"WAR, PEACE, AND A CRISIS IN THE LIFE OF GOD": AN ESSAY BY JACK MILES
My story begins with two memories of war. Neither memory is mine except indirectly. Both are stories that my mother has told me about my very young self. I was born seven months after Pearl Harbor. My father, as an employee of the Commonwealth Edison Company in Chicago, deemed at the time a strategic industry, and as the father of a newborn, was not immediately drafted. However, as casualties rose, the fateful call finally came. When it did, I was just past my second birthday. My little sister, Mary Anne, who had arrived in the interim, was seven months old. For weeks after my father left for Camp Crowder in Missouri (the name Camp Crowder is one of my earliest verbal memories), it seems that I refused to eat dinner. I would explain, my mother tells me, that we didnt eat dinner until Daddy came home from work. Night after night, I refused to believe that he wouldnt come home if we just waited a little longer. Because her own deepest fear was that one night or other she might learn that her husband truly would never come home, hearing these words coming from my mouth was almost more than she could bear at times. Thats the first memory.
The second memoryagain, not mine but hersis of my reading a few years later in the Chicago Daily News an early, grisly account of the Bataan Death Marcha brutal forced march in the Philippines of American soldiers captured by the Japanese. I could decode the words, but at age six I could scarcely begin to cope with the content, and I burst into tears. Among other immaturities of understanding, I could not believe that Japanese soldiers would not show up at our front door to take my father away and do to him what they had done to their American captives in the Philippines. In a quite similar way, I could not grasp that Roman soldiers like those who under King Herod had slaughtered all male infants under the age of two in the Gospel According to Matthew, would not show up at our front door and demand my baby brother, Terry. I was precocious, you might well say, and yet not quite precocious enough.
Physical violencewar, in a wordhas played a key role in the genesis of what even enthusiastic reviewers of God: A Biography have called my peculiar approach to the Bible. To the extent that an author can ever know such a thing about his own work, I find the distant origin of that book and its sequel Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God in the nightmares of a little boy who began worrying about war as soon as he could talk.
I turned seven in midsummer, 1949. Mine was a Roman Catholic family, and in the months before Easter all second-graders in my parochial school took instruction for our First Holy Communion. As this instruction was being imparted, in February, 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy terrified America by announcing that he had in his possession a long list of communist agents secretly working at high levels in our federal government. Many Americans received this report as today we might receive a report that agents of Osama Bin Laden had penetrated the Federal Aviation Administration.
McCarthys innuendos triggered a chain reaction of ever more frightening rumors. Things got so out of hand that the nun who was preparing my class for our First Holy Communion told us sorrowfully that Josef Stalin and Harry Truman had secretly met in the White House itself. This hair-raising report sailed right over my classmates heads. Unfortunately for me, I had been reading about the Russians in the newspaper; and learning that they were about to take over the presidency, I once again burst into tears and had to be escorted to the office of Sister Mary Demetria, the Sister Superior.
Sister Mary Demetria, I am happy to say, was no paranoid but a woman of deep and humane wisdom. My conversation with her that day, early as it came in my life, stands as a kind of turning point. It was then that I learned the paradox that a large sorrow can sometimes soothe the pain of a small one. Of the alleged Truman-Stalin conspiracy, she said only that this rumor was unconfirmed. She added, though, that she was sure many of the rumors flying around would prove false. "Dont believe everything you hear," she told a seven-year-old who, by and large, did believe everything he heard: Another simple but crucial lesson in how to maintain ones political composure.
As for the Cold War, however, to her great credit, she did not try to hide it from me, young as I was. Instead, she did what she could to show me that even the superpower standoff, terrifying as it was, could become less terrifying when you understood its context. Her way of providing context was not immediately religious, but it became religious before she was finished. She began in the classic manner of all wisdom literature by sinking my individual sorrow, my individual fear, in the general human condition. She had a large rotating globe in her office, and she stood me next to it while she turned it slowly and pointed to one place after another where war was raging at that very moment: Jews against Arabs, Indians against Pakistanis, Greeks against Turks, a civil war that had left millions starving in China, and so forth. All this bad news ought to have further upset me, but it did not. It made my sorrow, and even the true danger to my country seem smaller against the panorama of all the other violence in the world. Before sending me back to class, we knelt down and said a prayer in her office for world peace.
Sister Mary Demetrias therapy worked so well for me that several months later, in June, 1950, when President Truman declared war on North Korea, my best buddy and I rode around the neighborhood on our Communion bicycles cheerfully crowing, "Truman declares war! Truman declares war!" Deep down, though, I was a little less cheerful than my pal. Through the rest of that year, I followed the progress of the war in the newspapers with a degree of attention beyond my years. Toward the end of 1950, or just after I entered third grade, President Trumana man more mocked than admired in our neighborhoodsacked the legendary Gen. Douglas MacArthur for incompetence and insubordination in commanding the American troops in Korea. You would have thought, however, and I did think, from the tumultuous reception MacArthur received on his return home, that it was the president rather than the general who owed the nation an apology. In New York, a ticker-tape parade up Broadway was followed, after dark, by a melodramatic, floodlit rally at the Polo Grounds. When MacArthur said "Old soldiers dont die, they just fade away," millions of eyes overflowed with tears, millions of hearts burned with righteous anger. A mighty throng sang "God Bless America," and talk began to spread that MacArthur should run for president. A few even said he should become president without waiting for an election.
Thank God, it didnt happen that way. A better soldier, Dwight Eisenhower, stood for election in the ordinary way and became a better president than MacArthur would ever have made. As for me, sometime in 1951, I disappeared into a reasonable facsimile of the happy anaesthesia of American childhood. I acquired, in other words, an almost if not quite normal sense of security and immunity that lasted for the next ten years, or until I turned eighteen and had to register for the draft.
Mine was a lower-middle-class social stratum in which no one of my parents generation went to college and no one, male or female, ever thought of career. The word career was used, oddly enough, only of women, and then only, with a certain sadness, in the phrase career woman. A career woman was a woman who had never married and had no family to fill her life with pride and joy. A career woman had a wardrobe better than Moms and wore more jewelry and makeup than she did, but a career woman had to go to work every day; and when she came home, it was to the silence of an apartment full of precious, breakable things that no one with kids would dream of owning or ever really want in the first place.
As for the career man, the species simply did not exist. Men did not have careers. Men had jobs, and men were never happier than when they could leave the job and come home to the family.
For the news-hungry reader that I had continued to be, however, one other idea did creep in at the margins, a career idea and not a job idea, and that was the idea of newspaper reporting. Each day, my father left early in the morning to take the bus and the elevated train to work. Each afternoon, he came walking back home with his lunch bucket in one hand and, in the other, the Chicago Daily News that he had read during the ride home. Picking up the Daily News wherever he dropped it and reading it spread out on the living room carpet, I gradually hatched the notion that though nobody like these reporters lived on a street like ours, most of them did seem to live somewhere in the Great City of Chicago. Their work seemed to me something I could almost imagine doing myself, though for some reason this was a secret I shared with nobody.
As it happened, there existed at that timethere may still exist, for all I knowan organization called the Serra Club whose members, enlightened and rather well-to-do Catholic laymen, were on the lookout for able but underprivileged Catholic boys who did not want to become priests but might well be the future lay leadership of the church. When I was a high school senior, and editor of the school newspaper, this group awarded me a fabulous blank-check college scholarship. All reasonable expenses would be paid, whatever they were. Moreover, quietly declaring their independence from the clergy, they informed me that I could take my scholarship to any college, Catholic or not, that would accept me.
The school I wanted to attend was Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, home of the Medill School of Journalism, where I had attended a summer program for high school students after my junior year. Northwestern met with the approval of the Serra Club, but then two things happened, two things that were connected, though I didnt see the connection at the time, two moments heavy with echoes from the traumatic early experiences with which I began.
First, in the company of my father, whose presence had made the moment seem all the graver, I registered for the draft. I did not guess--no one did in 1960that over the next fifteen years 50,000 American lives would be sacrificed to the vanity of leaders who could not admit that they had made a terrible strategic mistake in a fully legitimate struggle against communism. And yet there was already something ominous in the air. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were both making American vulnerability the rhetorical center of their presidential campaigns. Kennedy claimed, falsely, that Eisenhower and Nixon had let a "missile gap" open up between the Russians and us. Nixon hinted, with no more evidence than Kennedy had of his missile gap, that Kennedy was a reckless liberal who would lead America into military peril. What mattered was that both men presented the United States as engaged in an apocalyptic struggle of ultimate good against ultimate evil. The Sancho Panzas of the world, wiser than the Don Quixotes, take this sort of thing with a grain of salt. The Don Quixotes, and I am a Don Quixote, find such rhetoric at once terrifying and intoxicating.
Connected, psychologically, to the experience of registering for the draft while the two presidential candidates competed with one another in alarming the American public was something that happened during my senior class religious retreat. A charismatic Jesuit preacher evoked for us boys a scene drawn from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. He told us with somber eloquence to imagine a vast plain, and on it two immense armies, each stretching as far as the eye could see. One army was captained by Christ the King, the other by Satan. In our minds eye, we were to see Christnoble, self-sacrificing, asking everything of his followers, but asking nothing of them that he has not already given himself. And then we were to see Satancruel, tyrannical, egotistical, taking everything from his followers, and giving nothing but fatal illusion in return. Despite the fact that the Devil had long since become a metaphor for me, I found it easy to surrender myself to this hour-long exercise in guided imagery, for I was living in a country that believed that good and evil were engaged in a cosmic struggle. Long before President Ronald Reagan used the phrase, millions of Americans believed that the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire. But were we a Holy Empire? No one really believed that; and as a boy of eighteen, I was honestly searching for that great good with which I might wholeheartedly ally myself. Where, if anywhere, could it be found?
The retreat master had given our retreat a kind of theme song or leitmotif in the Latin phrase Quid hoc ad aeternitatem? "What is this to eternity?" I had and still have a fatal weakness for noble sentiments expressed in foreign languages. Before the retreat was over, I had made my decision: The Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order itself, would be my great cause, my existential solution.
And so I handed back my blank-check scholarship and gave up journalism, forever as I thought. What did the Jesuits have? Well, the motto of the French Foreign Legion isanother of those thrilling Latin phrasesLegio patria mea, "The legion is my fatherland"the legion, note well, not France. I was far less committed to Roman Catholicism as a form of Christianity than I was in love with the romance of the Society of Jesus as something like the foreign legion of the Catholic Church, proudly intellectual and yet arrayed like an army on the battlefield of history. Conveniently, I blush to recall, my enlistment in this exalted army meant that I would never be drafted by that other army. All Jesuits, as members of a religious order, enjoy the clerical exemption from military service.
I spent the 1960s almost to the day as a Jesuit, leaving the order, without rancor, when I could no longer deny that the Church, finally, did have to come before the Society of Jesus just as France, finally, did have to come before the French Foreign Legion. And as the Catholic claim on truth became a more pressing theoretical question, celibacy became suddenly a much more pressing practical question. I left the order in 1970, lost my virginity in a big hurry, then drifted away from the church itself and for several years had no institutional relationship with Christianity in any form. About ten years after leaving the Jesuits, having married the woman to whom I am still married, I found my way back to Christianity through the welcoming portals of the Episcopal Church. As for my work life, though I had completed a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Harvard University, I found my way in short order out of academe into book publishing and on into the journalism that had been my first love and my first goal.
I had become a Bible scholar, you see, largely because while still operating as a loyal Jesuit in Christs foreign legion, I was asked to do so. Acquiring a doctorate in Old Testament was not, in the first place, my idea, but I knew as well as my superiors did that I was good at learning foreign languages, and I knew that this was if not truly the key skill, then at least for most the main obstacle. When my superiors asked if I would take on this challenge, I saluted smartly, in effect, and marched off to Harvard. There was, of course, the minor detail of winning acceptance at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, but the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, where the study of the Hebrew Bible was housed, had had a more or less happy experience with Jesuits who had preceded me, and they let me in.
We are now up to the academic year 1966-1967, the year of the Six Days War in Israel. I spent this year as a special student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, preparing for Harvard by studying Hebrew and archaeology. In the following academic year, 1967-1968, I was at Harvard, and the spring of 1968 proved to be the wildest single season in a decade of unrest. Every Sunday, the Cambridge Common was blue with marijuana smoke, and rage against the war in Vietnam was at fever pitch.
Two years or so later, though I was near the end of my doctorate, I considered calling the whole thing off as not my idea in the first place. My private romance with the Jesuits was rapidly coming to an end, and with it whatever vague hope I had entertained that the Bible could be made to function as a revolutionary manifesto for the Catholic Church. I began to think of the Church as somehow somebody elses responsibility, not mine. As for the Bible as an academic subject, I was unexcited by Harvards approach to it because I was unexcited by history as a discipline. Essential as history is to the adult mind, I have always seen it not as the drama but merely as stage upon which the drama is performed. Bible scholarship that sought to write the history of Israel followed by the life of Jesus and then by the history of the early churchall this as a grand epic for which the Bible was merely one source among otherscame seem somebody elses life work, not mine. What had always privately excited methe game I loved, the sport in which I refused to surrender my amateur statuswas imaginative literature, and this was a game that by and large established Bible scholarship did not play with any enthusiasm.
During the years after my graduation from Harvard, my contacts in private life with unbelievers and with unaffiliated questioners who did not care to be pinned down even by so flexible a label as agnostic grew ever wider. As they did, I became ever more persuaded that these people were more like me than they were like my teachers. The historicity of the Biblethe sorting out of what had happened from what had not, what had really been said from what had notdid not much excite them. When they read the Bible at all, they read it rather as they would read the Iliad. In such a reading, God was important in the one classic as and only as Zeus was important in the other. In either case, the relevant importance was to the story.
Thinking of these people and of myself as someone who might have something to say to them, I ventured a brief but programmatic essay in 1972 entitled "The Debut of the Bible as a Pagan Classic." I was new enough to publishing, and naïve enough in general, to be crestfallen when the response to it was utter silence. I had hoped to find at least somebody to talk to or correspond with. In retrospect, I could perhaps have looked a little harder, but I did not. There was, as ever, a job shortage for humanities Ph.D.s. Unsure whether I really had anything to say, doubtful that anyone much wanted to hear it, I began to think that I should quit the field after all. Three years later, when I finally did so, what I felt was a profound relief. It was a pleasure, after working for so long a time in or near religious institutions, to say goodbye to them and feel myself free to be completely secular if this were my choice. I did miss the flexible schedule and summer holidays of academic life for a year or two, but then all that slipped into my past as well. From a transitional position as religion editor at Doubleday in New York, I moved with pleasure to one as philosophy editor at the University of California Press in Los Angeles, then to one as literary editor at the Los Angeles Times, and finally to a seat on that newspapers editorial board, where I wrote increasingly on foreign affairs, most especially on the war in Bosnia. For professional and even for most personal purposes, I was done with the Bible.
And then something befell me that quite unexpectedly returned the Bible to me or me to the Bible. Some time in the mid- to late-1980s, I heardperhaps perhaps for the first time, perhaps only with full attention for the first timeJ. S. Bachs "St. Matthew Passion." In the opening measures of the antiphonal chorus that begins that masterpiece, a crowd of Jesus disciples grieves over the suffering inflicted on him. They sing back and forth to one another:
As if a lamb.
Now the fact that Jesus had suffered was obviously nothing new to me. It is nothing new to anyone in the Western world. Equally familiar was the pathos of referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God. What struck me with an emotional power that I had never felt before, an emotional power that rose exegetically, as it were, from the music, was that this Lamb of God, this slain and sacrificed lamb, was God himself.
God himself turned into a sacrificial animal by his own decision! The pathos in the juxtaposition of the image of the bridegroomthe male of the human species at his peak of beauty, sexuality, and joywith the image of the slaughtered beast was in itself almost too horrifying to bear. But this was just the beginning: In both the Old Testament and the New, the word bridegroom typically refers to the bridegroom of Israelthat is, to God himself. Again and again, God uses the marriage metaphor to characterize his relationship with his chosen people. So, in the poem set to Bachs magnificent music, the slain lamb was also the slain divine bridegroom.
But immediately there arose a staggering contradiction. God, the bridegroom of Israel, was also God, the champion of Israel, the fierce and invincible warrior who drowned the army of Pharaoh in the Red Sea. Among the various images that his people had employed to characterize him, he was their rock, their lion, their sword, and their shield. Well, then: What had befallen this warrior that, having taken on human form, he had fallen so inconceivably out of character? Extreme reversals of behavior typical betray extreme pressures of one sort or another. What extreme pressure had been brought to bear upon God that he had undergone so unthinkable a transformation, losing what had for centuries seemed the very core of his identity?
My answer to this question took years to formulate and entailed re-conceiving the plot of the Biblethe only available explanation for this change of characterin a new and somewhat disturbing way. What sort of research was relevant for this kind of reflection? Anything might help, and yet much might hinder. My strong suspicion was that everything I needed was in plain view, easily within reach, and yet not noticed in the way it needed to be noticed. I was like a man who has mislaid something on his desk and has no alternative but to spend a good deal of time staring at the desktopin my case, just reading the Bibleuntil he sees it. Outside opinions are likely to be of limited utility.
What I had, in short, after my St. Matthew Passion experience was more an obscure but powerful motive than a clear program. The power of this motive, and perhaps its obscurity as well, stemmed from the fact that it provided me a way to speak through the Bible about my own lifelong obsession with warfare as a threat to those I love and to myself. The inchoate program connected with it provided a way for me to exploit the biblical metaphor that had been most effectively and even brilliantly taught during my years at Harvardnamely, the identity-structuring metaphor of divine warfare. My way of using this metaphor would yield literary rather than historical criticism. But how could all this be brought about?
Eventually, I decided on a kind of interpretive experiment. For the purposes of this experiment, I would postulate that Gods Incarnation as a Jew who, like a lamb, would not resist his own execution was the resolution of a prior conflict, a prior crisis in his own life. And because this striking change so affected Gods identity as a warrior, I further postulated that a war of some kind must have provoked the change. In the end, I defined the crisis in Gods life as his failure to keep his word to Israel that after the nations terrible defeat by Babylonia, he would restore it to sovereignty and glory. God never did keep that promise. At the time when he was born and died as the Jew Jesus, five hundred years had gone by, and still the promise was unkept. Moreover, God knew that Rome, the new Babylon, was about to wreak worse destruction upon his people than Babylonia had ever attempted, worse than any empire would again attempt until the Third Reich. God knew that this holocaust, this shoah, was coming, and he knew that he would do nothing to stop it. This was the crisis in his life that made him become not merely a Jew but a Jew who would be crucified as the whole Jewish nation would be crucified in Romes ghastly Jewish Wars. Nothing less violent than that would suffice to demonstrate a revision in the very identity of God.
And yet God had another problem, deeper and older and more painful even than this one. In a fit of violent anger, he had disfigured near the very start the beauty of his own creation. On the sixth day, he had said, famously, "It is good." But not long after that, when his human creatures succumbed to temptation by the serpent that God himself, after all, had placed in the Garden of Eden, God had taken back the gift of immortality that he had initially given them. He cursed those whom he had so recently blessed. "Dust you are," he said in his fury, "and to dust you shall return." From that point on, neither the creator nor his creatures could look on the world and say without qualification "It is good."
This primeval defeat cast a shadow over Gods defining victory over Pharaoh. What he gained by that victory he lost when, because of his own earlier curse, all those for whom he won the victory eventually died. By the same token, however, whatever God would lose by surrendering to Caesar would be recovered if he could lift his own curse and give the gift of eternal life to all those whom Caesar would kill.
By revoking the curse by which he had brought death into his world, God was able to swallow up his failure to act as a warrior against merely human foes in a larger victory over Satan, the enemy whose cunning had brought about not just the fall of humankind but also the fall of God himself. What is the plot of the Bible? John Milton, whom I re-read with new respect late in the writing of these two books, put it with matchless brevity: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained.
At a time like the present, when world war of a new sort threatens us all, our hope is for peace or, if war cannot be avoided, then for victory. Speaking personally, I find in the fear of war and in the flight from and pursuit of war a question that has held me in its grip since earliest childhood. My way of reading the Bible both in its Jewish edition, which I wrote about in God: A Biography, and in its Christian edition, which I write about in Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, allows war in all its ramifications to become the central topic. Both editions allow God to win in the long run. Each in its own way tells Gods story in a way that makes Gods short-term defeat, even his utter absence from the battlefield, comprehensible. But one need not be either an observant Jew or a believing Christian to read and respond to either edition or either of these books of mine. It is enough to be a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, who has experienced the deep terror of the human condition and who craves a way to hear that terror tamed in language. Sister Mary Demetria tamed the terror for the frightened little boy I was in 1950. The Bible does it with greater pathos, greater violence, and greater exaltation for the adult that I have become, and for the little boy who still lives inside him.