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James Carroll explains significance of ancient Jerusalem

Published: March 18, 2011
Section: News

<i>Photo by Nate Rosenbloom/The Hoot</i>Author James Carroll described the common threads of Christianity, Judaism and Islam in ancient Jerusalem, explaining that ancient Jerusalem reflects the stories of wars throughout history and continues to ignite heated conversations about the fantasy of the city of Jerusalem today.

The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life hosted author James Carroll to promote the publication of his new book, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World” at a forum in Sherman Function Hall on Monday.

Panelists Asma Afsaruddin, Professor Bernadette Brooten (NEJS), Susannah Heschel, Professor Kanan Makiya (NEJS), Martin Marty, Professor Chandler Rosenberger (IGS) and Professor Ilan Troen (NEJS) joined Carroll for a two-part symposium to discuss the nature of religion and violence in the past and in the future.

Carroll, a member of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life’s advisory board, won an honorary award from Brandeis in 2008 and is the author of 17 books, several of which have won the National Book Award.

The symposium was designed to encourage discussion among panel and audience members about collective thinking on the counteracting the forces of violence in the future.

Once the panel opened for discussion, Carroll faced questions from Brooten, the Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies and of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brandeis, regarding what the theological meaning would be if people today recognized the dangers of an apocalyptic worldview.

Rosenberger suggested Jerusalem and religion might not have united the modern world.

“There are other things that are more secular, and that are unfairly conflated to religion such as nationalism,” Rosenberger said. “Nationalism is a force that has defined our modern world as modern. It stems from Judaism and Protestantism, and grew far beyond the boundaries of religion. Nationalism has the extraordinary capacity to take the elements from original society and transform them.”

Following Rosenberger, Troen, Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis, suggested to Carroll, that there is hope for the future by what is not in the book. “Secularism,” Troen said, “does not necessarily bring people together to agree, but people can come together secularly to engage in discourse. While religion services internal arguments, people now go to the United Nations or a higher secular court to settle their differences, not to a synagogue. It is incumbent upon us, however, to choose between religious and secular threads to weave a fabric of peace.”

In response to the panelists’ arguments, Carroll spoke of the difference between self-criticism and apocalyptic thinking. “While prophetic thinking invites self-criticism, apocalyptic thinking is a more useful strain of imagination when you are at war. Today, many people understand Jesus in apocalyptic terms. We are on God’s side now in the ultimate war against evil,” he said.

Carroll continued by arguing that the most important religious phenomenon today is “secular nuclearism.” “The readiness to destroy the world in order to save it is a profoundly apocalyptic concept,” he said. Carroll also asserted, that nationalism is a sort of religion. “Nationalism’s trick is to call religious wars wrong, while we can have nation state violence and call it right,” he said. “Jerusalem did ignite our modern world, whether it was religiously or secularly.”

Carroll concluded by stressing how the threat of today’s nuclear-driven society can be viewed as divine intervention, because society has given itself the power to destroy itself.

Calling Hiroshima and Auschwitz the two greatest simultaneous disruptions in history, Carroll claimed, “there are reasons why Israel chose to be a nuclear power. Do we make ourselves extinct as a species? Isn’t Jerusalem’s fault but its testimony to its place in our imagination? My concern is about the future.”

The symposium was sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, and cosponsored by 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.