Rock of ages

Despite the city’s tortured history of sacred violence, historian James Carroll wants to see Jerusalem as a source of hope.

So many ‘holy’ wars are linked to ideas about Jerusalem. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
So many ‘holy’ wars are linked to ideas about Jerusalem.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
James Carroll’s new book about Jerusalem is as profound as his previous books. Indeed, in many ways, it is an amalgam of the major themes that he tackled in two of his previous nonfiction masterpieces, Constantine’s Sword, which outlined in no uncertain terms the history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and House of War, which focused on the theme of war and violence in American history.
Carroll is not your typical academic historian. On the contrary, he writes history with a distinctly personal point of view, about which he is upfront and clear from the beginning. In his introduction, he states succinctly: “I write as a Catholic, aiming to tell a full interfaith story, hoping that Jews, Protestants, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, as well as Israelis and Palestinians, will find themselves honestly represented here.”
Carroll is obsessed with the problematics of religious violence. The idea of “holy war” – and war in general – troubles him very much. It consumed him when he wrote Constantine’s Sword and House of War, and it is very much on his mind throughout this book, especially as we live in an age in which a nuclear war could put an end to much of humankind.
The uniqueness of this book is the idea that so many “holy wars” are linked to religious ideas about Jerusalem. According to Carroll, “Over the past two millennia, the ruling establishment of Jerusalem has been overturned 11 times, almost always with brute violence and always in the name of religion.” This is why Carroll has returned there again and again, and this is what has drawn him to write this deeply troubling history.
Yet in his view, Jerusalem is the place where religious people reckon with violence and try to resist it.
Carroll argues that Christianity, especially the Church after Constantine, forgot the nonviolence of Jesus in the Gospels. In the Christian memory, the Romans are somehow remembered as benign, and the Jews get the blame for killing Jesus. The Roman war against the Jews, which was horrible and long, gets forgotten in the Christian telling of the story.
This is much more a book about the idea of Jerusalem – the “heavenly Jerusalem” and its role in promoting sacred violence – than it is about the earthly Jerusalem. This is both its strength and its weakness.
For those looking for another book about the actual city of Jerusalem, this is not it. But if you want to get a better understanding about how apocalyptical ideas, with Jerusalem at the center, have influenced sacred violence throughout history, you will find this book both sweeping in scope and illuminating in its message.
At the end of the book, Carroll offers us a concluding chapter on “good religion” in which he stresses the role that Jerusalem can play as a center of religious transcendence. He sees Jerusalem as “the capital today of encounters in which absolutisms are shown to be mutually interdependent.”
I would add that it is already a center of interreligious dialogue, but much more needs to be done if Jerusalem is to become a city of peace, a whole and harmonious city for all its inhabitants.
The writer, an educator and rabbi, serves as the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.