Summary of James Carroll's Spring Meeting Presentation

Jerusalem: Cockpit of Violence, Ground of Hope

By Alexis James Waggoner | 5/10/2019

Part I: The Holy of Holies is Empty

James Carroll’s keynote presentation at the Westar conference addressed the mythic stories and historic relevance of Jerusalem. He stated that there has never been more need to reckon with the relevance of Jerusalem than today in light of contemporary political and religious issues.

Carroll started his first presentation by highlighting the juxtaposition of violence and peace that has defined Jerusalem historically. He pointed to Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple as an exemplary event, in the Christian imagination, for conflict with Jews. When Islam also claimed Jerusalem as a sacred place for Muslims, Jerusalem became a common source of faith and contention among three major religions.

Jerusalem forces world religions to face the past and to practice interfaith reconciliation. Without peace among world religions there will be no peace in the world. Carroll also pointed out how Jerusalem, which lies at the heart of the American imagination as the holy city, has underwritten much of our best and worst impulses played out in American exceptionalism and knee-jerk militarism. Jerusalem causes us to face American political history as much as religious political history.

Carroll presented Jerusalem as a cockpit of contradictions: it both entices violence and justifies acts of resistance to violence. Drawing on both ancient and contemporary examples, Carroll gave a broad picture of how this contradictory status has played out across the ages. Savage conflicts have broken out in Jerusalem again and again, and yet out of those conflicts came reconciliation and new birth. Jerusalem attracts fantasies: some constructive and some destructive.

Employing a Christian perspective, Carroll gave a synopsis of the history of Jerusalem centered on life affirmed over destruction. Jerusalem had its beginnings, after all, as the site where Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed — a sacrifice that was forestalled. Carroll also highlighted how, following the Babylonian captivity, the population that subsequently returned to Jerusalem arrived with a monotheistic vision— a vision of God’s oneness and a vision for peace.

After the exile the Temple was rebuilt, but the ark of the covenant no longer existed, so the central feature of the Temple, the holy of holies, remained empty. Remarkably, Carroll underlined, the physical space at the center of the Temple is empty. Carroll connects this emptiness to God’s unknowability, which he explains is essential to peace. No one belief system should claim special knowledges about or think it “owns” God. The unknowability of God enshrined in the Temple architecture expresses Jewish resistance to violence.

Woven into the story of the temple is the Christian story of Jesus, whose life is told as a journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. The story of Jesus, Carroll contends, is an inherently Jewish vision of peace carried out through resistance to imperial Rome. The story of Jesus expresses a desire for peace through justice, but such activities resulted in his death. Jesus is metaphorically a story about a God who sides with victims against victimizers. It is a story that calls for the end of using the poorest victims as scapegoats for social ills. And yet the irony, as Carroll tells it, is that the movement to end scapegoating the “other” results in Jesus followers scapegoating Jews. The cockpit of violence snagged the Jesus-followers, too. The story the gospels tell is not only one of war between Rome and the Jews, but a civil war between Jews and Jews — the Torah Jews and the Jesus Jews.

Carroll highlights the fact that we take for granted how Jerusalem, which to Rome was a backwater city, became the center point in the political and religious imagination of the West today. This unlikely city has dominated the world stage, Carroll suggests, because of its contradictions. Jerusalem is compelling because it is a witness, in its history, to an unbroken record of human longing for peace in the midst of the conflicting human condition. It’s the place where God comes to humanity, in the thick of the human condition, as the call for peace. Carroll closes his first session by stating: "Jerusalem is what it means to say, “God has pitched God's tent not among the angels, but among the human beings.”

Part II: Choose Life

In the second session at Westar’s Spring Conference, Carroll connected the history of Jerusalem to the settlement story of the United States. He informed the audience that the town name “Salem” (a derivative of “Jerusalem”) is the most commonly-used town name in the United States, showing up across the map 127 times. Additionally, 61 towns are named “Zion.” Jerusalem centered the Puritan understanding of their identity: they saw themselves as a chosen people, chosen nation, the saviors of mankind, the last best hope.

On the other side of Jerusalem as “ground of hope” is the reality of Jerusalem as a “cockpit of violence.” Carroll shows how the Bible will side with victims but will simultaneously license holy war. Jerusalem is where Christians scapegoated Jews, where Constantine turned church into empire, where Crusaders defined Islam as Europe’s “other,” and where an apocalyptic fantasy of the end-time drove a violent stake into the center of the Christian imagination. It’s where destruction has been a mode of salvation.

As such, Carroll contends, history has trapped Israelis and Palestinians in a corner not of their own making. Much of the tension and stalemate in the Middle East today is the legacy of Western desire, imagination, and force employed there. Until Western Christians reckon with their part in this conflict history, the project of peace can never be finished. Carroll suggested that those of us physically outside the conflict must recognize the validity of each side’s claims but must also be ever aware of the historical causes of so much suffering. The wrong approach is to force people to choose between one side or the other.

When looking at Jerusalem through a lens of war and peace, we experience double vision. On one side we see Jerusalem as a current of positive energy where a dream of peace — encapsulated as the "city on a hill” — showed itself as an achievable project. On the other side we see the fact that that energy flowing from Jerusalem can be radioactive. It can play into the hands of those transfixed with “Armageddon” where God “saves” the world by destroying it.

Where does that leave us? Carroll closed his presentation with a quote from Deuteronomy: “choose life that we might live” (Deut 30:19). The history of Jerusalem lifts up a holy city that for three thousand years has been self-surpassing, and Carroll suggests it can surpass itself once more. Humanity did not come all this way through history only to bring about its own extinction — though we are capable of that. Extinction of the human species is for the first time a matter of human choice. Yet, Carroll tells us, Jerusalem puts that choice in our hands more eloquently than any other place on earth.

"I set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life that you may live."

As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

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