Sunday, December 18, 2016

Trump, Truth, and Temptation — for Kazantzakis's Christ and Us in 2016/17

On Monday, 19 December 2016, Donald J. Trump is scheduled to be elected 45th President of the United States; less than a week later, Christians will be celebrating Christmas and then, come spring, commemorating the Passion and celebrating Easter. Right about now would be well, I think, to consider the moment in the trial of Jesus where Pontius Pilot, the story goes, asked "What is truth?" That question has become more important lately, and a bit out of season I'm going to throw in a quotation on the subject from my study guide on Eric Hoffer's The True Believer (1951).

"'What is truth?' said jesting Pilot,
and would not stay for an answer." —  Francis Bacon


From Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ
Trans. from the Greek by P. A. Bien (New York: Bantam, 1968)

{Excerpt from the vision of Jesus of Nazareth, accepted by Christians as Christ, the Messiah, as he hung from the cross, in the instant between uttering Eli, Eli ("My God, my God") and lama sabachtani ("why have You forsaken me?" [see opening of Ps. 22]). The excerpt is from a vision of a scene between Paul the Apostle and the disguised Jesus ("Master Lazarus"—alluding to Lazarus, raised from the dead by Jesus). In this vision, Jesus had been saved from crucifixion and had returned to the world to take up a domestic life married to Mary and Martha. This desire to lead a normal life as husband and father was, in Kazantzakis's opinion, the last and most dangerous temptation for the Man-God Jesus Christ.}

                      "Why are you rolling your eyes?" cried Jesus. Why do you stare at my hands and feet? Those marks [i.e., the stigmata] were stamped on me by God during my sleep. By God, or by the Tempter; I still can't understand which. I dreamed I was on the cross and in pain, but I cried out, awoke, and my pain disappeared. What I should have suffered while awake, I suffered while asleep—and escaped!" […] "I escaped; I came to this tiny village under another name and with another body, . Here I lead the life of a man: I eat, drink, work[,] and have children. […] I am the son of man, I tell you, not the son of God. […] And don't go around the whole world to publish lies. I shall stand up and proclaim the truth!"

            Now it was Paul's turn to explode. "Shut your shameless mouth!" he shouted, rushing at him. "Be quiet, or men will hear you and die of fright. In the rottenness, the injustice, and poverty of this world, the Crucified and resurrected Jesus has been the one precious consolation for the honest man, the wronged man. True or false—what do I care? It's enough if the world is saved!" "It's better the world perish with the truth than be saved with lies. At the core of such a salvation sits the great worm Satan."
            "What is 'truth'? What is 'falsehood'? Whatever gives wings to men, whatever produces great works and great souls and lifts us a man's height above the earth—that is true. Whatever clips off man's wings—that is false." […]
            "You won't keep quiet, will you, son of Satan! The wings you talk about are just like the wings of Lucifer."
            "No, I won't keep quiet. I don't give a hoot about what's true and what's false, or whether I saw him or didn't see him, or whether he was crucified or wasn't crucified. I create the truth, create it out of obstinacy and longing and faith. I don't struggle to find it—I build it. I build it taller than man and thus I make man grow. If the world is to be saved, it is necessary—do you hear—absolutely necessary for you to be crucified, and I shall crucify, like it or not; it is necessary for you to be resurrected, and I shall resurrect you, like it or not. For all I care you can sit here in your miserable village and manufacture cradles, troughs[,] and children. If you want to know, I shall compel the air to take your shape. Body, crown of thorns, nails, blood […]. The whole works is now part of the machinery of salvation—everything is indispensable. And in every corner of the earth, innumerable eyes will look up and see you in the air—crucified. They will weep, and the tears will cleanse their souls of their sins. But on the third day I shall raise you from the dead, because there is no salvation without a resurrection. The final, the most horrible enemy is death. I shall abolish death. How? By resurrecting you as Jesus, son of God—the Messiah!"
            "It's not true. I'll stand up and shout that I wasn't crucified, didn't rise from the dead, am not God! […] Why do you laugh?"
            "Shout all you want. I'm not afraid of you. I don't even need you any more. The wheel you set in motion has gathered momentum: who can control it now? To tell you the truth, while you were talking there I felt for a minute like falling upon you and strangling you just you case you might accidentally reveal your identify and show poor mankind that you weren't crucified. But I calmed down immediately. Why shouldn't he shout? I asked myself. The faithful will seize you, will throw you on a pyre for a blasphemer and burn you!"
            "I said only one word, brought only one message: Love. Love—nothing else."
            "By saying 'Love' you let loose all the angels and demons that were asleep within the bowels of mankind. 'Love' is not, as you think, a simple, tranquil word. Within it lie armies massacred, burning cities and much blood. Rivers of blood, rivers of tears: the face of the earth has changed. You can cry now as much as you like; you can make yourself hoarse by yelling, 'I didn't want to say that—that is not love. Do not kill each other! We're al brothers! Stop!' […] But how, poor wretch, can they stop? What's done is done!"
            "You laugh like a devil."
            "No, like an apostle. I shall become your apostle whether you like it or not. I shall construct you and your life and your teachings and your crucifixion and resurrection just as I wish. Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth did not beget you; I begot you—I, Paul, the scribe from Tarsus in Cilicia."
            "No! No!"
            "Who asked you? I have no need of your permission. Why do you stick your nose in my affairs?" […] "How can the world be saved by you, Master Lazarus? With you, will it surpass its own nature, will its soul sprout wings? if the world wants to be saved, it will listen to me—me!" […] "Brothers lift up your eyes. Look! On one side Master Lazarus; on the other, Paul, the servant of Christ. Choose! If you go with him, with Master Lazarus, you will lead a life of poverty bound to the treadmill; you will live and die as sheep live and die—they leave behind them a little wool, a few bleats[,] and a great deal of dung. If you come with me: love, struggle, war—we shall conquer the world! Choose! On one side, Christ, the son of God, the salvation of the world; on the other, Master Lazarus!"

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