly, with three women discovering that Jesus’ tomb is empty. Resurrection appearances such as those found in the other Gospels are absent. What can it mean that Mark only says, “He goes before you into Galilee”?
(See Chapter 40)
About the author
George Kimmich Beach is the author of Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Skinner House Books, 2005) and Questions for the Religious Journey (Skinner House Books, 2002). He has edited three volumes of essays by James Luther Adams, including An Examined Faith (Beacon Press, 1991). A graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Wesley Theological Seminary, Beach served Unitarian Universalist churches in Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia, and an urban ministry in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Madison County, Virginia.
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Send orders to Campicello Press, P. O. Box 419, Madison, VA 22727-0419
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From the “Introduction”
A pathway into the origins of the gospel is also a pathway forward from the present, toward the future we choose. This book seeks to uncover that pathway.
All that we know of Jesus and his original message is derived from a few ancient texts, among which the Gospel According to Mark is particularly fascinating and often perplexing. Mark came first among the four Gospels of the New Testament, and as such planted the seeds from which subsequent traditions, especially those in narrative form, have grown.
The Seminal Gospel is an exploration of Mark and an extended personal reflection on what his telling of the story of Jesus can mean to us today. Its two focal points are intimately related. One is Mark’s text, taken so far as we are able, on its own terms. This especially means resisting the temptation to overlay our preconceived ideas about Jesus and his message on the text. The other focal point is simply what we, the readers and the author, bring to our reading. How distant our world is from the first century world of Jesus and the others vividly portrayed by Mark! And yet the humanity and passionate concerns of these people is immediately felt. In their story I recognize my own story. My hope is that readers who follow my explorations and reflections may more fully discover their own stories.
These two focal points are in tension with each other; but taken together they can generate significant insight. Like the two points which define the arcing line of an ellipse, they hold the promise of joining fuller understanding of a central religious tradition to fuller understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings. This kind of outward exploration and inward reflection will require of us a certain effort, perhaps forty days’ worth—here offered in forty chapters for convenient, if not easy, daily consumption!
This book culminates a labor of research and writing which has extended, desultorily, over several years. From time to time I’ve asked myself, to what end did I embark on this journey? At length I have answered: to rediscover the origins of the gospel, the good news, brought by Jesus. In my attempts (however desultory!) to follow the pathway he blazed for us, I have sought to understand where it leads today.
The study has taken the form of a devotional and educational exercise. Without originally so intending, I came to divide Mark into forty segments. Some readers may want to make the reading of Mark’s Gospel a spiritual practice during the forty days of Lent. But any forty days or more days will do! Taking time for patient reflection is what counts.
The commentary is intended to stimulate and focus the reader’s understanding of the story of Jesus that Mark tells. We do this best, I think, when we actively interrogate the text, asking, for instance:
- Who does Mark think this Jesus is, and what do I think about him?
- Setting aside all the ideas about Jesus I’ve picked up over the years, what puzzles me, or surprises me about Mark’s way of telling the story?
- We often hear people say they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” Why does Mark’s Jesus not use either of these terms?
- What insights do I gain into what it means to be faithful—for Mark in his world-age? And for myself in this world-age?
In his essay, “Naming God,” the noted philosopher and Biblical scholar, Paul Ricouer, writes:
Naming God, before being an act of which I am capable, is what the texts of my predilection do when they escape from their authors and their first audience, when they deploy their world, when they poetically manifest and thereby reveal a world we might inhabit.3
In this book Mark is the text of my predilection, and I find that it invites me to name God in my contemporary life-experience.
For those who are accustomed to questions of defining God, or of proving (or disproving!) God, naming God may seem an exceedingly odd notion. But with spiritual awakening comes the paradoxical recognition that God is by definition indefinable. And still more certainly, the recognition that attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God founder on the fact that they must presume to have defined God before they begin. (Often they will say, “Well, everybody knows what ‘God’ means! The only question is, does this God exist?” But the premise in this line of thought is entirely false.)
The present work is a personal and reflective commentary on the Gospel of Mark. More pointedly, it is an invitation to the meta-noia—the radical rethinking of my experience that Jesus’ first words in Mark, the first Gospel, call for. Professor Ricouer helps frame the central question of the inquiry into this text of my predilection. Does it deploy and poetically manifest a world we might inhabit—a world in which the gospel is available to us as a main-spring of faith? More simply stated: Does this ancient text enable me to name God in my contemporary experience?
Consider that your first answer may be, “No,” or perhaps, “No, but I’m intrigued.” Religious understanding requires, I believe, not just sight but insight, breaking through the crust of appearances and being grasped by something vastly deeper. So caveat lector! Before you enter Mark’s world, consider that it may prove seductive.
G. K. B.
Mourning is the homage our bodies, our minds, our souls pay to grievous loss: lost lives, lost dreams, joys, hopes, and expectations, lost innocence, lost innocents. Our first need in a time like this, when loss on an incomprehensible scale has come upon us, is to mourn. Only our souls can tell us when it’s “enough.”
Music, such as the prayers beautifully sung by the rabbi and the young Muslim boy in the Newtown memorial service this week, enable us to grieve as does nothing else I know. I am longing to hear again Henryk Gorecki’s masterpiece, Symphony No. 3, called “Three Sorrowful Songs.” (We have the deeply moving recording with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman.)
Poetry too can be a solemn reminder of our need, if only to stop. This week my heart stopped for another Emily Dickinson poem:
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth –
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting things away
We shall not need to use again
The grief-swept heart is also a hearth, and its sweeping is a humble task. What then are the tasks to which we who count ourselves among the dedicated community are called? (I do not think you need to be a member of a “religious community,” but I do think you need to see yourself as part of a community dedicated to the common good, responsive to its needs.)
The first task of the dedicated community is to open a space for mourning in our personal and social lives. There is always the temptation “to pass by on the other side,” unlike the Good Samaritan, or to pause briefly and soon forget. The entertainments brought us by the mass media — with the exception of some broadcast and print news outlets– will do everything they can not to let us “stop for Death,” to shut mourning out. This tragic massacre calls upon us to weep with those who can only weep until we and they have wept enough.
The second task is to tell the truth: A demonic evil has visited us, yet again. Has this rough beast finally got our attention? “We know who you are!” the demons cry out to Jesus (see Mark 1:24) — a strange testimony to the way in which a blessed presence brings evil out of hiding, out into the open, hoping to shock and awe us with postured self-importance. “Demonic” signifies deeds that twist what is good to evil ends. Being pressed by Piers Morgan on CNN to justify the absence of gun controls, an unflappable gun seller said, “The truth is shooting semi-automatic guns is fun.” I’d never heard “fun” so stoutly defended, as if he took us for idiots. Demonic expression often takes such grotesque forms. The United States of America is shamed among nations for its culture of violent “fun.” Our task is simply to tell the truth about guns, video games, movies, sports, even art— starting with ourselves.
The third task is to give voice to righteous anger: What keeps our society on its knees, worshipping at the altar of this culture of violence? We have made of “freedom,” precious freedom, an idol, a stuffed scarecrow of a god. We have twisted the image of God – the spiritual freedom in which we are made– into a license to please ourselves and never stop. But of course anger is never righteous unless it is directed to good ends, unless it takes our spiritual freedom in hand and puts it to work. For instance, to enact gun regulation at least as serious as our regulation of ladders, to fund mental health programs at least as much as we fund the TSA, to eliminate obsessively fascinating gratuitously violent entertainments of all sorts.
We can be gratified that President Obama, by saying that we must act as a society to end the violence such as we have seen in Newtown, Connecticut, has heard the public outcry, at last, and has called for legislative action. He has once again showed himself to be our Pastoral President — a calm and consoling leader, calling the flock to support one another, praising Newtown’s example of courage and compassion before the world. Knowing that a minister is also a community organizer, he also said that we, America, must do better by our children and by even ourselves, in concrete and costing ways. He thereby puts not only us but also himself on the spot, actually to do it!
But lest we too quickly pass by this ugly visitation, Death — this eruption of demonic fury, laughing in our faces as it crams the innocents into its maw — lest we fail to stop and ponder the meaning of this meaninglessness, I want to cite Ross Douthet’s column in the New York Times, December 16, “The Loss of the Innocents.”
“In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, Ivan is the Karamazov brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, killed—babes caught on the points of soldiers’ bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of five locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.
“Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God—a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.
“ ‘Can you understand,’ he asks his more religious sibling, ‘why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? . . . Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?’
“Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at ‘too high a price.’ Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth ‘the tears of that one tortured child.’
“It’s telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his character’s speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness.
“In this, the Russian novelist was being true to the spirit of the New Testament, which likewise seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.
“In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today—besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow—is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
“That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
“The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable—the shadow of violence, agony and death.
“In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.”
Journalists and poets have become our theologians. Who will be our prophets?