Symposium analyzes linkage of religion, violence

Discussion centers on James Carroll's new 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem'

Photo/Mike Lovett

The Old City of Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock at right and Al Aqsa Mosque at left.

James Carroll can be accurately described in many ways – columnist, novelist, historian, teacher, former priest, believer in God. Underlying all those identities is a very likeable Irish guy with bushy eyebrows and a ready smile whose life has been dominated by religion and violence.

Many of Carroll's 17 books have been best-sellers; they have won him the National Book Award and numerous other honors. "Constantine's Sword," his history of Christian anti-Semitism, became an acclaimed documentary. "An American Requiem," his memoir of his father, his church and the Vietnam War, told a story at once unique and evocative of the painful memories of a generation. "Mortal Friends," an early best-selling novel, is a saga of ethnic relations in Boston.

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'Jerusalem, Jerusalem' excerpts

From Chapter 1

From Chapter 4

From Chapter 6

From the conclusion

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His just-published "Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World" is Carroll's most direct look yet on the interplay of violence and religion. He was working on it when he taught "Sacred Violence: An Investigation in History and Theology" at Brandeis in the spring of 2009, and it was the focus a discussion of violence and religion that brought leading scholars to campus for an open-to-the-public symposium, "Religion and the Quest to Contain Violence," in Sherman Function Hall on Monday, March 14.

Following an opening talk by Carroll in the afternoon, professors of religious studies from around the nation reflected on and critiqued Carroll's argument that religions represent human efforts to understand and restrain the impulse to violence. After a dinner break, they were joined by scholars from the Brandeis faculty for a discussion of the future of violence and religion.

"I have a problem with religion and violence," says Carroll, who received an honorary degree from Brandeis in 2008 and is a member of the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, which sponsored the conference. "I came by it by accident, but very honestly."

Born in Chicago, Carroll was raised in Washington, D.C., where his father was an Air Force general and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Into his freshman year Georgetown, he was deeply engrossed in ROTC activities and recalls that "all I wanted to do was follow my Dad into the Air Force."

A highlight of life in those times was picking up his father when Carroll senior worked late at the Pentagon, he recalls, because "I got time alone with him then – and I got to drive the Lincoln!"

Then his father climbed into the car and gave instructions for what to do if he didn't come home one night; in the Cold War context of the times, Jim Carroll knew his Dad meant if Washington had been struck with nuclear weapons. His father's instruction to "get Mom and the kids in the car and drive south as far as you can go – go past Richmond" gave Carroll a life-altering whiff of what he later would call nuclear dread. It turned him away from the Air Force to what he thought was the opposite of war – religion. He was ordained a priest and became the Catholic chaplain at Boston University in 1969, just in time to experience the peak years of the anti-Vietnam war movement at one of the nation's most-politicized campuses.

The war was a shattering time for the Carroll family. The father helped choose bombing targets in southeast Asia. Jim's brother Dennis fled the draft. His brother Brian joined the FBI and hunted draft resisters and Catholic radicals. Jim allied himself with Catholic radicals, including the prominent antiwar priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

"The violence of the Catholic Church surprised and shocked me," Carroll says, noting the support for the war by the Catholic regime in South Vietnam and by members of the church hierarchy in the United States. He went to Jerusalem in hopes of getting a handle on it all, and there he discovered Jesus as a Jew.

"It sounds silly now, when everyone knows Jesus was a Jew," he says with the deadpan expression with which he often injects humor in the conversation, "but I was raised to believe he was an Irish Catholic."

Carroll left the priesthood in 1974 to become a writer, and ever since has been concerned in one way or another with the relationship between religion and violence.

"Critics of religion say the Bible is so full of violence... The beautiful Psalms in which babies heads are smash, this is where our problems begin. Get rid of that and we won't have violence," Carroll notes. But he says "No! Violence is what the Bible is responding to... Judaism comes into being and understands itself in a very basic way as the place where human violence was rejected. From then on, history is different... The insight that every creature was created by this one God is a rejection of violence."

Carroll's accounting of the role of Jerusalem is, in substantial measure, a report on how that rejection of violence was put aside by men striving for religious and political power – from the Emperor Constantine to Columbus to modern British and American leaders. He shows obsession with the City on the Hill playing a key role in the formation of identity and in rallying troops to bloody slaughter from the Crusades to the Civil War to World War I.

This all brings Carroll to a number of concluding propositions, prominent among them the idea that in modern times "when we send our children to war" there is a direct relationship to the child sacrifice that religion long ago rejected.

This rejection is in urgent need of renewal, he says, and the way to do this is to remove all trace of religious sanction from the institution of war.

Full biographies of symposium participants are on the website of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, which organized the conference. Other sponsors included the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, the Brandeis Interfaith Chaplaincy, the Mandel Center for the Humanities and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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