March 21, 2011
— Martin E. Marty
Jerusalem, Jerusalem is not about Jerusalem the city. Guidebooks abound and histories are plentiful. What author James Carroll was moved to write is a reflection that deals with Jerusalem both as real and as metaphor. He does not exactly do justice to or make much of his subtitle: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, but his reflections will ignite at least sparks in the minds of readers who want to ponder with him the question: what is it about religion, with all the solace-bringing good its various forms can bring, that also prompts and promotes violence of most barbaric sorts?
I was one of a half dozen respondents to the book at a program at Brandeis University in Boston last Monday. Our panel featured the requisite Jewish, Muslim, and Christian participants—two of each—who could have finished off the guidebook/history approach quite easily. Dealing with Carroll’s chosen plot, however, was demanding. Those of us who count the author a friend, interact with him on occasion—as I do at programs of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute in Grand Rapids—or argued with him over details of his earlier and provocative Constantine’s Sword expect more of him than one more guidebook or history. While his early reviews tend to be positive, some have criticized him for his choice of approach. Thus Damon Linker in the New York Times chides him for using Jersualem in ways which Linker calls “messy.”
Carroll does not pretend to be objective or dispassionate, though he does not side with Christians or Jews or Muslims in the many forms with which they have dispensed violence or told stories about it. So depressing are many of the expressions of Jerusalemitis, that puzzling, disorienting, and often apocalyptic fever which afflicts or is emitted by so many Jerusalemites through the ages, that some of us panelists pondered: what hope is there in dealings with militant people who successively or, worse, concurrently inhabit the sacred and bloody hills. Carroll, metaphorically taking off from Jerusalem’s mountains (as Jesus and Muhammad “really” did, in some cherished texts), was apocalyptic as he envisioned where sacred violence might lead, but let a glimmer of hope shine on the city. People work at peacemaking, he implied, because despite all the warring and bloodshed, “people” overall would prefer peace and more quiet lives.
That kind of warning and dreaming will get you quite far. Carroll is inspired by René Girard’s influential “scapegoat” theory. It suggests, as Linker summarizes, “that human society and culture are shot through with bloodshed that can be tamed only by further acts of bloodshed. The pre-eminent example of violence taming violence, he says, is religion, which arose out of the practice of human sacrifice—a ritual that enabled a community to channel and purge its primitive impulses in a single cathartic act of collective bloodletting.” One need not buy into all details of the Girard speculations to follow Carroll’s theories, which at times sound like cautions against religion and at others as advertisements for some of its forms.
Unfortunately for his own peace and quiet, Carroll writes a weekly column in the Boston Globe. He said something critical of Israel’s recent treatment of Palestinian families on disputed property in eastern Jerusalem. The response from several Israeli voices was instant, vehement, and verbally violent. Whatever else such columns do, they show that violence is still at hand and poised. Monsieur Girard: after the escalations of violence, is there a scapegoat?
Damon Linker, “Grappling with Religion and Violence,” New York Times, Sunday, March 20.
“Speaking of Faith: Inter-Religious Dialogue in the 21st Century,” Kaufman Interfaith Institute, Grand Valley State University.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.