Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke reminds us that even the big man with nuclear power and US backing is mortal. Despite his fierceness, stride, and canniness, he cannot transcend his bleeding brain. Whether Sharon is the man of peace Bush and Clinton praise or the butcher of Lebanon many remember, he is now comatose and out of the daily news-history, as they say.
De casibus [‘concerning falls’] stories tell about the downfall of proud individuals from high estate; they have always been popular. Such stories not only bring the mighty low, they remind us that all fall in time. Poet John Donne’s line “never send to ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” says it well. Death is a human brotherhood uniting us; everyone’s passing signals the loss before us all. We are one in a human geography bounded by death and time. This kind of thinking gentles us-we identify with the lost one, we don’t openly gloat and trumpet that we’re different, still alive. Donne preached that line as a sermon, a devotion.
Other preachers take other tacks. Pat Robertson, for example, preached that God perhaps smote Sharon because he had surrendered holy land to the Palestinians. Even if you think Robertson a conman or unchristian, his reading that a stroke is a punishment is a frequent religious one. His interpretation of God as smiter and punisher identifies God and morality with death. It’s a popular analysis in this haunted country, and, in fact, in much of the world. It is also a human tack to think we are the reason or cause of things. Perhaps because then we’re in some way in control.( The biblical origin story says death came into the world because Adam and Eve believed a snake that said they wouldn’t die if they ate of a tree, not the God who warned them they would. They misjudged and so all die.)
The great counterstory to seeing suffering as punishment is Job. His comforters are like Robertson-‘something bad happened to you, you must have done something wrong.’ The ‘comforters,’ like the Satan who starts all the suffering in Job, are accusers, blamers, projectors. ‘Satan’ is a not proper name in Job; it’s a title. It means ‘the Accuser.’ Like Job’s comforters, Robertson rationalizes evil on the sufferer’s back. In the biblical text, however, Job’s comforters are nailed as pious pretenders who do not speak the truth of God. Those who presume to speak for God are wrong, they don’t know the real story-which in the case of Job is that God cruelly tests and tortures Job at the instigation of the Accuser/Satan who predicts Job will turn against God. Both accuser and comforters are wrong. In the Book of Job, suffering doesn’t equal sin nor does prosperity equal righteousness. Men moralize that whatever is is right, and men are wrong.
Donne didn’t believe death was godly. In “Death be not proud” he writes that death keeps evil company, dwells with poison, war, and sickness. Death, Donne says, “is slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men.” Donne taunts death as not mighty, not dreadful, not the all-conquering warrior. “Death, thou shalt die.” he says. Donne believed we’ll wake eternally and death will be no more. Donne believed in Christ and Donne’s poetry affirms human brotherhood and the belief that life or light trumps death and darkness.
The bell tolls generically. We shall all die. And Sharon’s stroke is about losing power, falling. He certainly didn’t believe in Christ. Christians like Pat Robertson remind him he’s not their Christian Jew, he’s useful only in stirring a war that will bring on their apocalypse. The general was good for Armageddon. Now he’s down and Robertson’s ‘Christian’ judgment conquers him.
How do we mark the measure of a man when he falls? Like King David, Sharon was a fierce fighter for himself and for his country. David had given two hundred foreskins of the Philistines as brideprice for his first wife Michal, daughter of Israel’s first king, Saul. Saul had only demanded one hundred Philistine foreskins. (Saul had thought a hundred enough to eliminate David and he underestimated David’s prowess.) When David was dying they brought a beautiful young girl, Abishag, to his bed to revive him. He couldn’t. His son would then take her to demonstrate his vigor and kingliness. Men swagger.
It’s often an ascetical practice to contemplate death. At the end of your life will any action you lust for be worth it? The tack is to make long-range reality overpower short-range desire, to organize by forethought. This is what the tolling bell tells. It’s coming. But what is it?
Dosteoevsky’s Dimitri said that if God didn’t exist everything was permissible, because there was no ultimate enforcer. It’s still a big religious fear. If you think you’re not ultimately answerable, won’t you be mediately malicious?
But even if you believe you are ultimately answerable, as in the case of Robertson, does that in fact moderate maliciousness, or empower a crueler kind? Doesn’t Robertson or any god-dealer become the God he threatens-the smiter and punisher and dealer of death? Job and Donne affirm a god whose truth is not death. Death is not god, the end, it.
How can you distinguish God from the Satan/Accuser/Smiter? You distinguish the Satan from the God only by what you say they do-kill or quicken.
Which is no doubt what you do too.