Rock of ages

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

Old City views 521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Old City views 521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
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 explains that since 1997 he has been a participant in the annual Theological Conference at the Shalom Hartman Institute (initially sponsored by the late Lutheran scholar Krister Stendahl and founded by Rabbi David Hartman) where he learned joint text study with Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars for more than a dozen years. I too have been a participant for many years in this unique conference, where among other intellectual treats, I have had the privilege and pleasure of getting to know Carroll. This is why I invited him – and he accepted – to give a preview of his book at a public lecture cosponsored by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and the Shalom Hartman Institute in mid-February at the end of the Theology Conference. This year, I was also be fortunate to study with him all week in our tripartite hevruta group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars.
At this lecture, Carroll not only gave a sweeping preview of the main themes of his book, but he passionately explained to us that he 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.”
Jerusalem is the place where religion and violence is central. 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 several places, the author tries to give the reader some hope. Accordingly, in his view, Jerusalem is the place where religious people reckon with violence and try to resist it. In his reading of the Bible, it is clear to him it is an act of resistance to violence.
Abraham, according to Carroll, is “a figure of God’s preference for nonviolence, since his story (the non-sacrifice of his son Isaac) is offered, in effect, as a correction to the story of Noah that precedes it in Genesis...
Abraham represents the repentant God’s adjustment, the achievement of peace and justice not through destruction but through the coming of a vast new people that defines itself by peace and justice.”
Similarly, 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.
Despite the tortured history of sacred violence, always somehow connected to Jerusalem, Carroll wants to see Jerusalem as a source of hope. I too want to see it as source of hope, which is why I appreciated his point at the end of his lecture when he said that “we live in a time which requires positively chosen recollection... and we need to choose a vision which will empower us.”
Similarly, at the end of the book, he offers us a concluding chapter on “good religion” in which he stresses the role that Jerusalem can play as a center of religious transcendence: “...for Jerusalem is a place where, since the dawn of history, good religion has sought to push out bad.”
After finishing the last chapter, I was still waiting for more on how Jerusalem could be a source of hope, and not just a place for competing apocalyptic visions, especially when I am told that “Jerusalem today is defined by the hopeless, mutually selfdestructive war between Palestinians and Israelis.” I guess I was looking for more of Isaiah, who envisioned Jerusalem as a city of justice and inspiration, and less of Jeremiah, who witnessed and lamented its destruction.
Carroll does see 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.