Exploring the Roots of Religious Intolerance
Sam Lloyd: Good morning to all of you, and welcome as we continue our conversations taking place at the intersection between faith and public life. Today we have someone who I think can help us explore one of the most troubling areas of life of religious people, which is in many ways the shadow side of religion, that reality of religious intolerance that creeps up again and again. To help us explore it is a long-admired friend of mine from my Boston days, who is, you may know, a very well-known columnist, the writer of award-winning books and novels, the writer of a trenchant weekly column for the Boston Globe and often seen on public television.
He is the author of a major New York Times bestseller called Constantine’s Sword, a history of the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with the Jews, that has recently been made into a documentary film exploring more broadly the problem of religious intolerance. It is a remarkable film that we will be showing here at the Cathedral tomorrow evening. I will say more about that at the end of our conversation.
James Carroll won the National Book award for his memoir, An American Requiem, about his complex relationship with his father, an Air Force general and a director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Jim Carroll is a former Roman Catholic priest and author. We welcome you. It is great to have you. (Applause)
James Carroll: Thank you, Sam. It is good to be with you, Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We miss you in Boston, Sam.
Lloyd: Thank you, Jim, I have missed Boston.
We are just at the beginning of Holy Week. A week from today, Palm Sunday begins the whole procession to Good Friday and Easter. It is the most sacred time of year for Christians, and we will be reading some powerful narratives of Christ’s passion, crucifixion, and death: something that is the absolute core of the faith of Christians, but something that has proven through the years to be very problematic for Jews, in fact two thousand years of problematic reality for Jews.
Why are these stories so inflammatory? What is it about this remarkable reality that is so powerful for Christians prove to be so troubling and even destructive for Jews? Why to you think that has happened?
Carroll: It is an important question, Sam, and a complicated one, but I might have reference, in answering it, to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which is a film that made such an impact only a few years ago and will be seen again by many Christians this week.
And the reason that it is a point of reference for me is because it was a literal rendition of the Gospels. Mr. Gibson defended himself from charges that the film was anti-Semitic by saying, my film only puts on the screen what is actually in the texts and that was true to the texts. The Christian passion stories, all four of them to some extent or another, some more than others, portray the story of the death of Jesus as if it took place because of the Jews. And the Romans, who are the instrument of the death of Jesus, are portrayed in the story as if they were manipulated by the Jews into doing something they really did not want to do.
Most famously, we remember Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate, with Lady Macbeth, is remembered as washing his hands, and the washing of hands in Pontius Pilate’s story is, “I am innocent of the just man’s blood,” and yet we know from history now, and from the scholarship of biblical scholars, that there is no reason in the world to think of Pontius Pilate as anything other than a petty tyrant, a brutal man, one of the most brutal local rulers of the Roman Empire, who would have thought nothing of dispatching a Jewish peasant nobody, troublemaker like this. He would not have had ambivalence. He did not have a tender conscience, which is the way the Gospels portray him.
So what does that mean to us? It means that we have to understand how the texts came to be written that way, and of course, the first thing to remember—and Mr. Gibson entirely missed this, because in defending himself, he said that I am just putting on the record the Gospel of John, and John was there, and John was an eyewitness.
But he wasn’t there. Did you know that the Gospel of John was written around the year 100. Jesus died around the year 30, and what happened in those intervening seventy years makes all the difference. And, of course, what happened in short form is, those who follow Jesus, those Jews who follow Jesus and those Jews who rejected the claims made for Jesus, became rival competitors for the legacy of Israel, because in those same years, the Roman war destroyed the temple and started the process that would end in the destruction of Jerusalem.
And in that context, the competition between one group of Jews—Jesus, the New Temple—and another group of Jews—Torah, study of the law, a New Temple—that competition led to this polemical dispute that is enshrined in the Gospels.
That history… It is urgent to know that history. Why? So that we can remove forever the idea that Jesus himself was opposed to the Jews. In the Christian memory we forgot that Jesus was nothing but a Jew from the day he was born until the day he died. If we had remembered that, we would never have been able to blame his people for his death.
Lloyd: So we have a real problem because, in the Gospel of John, for example, the reference is to the Jews and through the whole passion story, it was the Jews. In fact we have for many years around here referred to something like “religious leaders” to try and at lest take away the naming so specifically the Jews, but that does not really take away the problem.
What do we do with a situation where our sacred text is historically inaccurate, but it is telling the most sacred story of Christian people?
Carroll: It is a problem that we share with all religious people. Every sacred text is rooted in a moment in history, a moment in time. Every sacred text reflects the human condition.
Two points. Every Christian must develop the habit of hearing the anti-Jewish texts as if they are Jews. If you have ever brought a Jewish friend to a Good Friday Service, you have to squirm as you hear that phrase, “the Jews, the Jews, the Jews, let His blood be upon us and upon our children,” which of course it has been. We have to learn to hear the text as if we are Jews, just as we male Christians have to learn to hear the anti-female texts as if we are women.
Jews have their own version of this work to do with their troubling texts, learning to hear the anti-Canaanite text as if they were Canaanites; Muslims learning to hear the texts that polemically attack others as if they are the other. It is a responsibility that belongs to everyone.
And secondly, preachers especially have an obligation to learn to preach against these texts, to explain how they came to be written the way they did, but also to lift them up now, not to deny them, not to whitewash them, not to pretend they are not there, but to lift them up and preach them as the source of a two-thousand-year long sin of the church, which is the first note of the good news. Because the good news, of course, is not that God comes to people who are holy, sinless, flawless, but that God comes to people who are human beings of the human condition. And in the church the most important note that we have to strike about ourselves is that we, too, are of the human condition, which is not what disqualifies us, it is what prepares us to preach the good news.
Lloyd: Going back to the film “The Passion of the Christ,” that created a huge cultural phenomenon and huge enthusiasm for going to see it, particularly among Christian conservatives and fundamentalists, but also among traditional Catholics, and there was a loud voice coming out from the Jewish community with great concern about this. Why do you think the producers of that film insisted on doing it the way they did, in other words, and why did so many conservative Christians across the board stand behind the film in spite of the troubling parts that are in it?
Carroll: The film is in fact an epiphany. It lays bare much about who we all are.
Let me drop back a thousand years in history to make a comparison. There was a powerful theological treatise written in the year 1099 by St. Anselm called Why Did God Become a Human Being? And Anselm offered the answer that God became a human being to suffer and die on the cross. Not to live, not to preach, not to be resurrected. The suffering death of Jesus on the cross became the central note of Christian theology, the atonement theology of St. Anselm, the most powerful treatise in theology ever written.
It celebrated the violence of God, God willing the violent death of his only beloved son. You can’t understand that theology apart from the political and social context out of which it arose, because that was exactly the time of the Crusades. 1099 is the treatise, 1096 is the launching of the Crusades, and the battle for Jerusalem took place in 1099.
Anselm was the theology that justified the violence of the Crusades. Mel Gibson is the violent theology that justifies the war on terrorism; both events took place in millennial fever.
The millennium is also part this story. We think that only primitive human were at the mercy of unconscious impulses like millennial fever. Hello… do you remember Y2K? The Y2K panic was millennial panic. We too are human beings of the human condition. Mel Gibson puts on display the violence of God, and that is what was so objectionable about that film. It was of course deeply anti-Jewish in its portrayal of Jews.
One small detail: Jesus and those who love him in that film are portrayed without head coverings. All of the villainous Jews are portrayed with head coverings. Well, all Jewish males wore head coverings. It is wrong. It is inaccurate to have Jesus and the disciples without head coverings. It was a sly, subtle, nonverbal way of signaling that Jesus is not a Jew. Jesus and his friends are not Jewish.
Mel Gibson’s major problem with that film, however—and here is the question, why was it so popular—is its savage violence. The scourging of Jesus in that film goes on for twenty minutes. It isn’t that Jesus redeemed the world by his generous act of love, laying down his life. No, no, Jesus redeemed the world by his ability to survive sadomasochistic torture of an extreme level.
The sadomasochism of that film prepared the United States of America to become a torture nation. You can’t understand theology apart from political and social context. The Crusade of 1096 generated the theologic treatise of expiatory atonement. The new crusade in President Bush’s word of the early 21st century has generated a return to triumphalist and violent Christian theology just in time for the clash of civilizations.
Lloyd: You are touching now on a theme that pervades your marvelous film, “Constantine’s Sword,” the whole sense that it is the coupling of religious authority and religious, almost fundamentalist, sense of rightness about their cause, with state power, that has in many ways been the scourge of the last two millennia: and coupling government power and religious power and using that as a way to destroy those who are considered the other. When you jump to your film, you look at something as recent as the Vietnam War, to what has happened at the Air Force Academy dealing with fundamentalists. But why don’t you say something in general about that dangerous coming together of state power and religious authority, and then we will talk about some instances of it?
Carroll: Well, “Constantine’s Sword” is the title of the book and film because of Constantine’s pivotal significance in the Christian and now western story.
Why is Constantine pivotal? It is with the conversion of the pagan emperor Constantine to Christianity that two things begin to happen. The state uses religion to advance its political power, so Constantine sends his army into battle behind a cross, and Constantine uses Christian orthodoxy as the glue with which to collect a vast and diverse empire. Christian orthodoxy becomes enforced by the state. It is only now that heresy—remember, before the early 4th century, there were multiple ways of reading the story of Jesus, multiple ways of honoring the memory of Jesus, including some that overlap with Judaism, throughout the Mediterranean world. In each community different aspects of the story were given different emphasis, and of course that is why we have this range of texts, some of which were canonized.
But why are there four gospels instead of one? It is a signal that we recognize there is a diversity of readings of the story of Jesus. And when Constantine became a Christian, there were a dozen gospels, there were fifty gospels, we don’t know how many there were, but there was a rigid orthodoxy imposed on the Christian world for political purposes.
So the state uses religion for its own political advancement. And then the second thing that begins to happen is, religion uses the state to advance itself. And it is that combination, state using religion not for religious but state purposes; and religion using the power of the state. So this is when orthodox doctrine gets enforced by the state, and Constantine is the beginning of this.
Something is broken. After all, the Roman Empire, now advancing itself in the name of Jesus, portrays something crucial in Jesus, who died to oppose the Roman Empire. That dynamic repeats itself down through the centuries, and the great tradition of the United States of America is here beginning with a fellow by the name of Roger Williams, in Don Cutler’s hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Americans begin to understand the necessity of decoupling state power from religious power, and that separation is the most basic insight of our national tradition. But it can be lost when state power and religious power gravitate toward each other in times of crisis, as they have in the last few years; dangerous things begin to happen.
Lloyd: The legacy really does continue on, doesn’t it, from Constantine all the way up through the Crusades, through the religious wars of the reformation. There was always a national war going on with a religious war at the same time that people in power used religion. And, as you say, religion used people in power every step of the way, it seems like.
Carroll: And It is great in having a dark history like that in mind. It is also great to pay attention to those counter voices. Those people who said no to this. At the time of the Crusades, Abelard, a figure who challenged St. Anselm’s violent theology, and who also insisted that the imposition of Christian orthodoxy on those who were not Christians was wrong and a violation of God’s plan.
In the Renaissance it was Nicholas of Cusa who wrote, in response to the war between Muslims and Christians over Constantinople, wrote the most important, I would argue, the most important treatise of the early Renaissance in the late 15th century, called “Peace Among Nations.” And Nicholas of Cusa was the first one to say that there can be no peace among nations without peace among religions.
And his voice, alas, was lost then in the Reformation wars, and it was the Reformation wars, of course, that became so extreme that the early founders of this nation reacted against them and insisted, as Roger Williams put it, “The magistrate has no right to coerce in matters of conscience.” He was the one who understood, and Jefferson picks it up two hundred years later, that the only way to protect freedom of conscience is if the magistrate, the state, is religiously neutral.
Lloyd: One of the fascinating parts of your film “Constantine’s Sword” is the strand that holds it together is really autobiographical, because, in a way, in your own life, in your relationship with your father, you lived out this tension between military might and the vocation of the church. Could you say something about that dynamic, about what you wrote in the American Requiem, and why you see in it a parable of the whole tension that we are talking about today?
Carroll: The curious fact about my life is the way in which my personal story is intersected with the church’s story and intersected with the story of politics, religion, politics, and a personal problem.
The event where these three things came together most powerfully, at a turning point in my life, with the Cuban missile crisis, and this was a building that was full of people who were coming to pray during the days of the Cuban missile crisis.
Some of you are old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis. It was personal to me because my father, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was the person who was first shown by the analysts the photographic evidence of Soviet missile sites being put into Cuba. And, as I refer in both American Requiem and this documentary film, my father was the one who brought those photographs to Secretary McNamara and President Kennedy. But the Cuban missile crisis isn’t well enough remembered, so it was a bolt of nuclear terror.
The fear that Americans felt in those days was transcendent, and it changed this country. A few months later, John Kennedy gave the most important speech of his presidency, I would argue, at American University down the road, in which he called for reconciliation in the Cold War. It was a plea addressed to the Soviet people, a defining statement of peace, and I would argue it was the beginning of what we came to call the peace movement.
Read that speech, Google it, the American University Speech, June 1963. It led directly to the partial Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union, the beginning of arms control, the arms control regimen that enabled the Soviet Union and the United States, over the coming decades, finally to end their conflict nonviolently. It began with the Cuban missile crisis.
The second thing that happened during the Cuban missile crisis that is forgotten: in those very days the Second Vatican Council was convened. Why was the Catholic revolution, which became the Christian revolution, the most important religious event of the 20th century, certainly in the west? Why was the Second Vatican Council the revolution that it was? It is because of the Cuban missile crisis. The conservative bureaucracy at the Vatican stopping Pope John XXIII’s impulse to bring real change to the church, controlled the agenda of the Vatican Council, and they controlled the drafting of the documents of the Vatican Council. Pope John complained to Cardinal Cushing at one point, “I am in a bag here.”
Do you know what got him out of the bag? The Cuban missile crisis, because the Council convened. The agenda was put by the conservative faction of the Curia. The first draft of the first document was put before them, and it was the document on the liturgy. It was pious reiteration of old devotional thoughts about the Eucharist and the sacraments, and no ground broken, and certainly not the one change that people had anticipated, which was putting the liturgy in the vernacular, in the common language, not on the table, not even referred to in this draft document.
That document would have probably been passed, but the proceedings were interrupted by the world crisis of the Cuban missile crisis, and in those days John XXIII, in effect, demonstrated the importance of a reformed, relevant, and lively Catholic Church, made a personal plea to President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, and Khrushchev used that plea with the Soviet people as the cover behind which he retreated from his most belligerent position. He and the White House both honored John XXIII for quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and he gave them both a way to back down. And the Council fathers knew that, and it was in that period that they rejected the agenda set by the conservative bureaucracy.
They rejected the doctrine, the dogmatic statement on the liturgy, and within a few weeks, they replaced it with their own new declaration on the liturgy, that included the bringing of the altar down from high pinnacle of pyramid structure of the high altar. It included bringing lay people into the actual exercise of the liturgy and, most momentously, it eliminated Latin as the language of the liturgy and said that the liturgy should be in the language of the people, which is the first condition of democracy, which is of course why the first issue in the Reformation was the language in which texts and liturgy were available.
My personal story, the political crisis of world terror, of nuclear war, and this defining change in Catholic and Christian thinking. I could say the same thing about the church’s even more momentous change, the church’s definition of its relationship to the Jewish people became the second most important or, I would say, the most important affirmation of the Council. Nostra aetate, repudiating the Christ killer charge, even though it is imbedded in the gospels, and affirming the permanent ongoing validity of the covenant God has made with Jewish people, ending forever—although not quite, because it is not finished the Christian tradition of super secessionism replacement theology—the idea that the church has replaced Israel, therefore Israel has no right to exist, which proves to be a short step to Jewish people have no right to exist.
So, Sam, it is a long-winded note to strike, but the personal story that a lot of us share, nuclear terror, a religious story, religious response to a political crisis, and the change in the theology that results.
Lloyd: One more question, and then we will throw it open to the audience. Just to follow up on that, to me one of the most vivid images from the film is the image of the Pentagon, where you describe how your father is in there, working to carry on the Vietnam War, and you, the young Roman Catholic priests, are down below in the crowd, demonstrating, getting arrested, being carried away.
Not only was that a destructive moment in your relationship with your father, but it seemed to define, or express, a different vision of the church, a sense of the church that has to in some ways position itself outside the power of the government, be willing, when it is time, to make a prophetic stand against it. And you tell that story in a larger piece of your film, which is about how religion becomes picked up and energizing force for American policy itself, as if America is on a crusade. So, in one image, we see you outside, seeing the church as provoking and challenging. A lot of the rest of that story is about how religion, even to this day, becomes wedded with government and its own agenda. Which of those do you think is the way forward?
Carroll: I may have miscommunicated in the film, and I want to be a little more modest, both about my own role and about what we claim as religious people. I was at the demonstration outside the Pentagon, and I was a mere seminarian at the time. I was not ordained yet. My brother Dennis and I went to a couple of these demonstrations. Dennis is here this morning, a USAID official.
I certainly was not arrested at the Pentagon. For me, just to cross the river and be there was traumatic, and I would never have been there if I weren’t in the company of fifty thousand other people, and I was confident that my father would not see me. So let’s be very clear about the character of my participation. And I would also say, let’s be very modest as religious people in what we claim.
There are a lot of left-wing Christian folks, and religious people generally, who like to talk about the church as the conscience of the nation, and we stand for the values of virtue and justice, and we are the voice that speaks truth to power, and it is a very familiar stance for those of us who have been in the anti-war movement down through the years, but we shouldn’t be so glib about it. We should acknowledge that we religious people have been as much the source of the trouble as the solution, in fact, even more, I would say.
It is very important to have in mind where the great rhetoric of human rights and justice comes from. It does not come from the church. It comes from the French Revolution. It comes from secular rejection of religion. We religious people have learned in the last couple of hundred years to pay attention to the rights of minorities, to affirm freedom of conscience, to respect the other on their own terms, and it is not true that these are traditions that come from religion. It is important to acknowledge that.
Of course, having learned, we recognize now that these are the core meanings of Jesus and, I would say, the biblical tradition generally. This is what was being pointed to, but because of our human inability to hear, we didn’t. The church, beginning with Constantine especially, was co-opted into participating in the temptations of state power.
Why is this important? It isn’t in these recent days that we religious people have stood against the terrible mistaken war in the Middle East. It is that the war in the Middle East has drawn a lot of its energy from our religious assumptions as Americans. We do not talk about salvation, “there is no salvation outside the church,” we do not say that even in the Catholic tradition anymore, but in the United States of America, we talk about freedom in exactly that way.
If you substitute the word freedom for the traditional proclamations about salvation, you will hear the echo. There is no freedom outside the free world. There is no freedom except the way it is defined by the United States of America, and we will proselytize in the name of that freedom. We will go forth and preach it to all nations. We will spread democracy. There is an underlying religious impulse there that touches something in our unconscious.
We religious people have to be modest about our claims. We have to acknowledge our part in this problem, and in only that way then to stand against it, but always to remember, and this is certainly true of every—I am a critical Catholic—every sin of which I accuse my church or my nation is a sin of which I accuse myself. And it is very clear to me about that, what the world does not need is a self-anointed prophet standing up and telling others how to live and how to behave. And especially it does not need such a prophet who is armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, which is what we in the United States of America still are.
Lloyd: Let’s go to the audience.
Deryl Davis: Does anyone have a question for us? Could you come to the center for us, please?
Question 1: Jim, this is Robert Hundly, a friend of Tim’s and Lex’s. In the Vietnam Moratorium, we held a demonstration outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue, and we shut down 5th Avenue, and the reason that we did, which maybe was not clear, was that we felt that the war in Vietnam had been largely orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Church, by Cushing and by Spellman, and John Kennedy gets a pass on this and gets a pass from Chris Matthews and a lot of other people. I just wondered if you would talk a bit about that, because it seems to me that our young president was very much manipulated by his cardinals.
Carroll: Robert, I welcome the question, and it is a question of history, of course, and history is always to be debated. But I will tell you what my understanding of the story is.
First of all, I would separate very much Cardinal Cushing and Cardinal Spellman. They represented very different impulses in the American Catholic Church, and it is a signal of John Kennedy’s trustworthiness that his preference was for Cardinal Cushing, not Cardinal Spellman. Cardinal Spellman supported Nixon in 1960. Cardinal Spellman, if you remember, was the Catholic Archbishop of New York. The short of it, Robert, as you know and I remember that demonstration at St. Patrick’s, in the middle 1950s, when the French were defeated in Vietnam and the South Vietnamese regime had to be established, Cardinal Spellman was the main sponsor of a young Catholic anti-French activist who was in exile from South Vietnam or from Vietnam at that point named Ngo Dinh Diem, who was living in a seminary in Spellman’s diocese in New York, pious, medieval style Roman Catholic a celibate, mystic, Ngo Dinh Diem.
Spellman sponsored him to key figures like Henry Luce and old Joe Kennedy and key members of the Washington establishment so that Dinh Diem became the American candidate to be the head of what became a “puppet regime” in Saigon.
He was very Catholic. His brother was the Archbishop of Saigon. His other brother was the head of the secret police in Saigon, and that brother was married to Madame Ngo, who became notorious in this country. The three of them began to run an inquisition-style Catholic dictatorship, imposing a kind of ruthless post-colonial system on a mainly Buddhist population.
The first American mistake was the belief, and Secretary McNamara reports this on himself in his own memoir in retrospect, he came into office as secretary of defense believing that, as he put it, South Vietnam was a Catholic country, sort of like Poland, and that is the perception in this country, so that when Buddhist monks began to immolate themselves in protest against this repressive inquisition-style regime, they were understood in this country to be communists who were protesting against an American freedom-loving regime. That mistake was the beginning of the mistake, and the Buddhists were not communists, and Vietnam was not a Catholic country. It was ten percent Catholic, and the Catholics were those who had embraced the culture of French colonialism, by and large.
The overwhelming majority were Buddhists, and there was another minority who were communist, and that is the beginning of the mistake. And it is in that sense, Robert, that I think the Catholic Church can be said to have sponsored the beginning of the mistake. And you will recall the tragedy, of course, that the CIA was complicit, it has never been clear how complicit in the assassination, well, in the overthrow of the Ngo Dinh Diem and his brothers and that took place on All Soul’s Day in 1963 and Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, fleeing, dressed themselves in cassocks of Catholic priests. You couldn’t write this, Graham Green couldn’t write this. (Laughter)
So, men in flight from the generals, who were being encouraged by the CIA, because by then the United States got it, that this regime had no standing with the people, they were in flight, and they disguised themselves as priests. They were captured, and they were murdered, and that was a bare three weeks before Kennedy’s own murder, and those who paid attention to the murder of Diem had to feel the murder of Kennedy as somehow related. In Vietnam it was taken to be somehow mystically related. Madame Ngo notoriously connected the murder of Kennedy with the murder of her husband.
So that is the beginning and of course, Robert, those of use who wound up in the so-called Catholic peace movement, some heroes of it like yourself, some timid quiet people on the margin of it like myself, we understood that there was a particular Catholic debt that had to be paid. And I am proud to say, with the leadership of people like Daniel and Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister and other great figures of the Catholic peace movement, some of that was paid.
Lloyd: Let’s go to our next question.
Question 2: Jim, Joe Maudfield, Sam.
Carroll: Good morning, Joe.
Question 2: A researcher friend of mine who checked into church history told me that there were three attempts, at least, in the church history to get rid of the Book of Revelations from the New Testament, and each time it ran into such resistance that it was never successful. I don’t really know any more details about that, but the Book of Revelations is so powerful in seizing the imagination of so many American Christians, and it also is used to justify Christian Zionism and a kind of dismissal of the Arabs, the Muslims, 1.2 billion people in the world, as necessary to be eliminated so that the end of times and the final millennium takes place. What can we do about the Book of Revelations?
Lloyd: Before you answer that, not everyone may be up to date on their Book of Revelation, so could you say a short word about what it is, and then what we can do about it?
Carroll: I am no expert on the Book of Revelations, and, having said that, to me it always—not always, but at a certain point in my life, I began to think of it as the record of an LSD trip. It is a kind of grand, imaginative, explosively imaginative portrayal of what I took to be the war of the Christian movement against the Roman Empire. The violence of it, and the bestiality of it, and the definition of good versus evil, and of the things that strike the Christian ear in somewhat destructive ways, depending on when we hear, begins in this I think really quite glorious declaration of the ultimate defeat of the Roman Empire.
Of course, the problem is, when people begin to read any text literally, especially a text that celebrates violence and a kind of us against them definition of good versus evil, it can be dangerous. And the Book of Revelations becomes dangerous, of course, at the first millennium, because it is in the Book of Revelations that we are told that the thousand-year rule is definitive, and it is that magic number thousand that becomes lodged in the Christian imagination in the year 1000, and the millennial fervor—that is when you get the dance of death, the madness of plagues that spawn savage acts of violence against Jews, it is when people begin to, in a way, have a collective nervous breakdown that is all in the context of religious fervor.
The millennial impulse touches something deep in the human psyche. Adolph Hitler was a millennialist. Why is the Third Reich is going to last for a thousand years” That is the definition of it. So, Joe, the Book of Revelation has weight in certain people who read texts literally and try to understand texts in a magical way, and I would again argue, it is a phenomenon tied to our unconscious response to this millennial moment. And the millennium, of course, is a complete abstract construct. It is just a number, after all, for goodness’ sake, and yet that is what makes human beings such magnificent creatures. It is details like this, it is accidents like this, that spark our imaginations for good as well as for ill, and in recent years the Book of Revelations has sparked the Christian imagination for ill quite a lot. And there are Christians now who see it as a summons to war against the world of Islam.
Let’s just say, finally, the way to measure the authenticity of the reading of the text is to see what it leads to in the world. And if it leads to violence and cruelty, it is an inauthentic reading of the text. And if it leads to compassion and love, that is the standard. How do we measure the truth of our theology? If it leads to compassion and love. And if it leads to attacks, it is wrong. The theology that said Jews are no longer in God’s favor led to attacks, and that theology is wrong, and similarly with the violence of the millennial passages in the Book of Revelations.
Question 3: That said, which comes first? The passion of the followers to act, or the leaders? Clarence Thomas left the Catholic Church because it was not leading on the civil rights movement in the Sixties, when you have Muslims who are inflamed by their leaders, or is it by the people first? Which comes first in this march towards violence and fighting against, as opposed to compassion and love?
Carroll: It is an astute question with an important observation imbedded in it. And of course the tension between leadership and the people is always dynamic, and you cannot say one is first and one is second, although I would argue that, in our times, the thing to pay attention to is the movement from below, and it is the expression of the will of the people that we learned in the 20th century to be attentive to.
It was the will of the people that ended the Cold War nonviolently and not the leadership. The leaders were all convinced, my father was one of them, that the conflict with the Soviet Union had to end violently, and they were wrong. All of the expertise, from Henry Kissinger to Jeane Kirkpatrick to many people that worshiped here and elsewhere in Washington, all of the people who were by definition the experts on Sovietology had it wrong.
The people who got it right were Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel on one side of the Iron Curtain, and the derided idealistic peaceniks on this side of the Iron Curtain. And that movement from below led to the magnificent event of the nonviolent dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when President Reagan, whom I honor for responding to Mikhail Gorbachev the way he did, but when President Reagan when to Berlin and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” what he and the American press completely ignored was the fact that Mr. Gorbachev was already tearing down that wall, because he had to respond to the pressure from the people.
The democracy movement on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain wasn’t irresistible. He could have responded to it with a fist, which is the way that dictators have always responded to such movements in dictatorships in the past, and Gorbachev did not. He responded with an open hand that cost him his own position, ultimately, and he offered that open hand to Ronald Reagan, and one of the greatest events of the 20th century, and why we properly honor Reagan is, he found it possible, the hawk of hawks found it possible to respond to Gorbachev’s open hand with an open hand of his own.
It was not the leaders, but it was the people, and when we are talking now about the world of Islam, pay attention to the people. The vast, vast population, a billion Muslims, the vast majority of whom are people who value the same things we value. The greatest moment of Kennedy’s presidency was that speech at American University, which he ended by appealing across the boundary to the Soviet people by saying, “And we all live for our children’s futures, and we are all mortal,” and the mortality that we have in common is what was heard, and of course, when Kennedy’s own mortality was then put on such powerful display a few months later, his function as a prophet of peace in another way was set.
Lloyd: I want to follow up just a moment, Jim, you mention the Muslims there. One of the themes in your columns, and the film as well, is, not only has the church dealt with anti-Semitism all along the way, but now we are seeing what you call Islamofascism coming up, and in a way another kind of demonizing. You want to say something about what seems to be a contemporary manifestation of that demonizing of the other?
Carroll: I will try to quickly say something about it. It is of the human condition to define yourself positively by defining someone else negatively. Remember Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase, the news show, remember, who used to begin it, “Good evening, I am Chevy Chase and you are not,” do you remember that?
Why is that funny? He is mocking the human tendency to define yourself positively by defining someone else negatively. It is not enough to be Chevy Chase. I am a Christian; you are a Jew. I am saved and you are damned. Christianity defines itself positively over against Judaism defined negatively, and this of the human condition. In western Europe, we defined ourselves positively over against Islam. It is deep in the DNA of western civilization. In the 8th century, in the 9th century, Martin of Tours stopped the Islamic army in the center of France, and he became the founder of the European political system. His grandson was Charlemagne. The royal families of Europe were descended from Charlemagne.
Europe defined itself against Islam. Europe came into being positively by defining itself against the negative of Islam. Islam was the enemy outside, Jews were the enemy inside. This dynamic is basic to western civilization, and when you are at war against an enemy outside, you attack the enemy inside. The first violent attacks against Jews in Europe took place during the Crusades, which were a violent attack against Muslims outside. The war against Islam, which, I would say, began in this space, this sacred place, at the memorial service after 9/11, and thank God for this Cathedral, a place that the nation comes to in a moment of real need, but there was a way in which this was the wrong place for that moment, because what we did put on display for the world in that, especially the television, because the cameras are nervous and they have to settle on something, and it was the Christian iconography of this space that the cameras kept resting on, and Christian iconography, especially the figure of the crucified Jesus was the wrong image for that moment.
I say this humbly and modestly and no disrespect for the decisions made. It was an accident, but it was the wrong moment, and what it did was, it put on display the Christian character of our nation, which is a complicated part of who we are, but it needs to be nuanced, and at that moment we needed far more nuance than a television camera was capable of delivering. We have defined ourselves positively over against the negative of Islam now. That is what Osama Bin Laden wanted us to do. He counted on it and we did it.
Lloyd: Someone has been waiting, and we will have a very brief question and then we will have to stop. Very briefly, please.
Question 4: Good afternoon, I think that it is afternoon now. You are saying a lot of marvelous things. Back to Revelations. Revelations is not a book to be feared. By the time you have read from Genesis to Jude and gone through all of the texts with the Lord, Revelations is like a grand exam describing the devil as opposed to the Lord—
Lloyd: We need to hear a question.
Question 4: Yes, yes, those beastly things are descriptions of the Lord and the devil, and don’t you believe that the Lord’s Revelations is necessary? How can we leave out God?
Carroll: I welcome the chance to say yes, I do believe the Lord’s Revelation is necessary, thank you for giving me the chance to say that. Revelation of what? That we are all already beloved of God. Jesus did not come to save us but to reveal to us that we are all already saved.
Lloyd: On that note we will conclude. (Applause) I am having a hard time getting them quiet here, Jim. We are taking a two-week break from the Sunday Forum, as there is a little thing called Holy Week coming up, Palm Sunday and the journey to Easter. We will back on March 30th, with Congressman John Lewis helping us think about civil rights and racial reconciliation. We hope you will come and be with us for that.
Don’t forget the film tomorrow night at seven o’clock, “Constantine’s Sword,” in the Perry Auditorium here at the Cathedral. Please linger for some coffee and conversation in the back of the Cathedral, and by all means join us at 11:15 for our service today, and thanks again to Jim Carroll for being with us. (Applause)