Ed Simon: Second Twelve Observations about Goodness
by Ed Simon
Blessed is he among all the saints, for spurned though he is, Judas Iscariot was the one who first set the world toward its redemption, with a kiss. For that loyalty to God, Christ was resurrected, but lamentable Judas must forever sit in the frozen mouth of Satan, unfairly locked in icy embrace with other traitors. Slavoj Žižek has written that “Judas’ act of betrayal was the highest sacrifice, the ultimate fidelity.” Sacrilegious? Blasphemous? Heretical? Such a conclusion is the logical result of Christianity itself. If Christ’s death upon the cross redeemed the world, then it was only Judas’ betrayal of Christ which facilitated that grace. Consider it: we’re told that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to die for our sins. As extreme as such a moment of pain must be – the scouring and whipping, the bloody perforated wrists, the breath crushed out of collapsing lungs – the experience was also finite. Most deaths are easier than crucifixion, though not all deaths. And hell is harder than any death. The nature of Christ’s sacrifice lay in the humbled indignity of the Ultimate dying upon the cross, but then surely any manner of death would be indignity enough to redeem creation? Did Christ’s blood spilled upon Golgotha’s rock have to come from the cat-o-nines and nails, or could it have been equally capable of saving us if spilled silently within an artery of his brain as he died a peaceful death as some forgotten old man? Apparently not, apparently it was upon that hill that He was supposed to die. We can debate the soteriological specifics of Christ’s redemptive death, but that Judas’ betrayal must be the ultimate sacrifice seems unassailable to me, the necessary conclusion drawn from the story’s logic. Of the two, Christ spent three days in Hell, but Judas has to spend an eternity there. Might it be as appropriate to say that Judas died for your sins – still dies for all of our sins? Christ supposedly sits at the right-hand of God, neighbor to his Father in the judgement of all of humanity. And where is Judas? In hell, perhaps boiling in a massive pot of semen and excrement, forced to fry in an unholy oil of that which life comes from and that from which it must ever return, a disgraceful punishment for a man for whom we indirectly owe our salvation. To burn forever in hell, for all of us? Can you imagine a greater sacrifice? Can you envision anyone more good than that?
Look upon that blessed face. There are so many Judases, there is he of the reptilian sneer and the hooked nose slithering up to his kiss with Christ, there is the dignified rebel who fought Roman domination, there is the ever faithful right-hand man. For so few lines in the Bible being devoted to the red-headed zealot, he haunts our culture as surely as Ahasver wanders the globe. Examine Giotto di Bondone’s depiction of the kiss of Judas, as painted inside a Padua chapel in the early fourteenth-century, and still visible there today. Characteristic of Giotto’s style, and reflective of the increasing realism of late medieval art, Giotto presents a chaotic tableaux in media res. Judas and Jesus are framed by disciples fighting centurions; at the left edge of the fresco, Peter seems to be in the process of losing his ear. Torches and clubs are raised. At the center, an unsteady, uncertain, uncomfortable Judas embraces a golden haloed Christ. Theirs is a seemingly silent, personal, private moment amid the rest of the cacophony, a quiet cell, a subatomic particle of connection at the center of history commencing around them. A strikingly personal moment, there amidst the violence of the rest of the scene. The two men share an unmistakably charged interaction, for there is often nothing more intimate than a kiss. Yes, Judas wears his characteristic yellow robe, which for medieval viewers would indelibly signal his Jewishness (as Jews of the period were often forced to wear a yellow badge, solidifying their connection to gold in the minds of medieval bigots). And yes, Judas’ curly hair marks him as Semitic, even as Christians often conveniently forget Jesus’ ethnicity. But look closer, this painting isn’t a typical hatchet job. Judas steadies himself at a distance, not totally committed to the betrayal which redemption depends on. And his face – it is not exactly the face of a man who is confident in the rightness of his chosen (or commanded?) course. It is pained, uncertain. It is arguably the face of a man who is angry, heartbroken; a man who has already been betrayed in a manner too intimate for him to ever be able to describe to us. There is a gap between Judas and Jesus; their lips have either just touched, or are about too. And in that distance between the two there is the infinite enormity which constitute the definition of humanity, for we all live in that space. Malicious betrayal, or commanded loyalty? Here is the crux: when it comes to Judas’ goodness or perfidy, both are accurate explanations of the thirteenth disciple, even in their contradictions. Especially in them. Betrayal of the Lord isn’t incidental – it’s the whole point. It’s why there has to be a savior in the first place. It’s that which justifies Judas’ counterintuitive goodness. Jesus tells his friend in Nikos Kazantzakis’ sublime The Last Temptation of Christ that “God pitied me and gave me the easier task: to be crucified,” for it’s the betrayal which is the real sacrifice. Everyone’s face is the face of Judas, for we are all Judas. Whether good or evil, monstrous or human, it’s all of us kissing the savior, and because of that we’re all the more in need of that kiss. Christianity’s fullest explication, when the Bible is read correctly (in the diabolical sense) is that we’re all Christs as well – goodness and evil intimately twinned together, being capable of both everything good and of a deep wickedness, sometimes in the space of but a few minutes. Nikos Kazantzakis’ Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ says to Judas, “We two must save the world. Help me.” And so it remains.
For twenty centuries of stony nightmare, it was the Judas of the passion play who was the inspiration for otherwise good Christians to slit the throats of their Jewish neighbors, to burn their synagogues, and to tear their Torahs. Judas may have been responsible for the death of one Jew, but it was the followers of that executed Jew who have been responsible for the death of millions of his brothers and sisters. Persecution, pogrom, genocide, Holocaust – these are the undeniable legacies of the deep metaphysic of anti-Semitism which is threaded through the Passion narrative like so much rot that can’t yet be separated from healthy wood. Judas – he who is spurned, spit at, persecuted, hated, and killed. If the lamb takes the iniquity of mankind upon himself it’s hard not to see Judas as being the true light unto the nations. The messiah is by his (or her) very nature one who must be spit on and spurned. There is no triumphant parade leading into Jerusalem, only those following an old, mangy ass. A messiah who isn’t dejected can be no messiah at all. As orthodox a theologian as Karl Barth wrote that “Judas is the most important figure in the New Testament apart from Jesus…For he, and he alone of the apostles, was actively at work… in the accomplishment of what was God’s will and what became the content of the Gospel. Yet he is the very one who is most explicitly condemned by the Law of God.” How much more dejected can a messiah be than to be an invisible messiah? The recognized messiah is a limited messiah, it’s only in rejection that He can truly fulfill His promise. Judas must always be a Jew; as Christ must always be a Jew. Judas must always be black; as Christ must always be black. The Devil is always a white man, respectable in his carriage, but all of our saviors – Christ and His betrayer alike – must be from among the dispossessed. Countee Cullen understood that, writing from those frantic, neon streets of Harlem in the 1920’s, while reflecting on the similarities of both Christ on his cross and lynched Judas hanging above Judean sands. Twinned deaths that bore an iconographic similarity to America’s indigenous strange fruit. From Golgotha, from Akeldama, from the blood-soaked potter’s fields of a thousand sites of execution across the United States – Cullen asked how such sacrifice could save anybody? Lord, forgive them – if You can – for they know not what they do. The bulging eyes and swollen empurpled tongue, the charred flesh, the indignity of mutilation was all on the body of Christ, and of Judas too. Cullen sang a song of a black Christ, and prayed a prayer of a black Judas too, for the central cosmic drama of sin and redemption must by necessity occur in shadows. In a 1925 ballad, he writes “Christ spoke to him with words of fire,/ ‘Then, Judas, you must kill/One who you love, One who loves you/As only God’s son can/This is the work for you to do/To save the creature man.” Judas’ tragedy, the tragedy of all of those spurned in God’s name but who are the Lord’s most faithful adherents, is that the kiss “broke his heart,/But no one knew or heard.”
If my theology seems a little odd, a little off, a little slant, it really shouldn’t. At least not entirely. Literary critic Susan Gubar describes the most spurned apostle as a “divine agent facilitating the resurrection of God’s Son and the salvation of humanity.” She explains that “The ascetic Judas mortifies not his flesh but his spirit through his immovable hostility toward grace: he renounces ‘the kingdom of heaven.’” But it is only in Judas’ personal renouncement of that kingdom that Peter was able to acquire those keys, so that the rest of us might be able to get in. Theology might be clear, but scripture never is. Who exactly is making the ultimate sacrifice in that narrative? Who exactly is the scapegoat? Who exactly so loved the world that he sacrificed his own eternal soul so that others may acquire life? Far from being heretical in its depictions, the Jesus in Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ (as well as in Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation) starkly embodies orthodoxy in all of its paradoxical beauty. Christ tells His reluctant betrayer “You are the strongest of all the companions. Only you, I think, will be able to bear it.” For the Danish theologian Nils Runeberg, a fictional invention of the Argentinian master Jorge Louis Borges, there is no ambiguity in the savior’s name – it is Judas. Borges, in his 1944 story “Three Versions of Judas,” presents an account of the ill-fated Runeberg, whose very name conjures nothing so much as negation. A characteristically morose Scandinavian, Runeberg ruminates on Judas across two hefty volumes of systematic theology before coming to his ultimate conclusion in 1909’s Den hemlige Frälsaren. Before the release of his final and most controversial volume, Runeberg had already argued that “The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, degrades and mortifies the flesh; Judas did the same with the spirit.” Runeberg, during his own dark night of the soul, writes that Judas “thought that happiness, like good, is a divine attribute and not to be usurped by men.” The heretical theologian concludes that “God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible – all the way to the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.” I’ve already argued, or at least entertained, much the same; though I pray that I will hopefully not have the same destitute end as Borges’ invented theologian, dying broken and destitute.
Romantic Judas is a popular subject for the artist, who of course can’t help but see a bit of himself (or herself) in Judas. A variety of Lord Byron, a Miltonic Lucifer standing opposed to old Nobodaddy, offering not salvation but much more potent liberation. Thomas De Quincey, that old lotus-eater, between opium puffs and laudanum sips, remarked that “As regards the worldly prospects of this scheme, it is by no means improbable that Iscariot was right.” Judas has always been a bit Romantic, a bit punk rock. Borges’ Judas may be the most radical version, but Judas the Redeemable haunts even pop culture. Listen to Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s (underrated) 1970 rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. My God what a subversive masterpiece! And now they perform it in church pageants! Do these people not read the lyrics? Webber’s Judas is a counter-cultural revolutionary, a Zealot who abandoned militancy in favor of spiritual rebellion, only to ultimately fear that such rebellion is ultimately toothless. Judas is a wounded idealist, the type of cynic who can only be born from a repeatedly broken heart, while Jesus is depicted as a self-serving cult leader, if ultimately still the Son of God. The hero of the play is witty, rambunctious, principled Judas. But that he must be condemned for what he has done is non-negotiable, forcing audiences shelling out for middle-brow theater to confront the most distilled of theodicies. Judas shrieks “My mind is darkness now. My God, I’m sick. I’ve been used, and you knew, all the time. God, I’ll never ever know why you chose me for your crime, your foul, bloody crime. You have murdered me.” Poor Judas, used as a useful tool in the salvation of all of us, but cursed to never take part in the very redemption which he assured. All seems very unfair. Acknowledging that iniquity wasn’t first the provenance of a hippie musical, or a blind Argentinian genius, or a piously heretical Greek novelist and his Italian-American protégée. No, the whispers of Judas’ condemnation come from the very sunbaked sands of the lands where his and Jesus’ story were first recorded into fraying papyrus codices.
That Judas may have had God on his side goes back to the very beginning of the story, to when it was first told. Irenaeus, the second century Church Father and greatest of all heresiologists, considered a group known as the Cainites. These possibly apocryphal Gnostics saw God’s left-hand path as the proper and (un)righteous one, preaching and living an anti-gospel. Transcendence, you see, requires transgression. In Against Heresies, the good Catholic Irenaeus enumerates the sins of practice these Cainites were guilty of. As if repeating one of the Proverbs of Hell, an initiate into the occult theology must maintain that “men cannot be saved until they have gone through all kinds of experience,” a countercultural proposition which is horrifying in its implications (if fully thought out). Etymologically their strange name derives from their claimed spiritual lineage, whereby the first murderer Cain drew “his being from the Power above” and his followers thus “acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves.” Irenaeus explains that “They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion.” Irenaeus assured us that such heretics drank blood and devoured flesh. That orthodoxy and heresy can so fully echo need not be a hypocrisy, but perhaps precisely the point. Irenaeus records that they ape scripture, having produced “a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.” Whether the Cainites were real or not (considering that their exploits served Irenaeus’ orthodox purposes rather well), their gospel, as was discovered recently, was very real. Moldering in an Egyptian attic, the real Gospel of Judas was discovered in Beni Masar in the early 70s, right around the time that Broadway audiences were singing along to “Heaven on their Minds.” Called the Codex Tchacos after the book dealer responsible for its safe-keeping, the lost gospel bounced around the antiquities market for decades, ever deteriorating, until it was translated from old Coptic by an international team in 2006 and released by the National Geographic Society. For a non-specialist, a full reading of the translated text shows a scripture that is more lacuna than writ. The cosmology is inscrutable, standard Gnostic stuff about a corrupt demiurge, with guest appearances from demonic creator gods with names like Yaldabaoth and Saklas. We’re informed of a place called “the immortal realm of Barbelo.” The whole thing is very weird. Contrary to the breathless media-reports which implied that a reading would forever alter a Christian’s relationship to their faith, the ancient manuscript is confusing, baroque, hermetic, and strange. But in its overall thrust it confirms something which Kazantzakis, Borges, Webber, Cullen, and all the rest somehow inferred on their own – that Judas was always the hero. Before the betrayal, the divine being of light who is Christ grants Judas an ascension to that realm of Barbelo above, where “Judas lifted up his eyes and saw the luminous cloud, and he entered it.” Christ said unto Judas “Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.” His soul saw the realm of things eternal and unutterable, and as a result no man could hurt him now. And so he was free to do that which was required, to enact the saving betrayal of Christ. With almost Hemingway-like minimalism, the author of the gospel informs us that the Temple guards “approached Judas and said to him, ‘What are you doing here? You are Jesus’ disciple.’ Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.”
Does his intent matter? It’s not a small question; differences over faith and works, intent and outcome, are at the core of Christian theology. When Matthew writes of Judas that “it had been good for that man if he had not been born” that has to be literally wrong, for if Judas had never been born how would Christ’s crucifixion have happened? Still, if can agree that the results of Judas’ action were ultimately good, that of course doesn’t necessarily make Judas good – that’s the intentionality thing. In evaluating the weight of the man’s soul it does make a difference whether he was privy to the plan and acting on Christ’s accord, or if he just wanted the thirty pieces of silver. If one exonerates someone’s intent because the outcome is good, we risk a type of gentle nihilism, veering into the cloying vanilla of that proclamation which has it that “God must always have a plan,” as if the evil of men can be forgiven if it all ultimately works out. Of course as a corollary, how toothless are good intentions when the results are evil? That seems the more unforgivable thing; faith is all fine and good but works are what put food in starving children’s stomachs, antibiotics in sickly people’s bodies, roofs over homeless heads. Maybe such pragmatism is the American in me asking “What’s it worth?,” or as is more likely the Catholic in me asking what good has been tangibly done, but I think that the old saw about faith being nothing without works is true. Judas was like all of us, a complicated mixture of good and bad where intent, action, and what’s actually felt can be hard to disentangle. Noting that people are people and that some are evil and that some are good can muddle the issue of how goodness operates in the world. Goodness, rather, can be seen as a type of absolute force, an ever reactive breath whose origins need not be from us but can prayerfully fill our lungs, forcing its way into the most crepuscular of spaces. A reading from the heretical bible which is only available to those living in Barbelo: “A good tree can sometimes bring forth evil fruit, and a corrupt tree can sometimes bring forth good fruit.” Goodness is a rich soil, though sometimes very thinly spread upon the barren ground; and yet it’s rich enough that even the sickliest of fallen mustard seeds can sometimes take sprout. Taking root in the driest of deserts. And though a reed makes not a full forest, it’s still alive. Though it may not exonerate, redeem, or save the most malignant of souls, we need not be surprised when evil men can have their moment of grace, possessed by a tenderness they may not even be aware of, and pointing towards a sacred universe where we can never live but are sometimes made sacrosanct enough that we can gaze upon it.
One evening Hakuin Ekaku encountered a samurai on the road. Resplendent in his red ochre armor, with immaculately carved wooden mask, the troubled samurai set out to find the great Rinzai monk, for the warrior feared that his sins would condemn him to hell. Hakuin had once felt fear at his own potential damnation, as frightened of hellfire as any of the contemporary mortifying Puritans who lived half-way around the world. After experiencing satori – on several different occasions I’ll add – Hakuin developed the strict, if empathetic, rigors of Rinzai. For Hakuin reaching enlightenment wasn’t enough; like revolution the fires of nirvana must be ever stoked. Among the commoners of eighteenth-century Japan, Hakuin was a bodhisattva who had conquered hell through kaon; who in true Zen fashion had time to do the dishes and laundry afterward (always remembering the most important things). So, this Tokugawa knight, perhaps straight from crucifying some Nagasaki Christians singing Japanese hymns translated by bearded Jesuit mandarins, searched for Hakuin to quiet his soul, to find peace and succor. And there, on that starless road (as I imagine it) in the shadow of Fuji, not far from his monastery Shōin-ji, the samurai first came upon Hakuin. “Great master,” the warrior humbly asked, “tell me, is it true that there is a hell and heaven?” There was still in the night, the beginning of a slight autumnal chill here on the slopping green hill that reached up unto that great, sacred mountain. Crickets gently chirped. Water rushed over mossy, smooth black stones in a brook a few yards away. Hakuin remained silent, deliberating on the tortured samurai’s question, before finally responding. “That is literally the dumbest fucking question I have ever heard.” Without pause the samurai’s disposition lifted. All of that tortured anguish replaced with incomparable rage. Who was this middling forest hermit to speak to him this way? And so the samurai unsheathed his sword and prepared to decapitate the monk. “Behold,” Hakuin said, “the gates of hell.” Satori. No longer intellectualized over, pined for, meditated on, reflected about, desired, described, or wished for, but achieved. His sword fell to the gingko blanketed floor of the path. “Behold,” Hakuin said, “the gates of heaven.”
The gates of hell. On June 23rd, 1691, the ironically named Mercy Brown, originally of the esteemed Tuttles, attacked her son Samuel with an axe in their Wallingford, Connecticut home. With one blow she cleaved the boy’s head open like a rotten pumpkin hitting the stone floor, and would have decapitated him had her husband not wrestled the ax away. Though the family had been among the earliest settlers to New Haven, striking away from the backsliding they identified with Massachusetts, the Tuttles had long been associated with madness. Mercy’s brother Benjamin was hanged for the very same crime she was guilty of, when he murdered their sister Sarah with an axe fifteen years before. The magistrates would be lenient with Mercy, rendering the judgement that “she hath generally been in a crazed or distracted condition as well long before she committed the act, as at that time, and having observed since that she is in such a condition, do not see cause to pass sentence of death against her,” electing rather to imprison her for life. Such mercy for Mercy may be due to the fact that for all of the violence of their crimes and their madness, the Tuttles were respectable Puritans. Mercy, for the heinousness of her act, had until that point been a decent, kind, and good woman. So solid were the Tuttles’ religious bona fides that Mercy’s grand-nephew was none other than Jonathan Edwards, the most brilliant of colonial American theologians. He who diagnosed humanity as being a “little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing; a vile insect that has risen up in contempt against the majesty of Heaven and earth” and so thus prescribed that we should “live in continual mortification, and never to expect or desire any worldly ease or pleasure.” A clue as to what drove Mercy to her crime. Not Edwards of course (who wouldn’t be born for more than another decade), but rather the theology of Calvinism. Five-point Calvinism (whose main principles are remembered through the charming mnemonic of TULIP) isn’t anyone’s idea of warm, with its emphasis on the total depravity of all humans, atonement limited to only an elect, and where grace is entirely unmerited by the sinful individual and only bestowed by God for inscrutable reasons. And most famously, the adherence to a strict belief in predestination. A Christian could never be certain of their salvation through any of their own actions, but there could be clues of one’s status. Generally the elect were not murderers, fornicators, or sodomites. Members of the elect would have a clean conscious, which encouraged New England Puritans to examine their own minds with a psychoanalytically obsessive scrupulosity; tallying their thoughts, dreams, fears, and anxieties in exacting detail. Like Hakuin, who was six when Mercy Tuttle committed her crime an ocean and a continent away, she was obsessed with those flames of hell which eternally burn but give off no light. Calvinism is an exhausting way to live one’s faith. Max Weber wrote about how the Calvinist was perennially engaged in discovering “the most suitable means of counteracting feelings of religious anxiety.” For the Puritan, “the fundamental peculiarities of religious feeling” are defined by this uncertainty concerning their own election. Famously Weber argued that the capitalist accumulation of wealth and its reinvestment was spurred by such anxiety, as material success could be measured upon the celestial ledger of the individual soul as evidence of election. That would be at least one way to see if you were a member of the elect, but for many personalities it would be the uncertainty alone which would be horrific. One easy way to take the edge off would be to commit an act which would grant you certainty about the status of your election by confirming that you were not a member of the glorified. Such crimes were not unheard of, men and women so wracked by religious ambiguity that they were willing to commit atrocities for at least one bit of certainty, even if it was that they were bound for hell. It’s the sort of crime that only the very genuinely and tortured pious can be capable of. Atheists may murder, but they don’t do so to acquire knowledge of the state of their eternal soul. As James Hogg wrote in his 1824 Calvinist gothic masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, “Nothing in the world delights a truly religious people so much, as consigning them to eternal damnation.” So a frustrated, uncertain, and pious Mercy Tuttle who could not be assured of the kingdom of heaven rather conquered her anxiety by taking an axe and knocking open the very gates of hell. As her grand-nephew would preach, “You have reason to wonder that you are not already in hell.”
The gates of heaven. What is more archetypally American than the serial killer? A boot-strapper, a rugged individualist, setting out west on the highway and rewriting the very rules of decency, of empathy, of morality, to suit their own twisted vision. A nihilistic cowboy roaming the plains of the depressing American backcountry dotted with strip malls and roadhouses, branding his innocent victims and dumping the bodies in shallow woodland creeks and trash-strewn alleyways. The highways of America crisscross the continent as deeply as the grooves of Charlie Starkweather’s furrowed brow as he awaited his execution on Nebraska’s death row. If the serial killer is prefigured by Jack the Ripper or Giles de Raise, then he now speaks with a twang. We’re insatiable for their gruesome stories, craning our necks to gawk. All of those men with their middle names firmly repeated, lest we confuse them with some different, poor, innocent John Gacy. We read the detailed crime reports of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, the Zodiac Killer, and the Boston Strangler. Not satiated by stories of genuine evil, we invent them with our Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. The serial killer presents all of the rapacious, selfish, narcissistic greed of the American credo into its logical conclusion, which is why we’re simultaneously attracted to and repelled. We talk about them as clinicians, they’re “sociopaths” and “psychopaths,” but that’s just the gloss of medical language. We know what we really mean. As Hannibal Lecter himself said in Thomas Harris’ 1988 Silence of the Lambs “You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism… You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants – nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?” In a disenchanted world, drained of meaning and significance, the serial killer offers us a depiction of transcendence by answering in the affirmative that evil is real. Not behaviorism, not criminology, but metaphysical evil. And where evil is proven to be real, we hope and pray that that implies good must be real as well. No modern writer more thoroughly explored the terrain of a quiet, faint, and whispered grace amidst evil than did Flannery O’Connor. In the highway murder tale “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” she presents a disputation between a narcissistic old woman whose family has just been murdered and the man who did it, a serial killer known only as the Misfit. After marching her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren (including an infant) off to an execution, the Misfit returns to the grandmother. The two discuss Christ and his miracles, the Misfit (who claims to not even remember all of the murders he has committed, including that of his own father) expresses his doubts. For him, there is but one commandment, that there is “no pleasure but meanness.” She reaches out to touch the Misfit’s cheek, and says “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” Startled, he shoots the old woman three times in the head. While leaving the scene, one of his friends jokes about the “fun” which they just had, to which the Misfit replied there is “no real pleasure in life,” concluding that the grandmother could have been a good woman if there “had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Critical debate has long centered on the change which seems to have occurred in both characters, even if the ultimate result of the interaction must still end in horrific violence. The Misfit has obviously been shaken by the tenderness afforded to him, a tenderness so out of character for the needling old woman we were previously confronted with. With her small world of small concerns, obsessed with social order and decorum, nostalgically pining for some lost agrarian Southern fantasy, she is note-perfect portrayal of a hypocritical Christian. Yet her embrace of a man as evil as the Misfit is a consummate working of goodness through her, an impartation of grace from God onto her, and more importantly from her onto the killer. An act which if it does not save the killer certainly saves the grandmother. Joyce Carol Oates explores the similar demon haunted terrain of the serial killer in “The Girl with the Blackened Eye.” Her narrator recounts the horrifying details of her kidnapping, rape, and torture when she was only fifteen. She recollects how in his cabin the man “raped me, beat me, and shocked me with electrical cords and he stubbed cigarette butts on my stomach and breasts, and he said things to me.” The serial killer in Oates’ story is an irredeemable monster, like Lecter’s imploration to Clarice Starling, it is impossible not to describe him as evil. And yet at the end of the story, with the girl chained up in his hidden cabin, the man uses his last bit of strength to draw a map for the police who’ve just critically wounded him, so that they can find and rescue the narrator. She writes “He told them where the cabin was, when he was dying. He did that for me.” Why did the man do this, why this mercy at the very end? Oates indicates that there could be psychosexual reasons, that he spared the girl once he realized she was younger than his favored targets. At one point, in-between letting her eat greasy fried chicken and runny cole slaw as he picked ticks out of her matted hair in his weed filled backlot, he ruminates that “There’s some reason, I don’t know yet, that you have been spared.” Later on, sounding like the arbitrary God of the Calvinists, he tells her she would be saved because “You’re not like the others. You’re special. That’s the reason.” His last seconds of strength were spent in ensuring that the girl would be saved. Was it enough to save his soul? Of course not. But it was enough to at least save her life. In his fictionalized song-version of the Starkweather murders, Bruce Springsteen sings “Well sir, I guess that there is just a meanness in this world.” The promise and hope of grace is that no matter how small, or hard to identify, that perhaps there is a goodness in this world as well, even if it’s not enough to save everybody, especially if sometimes there are brief seconds when even the most evil are capable of it.
In the village of Faulksland, Germany, Johann Dunker would have just been another oddball if it wasn’t for the very specific manner in which his eccentricity manifested itself. For example, there was Niles Schroeder, who would present to the tourists enjoying schnitzel and Riesling in the restaurants overlooking Lake Königssee neatly typed pamphlets he authored. Of varying degrees of word salad, the thrust of the meticulously thread-bound manifestoes was always the same – that for the crime of killing the Jews the German nation would be marked until the seventh generation. Because Schroeder had served with the fathers of the men who were the proprietors of these establishments, there was a tremendous degree of Teutonic latitude granted towards his tics. Schroeder had been a minor functionary at Dachau during the war, and though he had escaped the harshest of sentences, he was still detained by the Allies, and seems to have been affected a conversion at the hands of an American Baptist missionary. Faulksland had once been almost a third Jewish, but the Jews had been entirely murdered during the Holocaust in the early winter of 1940. Fully a quarter of the homes, now filled with German-speaking transplants from eastern Europe, had a small glimmering of fade next to their front doors where the mezuzahs had been pried off decades before. But for all of that haunting, no man made the citizens of Faulksland as uncomfortable as Dunker. He had moved there in 1947, a man of no history, no connections, no friends, and no memories. Dunker was observed acting in a rather odd manner for an ostensible gentile. From sundown on Friday to Saturday he refused to travel on the buses which were the pride of West German efficiency. It was noted that on those Sabbaths his house would go dark, no candles or electric lights by which to illuminate. While shopping at the butcher shops which lined Max Plank Street at the center of Faulksland he never touched the Westphalian ham which was their pride. And after his death it was discovered that not only was his kitchen configured to maintain two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for milk, but that he had indeed utilized that arrangement for its express purpose, in a house that had once been occupied by a Jew long since immolated in the chimneys of Auschwitz. If the coroner who investigated Dunker’s natural death some weeks after neighbors began to complain of the stench (though surely they must have smelled it before?) had suspected that the old man was a crypto-Jew, he was dissuaded by what he found next. For in an old carved wooden chest kept in a corner of his office, was his neatly pressed, immaculate, black, Waffen-SS uniform. And beneath the uniform, beneath his Iron Cross and the thankful accolades from Himmler and Hitler, below the black-and-white photos of a handsome young man, glass of schnapps in hand at Nazi Party functions smiling and raven-haired, were his diaries from 1940 until 1987 when he died, at the respectable age of 77. Do not be confused by these diaries, Dunker’s narrative was not the same as that of Schroeder’s. There was no contrition, no repentance. And there was no Johann Dunker, rather there was only Gerhart Schmidt, a mid-level Waffen official who had been responsible for the liquidation of Faulksland’s Jews, some 12,960 men, women, and children. A treachery committed in distant Berlin with the filing of a few forms and the processing of some paperwork. A bit of bureaucratic malicious largesse for which, as the diaries indicate, he was exceedingly proud of, having chosen to make Faulksland his home. His anti-Semitism had not wavered in the years after his perverse “homecoming,” if anything it had grown more virulent, evidencing an almost unimaginable sadism as he meditated on the deaths of the innocent Jews who had once lived in this town, had once lived in his home. Lest you think that Schmidt undertook his pantomime because of some distant Jewish ancestry, know that his Nordic lineage was substantiated by family trees that apparently went back to Charlemagne. For what reason did such a hateful man, a non-Jew, the murderer of Jews, so faithfully follow and adhere to Jewish law? His diaries make no mention of Levitical writ or Talmudic exegesis. But though the coroner discovered no testimony to why Schmidt should so faithfully execute the 613 commandments of God, he did find in a chest next to the Waffen-SS uniform a dingy cardboard box, inside of which were Sabbath candles, a worn tallit, a set of tefillin seemingly broken from overuse, and a frayed Hebrew prayer book, with the Kaddish underlined in red ink and the page consulted so many times that the ink of the Alephs, Bets, and Gimmels had been smudged to an ambiguous ashy gray smear. Why such a man as Gerhard Schmitt would uphold the law so completely has never been explained. If there can be understanding of a flame of some kind of perverse goodness in the soul of a man so malignant, it was advanced by the great Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor Adolph Trachtenberg, who in his 1989 Newark Aphorisms writes “Schmidt then, was a strange instrument of God’s justice. In this dark place where all the Jews had been eliminated, the Lord would at least ensure that the bright candle of Jewish practice could not be extinguished. And so to that end he forcibly compelled, as both punishment and as ineffable mitzvah, that the very agent responsible for that heinous crime would be he who fulfilled proper observance of the law, so that it should not perish from those environs, even if the people for whom it was originally commanded were dead, burnt upon the pyre by the very man now made to say Kiddush for them, the devil who consigned them to their nameless graves.”
I apologize for the macabre nature of my observations, but any discussion of good implies a consideration of evil. Writing this, as I am, with the world seemingly on the verge of nuclear war, what homily to goodness can be penned which doesn’t sound cheap and disingenuous? Calvin once argued that all it would take to confirm God’s benevolence would be the salvation of one man, one unworthy, degenerate, sickening worm of a man. Calvin’s theology is a finely-wrought mechanical device, all of his pieces impeccable, every gear, and widget, and piston correctly fitted. Which is part of why it feels so cold, so empty. This then, has always been my difficulty with Calvinism, as expertly crafted as his syllogisms and postulates may be. If we are to cede that predestination is the ultimate expression of God’s complete majestic sovereignty, if we are to affirm that individual agency implies a limitation in God’s omnipotence, then why would you opt to believe in a form of double predestination whereby God condemns everyone to hellfire? Why should God be such a capricious creator? The salvation of one may be all that God requires to demonstrate His magnificence, but how much more so the salvation of two? Or of ten? Or thirty-six? Or of everybody? If none of us has a choice in whether we receive grace, then how much more benevolent if we’re all granted it? Debates over universal salvation would split the congregations composed of the descendants of New England Puritans like the Tuttles, as the rapacious intellectual energy of Calvinism turned itself inside out, with the limited atonement of Reformed theology transforming into an egalitarian atonement for all. Take Hosea Ballou, born of Huguenot extraction in rural New Hampshire four years before Concord and Lexington, son of a minister in that old non-conformist faith of the Baptists. His preaching, popular in the environs around Boston, split many Congregationalist churches such as the parish in West Cambridge, orthodox Calvinists, Unitarians, and Universalists all electing to go their own way. The convulsions of late Puritanism, as it fractured and broke as completely as our Dead God from whom creation sprouts, were not weak tremors. Ballou converted to the Universalist faith the year of the French Revolution, and as the Jacobins stormed the Bastille, Ballou theologically stormed the gates of hell in hopes of abolishing that prison. With unfortunates such as the Tuttles in mind, Ballou wrote that Calvinism’s preaching of “infernal torments … have tended so to harden the hearts of the professors of this religion, that they have exercised, toward their fellow creatures, a spirit of enmity.” For Ballou, preaching in pulpits from Boston to Cambridge to Monotomy, the question of predestination had been incorrectly approached by the Calvinists. Yes, salvation requires God’s freely given grace, but She does not limit Herself in its imparting, rather it is freely available to all. Furthermore, literally every soul would ultimately find redemption, no longer how long it takes. All of creation, no matter how low, filthy, debased, wicked, or malicious must ever reach upwards towards its Creator, yearning for a completeness whose experienced absence is the very hallmark of existence. Ballou, preaching in the first half of the nineteenth-century to an assembled congregation of Universalists in Menotomy’s white steeple First Parish, topped with a celestial blue partial half-dome the color of the Virgin Mary’s robe, sat both figuratively and literally half-way between the Unitarians just then putting their mark on Harvard Divinity School, and the tribe of Transcendentalists gathering in Concord. But Rev. Ballou’s doctrine was not original to him. The technical term for the final moment of universal salvation is apocatastasis – “reconstitution.” Apocatastasis is a particular type of apocalypse, when all contradictions are reconciled, all inequities are leveled, all injustices are satiated, and all souls are saved. Apocatastasis marks the returning of all souls into a finality of eternal, infinite, universal goodness. In such a moment Mercy Tuttle is redeemed, Hakuin’s samurai is redeemed, the Misfit is redeemed, Gerhard Schmidt is redeemed, Judas is redeemed. In short, apocatastasis signifies the complete totalizing power of good. What then must any other experience of goodness be? They are reminders that though Utopia is no place, it can still be a republic of time. Utopia, and her sacred equivalent of Millennium, are not circumscribed by length, height, and width, but rather by duration. Utopia is not measured in distance, but in seconds. The experience of good is the impartation of a moment of grace, it offers us a window into the eternal realm of Millennium, a view of apocatastasis in the present. Goodness which reacts to evil, goodness which reacts to emptiness, goodness which reacts to loss, goodness which reacts to pain – such is the sacrosanct temple of the moment. Each moment of connection, of tenderness, of reflection, of intimacy, of truth, of beauty, of mercy, of empathy, of goodness is but a glimpse into that mystic domain of Millennium. Such moments are circumscribed, yet infinite: the omnipotent Republic of Grace. Ballou envisioned one grand moment whereby the Lord would embrace that great Adversary, and the task of creation would be complete, all redeemed in a shining flash of goodness. Do I imagine that will happen? I must confess, I have my doubts. And yet, such a moment of apocatastasis need not literally be true for us to have the deep intuitive knowledge that every moment of grace is still a reflection of that perfect, imaginary, illusory view of a world to come. Each experience of goodness, of grace, is a sacrament, prefiguring that ineffable potential of future completeness. Now, please consider: what if Judas did not kiss Christ to condemn Him, but rather that in that moment of grace Christ kissed Judas so as to bless him?
Read the First Twelve Observations on Goodness.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is the associate editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, he holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.