TBT: Lady Margaret Thatcher Credits Michael Novak

TBT: Lady Margaret Thatcher Credits Michael Novak

The Victorian Lady

Margaret Thatcher's virtues.

Sargent Shriver, 1915-2011

The Last Liberal: Sargent Shriver's life and times Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver by Scott Stossel (Smithsonian, 761 pp., $52.50)

ONE DAY, early in the summer of 1970, I read in the New York Times that Sargent Shriver was opening an office in Washington to help elect Democrats to Congress. Shriver had just returned from a tour as ambassador to France and was eager, the story implied, to join the political battle against Nixon and Agnew. "Sounds like fun," I told my wife over morning coffee. Three hours later, the phone rang, and it was Shriver, inviting me down to Washington to write for him.

He explained--when I visited him the next day at Timberlawn, his Maryland home, out Rockville Pike from Washington--that he had been reading my book The Experience of Nothingness during his last days in France. He read some of it aloud to me right there, and asked me if I would be willing to come and write for him: We would be on the road all summer, right through Election Day, he explained, which meant I would need to take a semester's leave of absence from the university in the fall, but my family could live at Timberlawn in the pool house during the campaign.

I said yes. When a little later I was introduced to Eunice, she smiled and said Sarge would be tough on me. "Give you five dollars if you're still here Election Day," she tossed her hair in the way parochial schoolgirls used to do. It was a marvelous adventure, those five months. There were people working in the office on K Street, there were advance teams, press secretaries, and sometimes an old-time Kennedy (or Stevenson or Humphrey or Johnson) hand for advice and company and schmoozing. And then there was Sarge and me. We did thirty-eight states, and I forget how many campaigns--pretty close to a hundred, I think.

I remember Sarge almost killing himself by taking a dare in South Dakota and allowing a bunch of the Democrats there to seat him on one side of a big inner tube near the shore of the local lake, with a rope tied to its other side, the rope then strung out about thirty feet to a power boat. When the men with drinks in their hands roared off at high speed, I was sure Sarge was going to lose both his legs in the boat's wake.

I also remember campaigning in Oakland, and Ron Dellums telling Sarge in front of the crowd that Oakland was so tough that even the muggers went in twos. We also put in a stop for another freshman, this time for the California Assembly, John Vasconcellos--who stays in touch with me to this day--and met in Sacramento with Jerry Brown, too. We baked in the desert at 110 degrees in Palm Springs, deplaning from a four-seat Cessna flown briskly by a woman pilot who wore a white jumpsuit with a flying tiger emblem on her buckle. We did Vegas, Albuquerque, Toledo, anywhere anybody wanted a headliner for a chicken dinner fundraiser. There were movie stars or athletes to join us at almost every stop. There were always Peace Corps veterans, or Job Corps veterans, or Upward Bound leaders. There was an army of Shriver people everywhere.

Sarge liked to have three or four index cards, block-printed with felt-tip pens, for each of the nine themes of the campaign. The main facts, a story or two to illustrate, a funny line or two, a throat-tightener, a punchy ending, or a lead into the next sequence. He would vary these sequences, depending on the crowd or occasion. He thought a good speech ought to move an audience through several different moods, from hilarity through sadness and on to resolve. He liked to keep things fresh. Every day he would hand me new clippings with facts or stories to "work in."

HE ALWAYS WANTED a "touch of class," as well, by which he meant a quotation from a theologian, philosopher, or classic figure--particularly something with the aura of the Catholic tradition. In this, he reminded me a bit of Eugene McCarthy, already a friend through our Commonweal ties. Both McCarthy and Shriver were Catholics not only by birth but intellectually and knowledgeably, in the way that the Kennedy brothers never were, and both thought the Catholic tradition shed an intellectual light on American perplexities that nothing else rivaled.

Shriver always hired someone--Colman McCarthy, Mark Shields, a legion of others--to play the role I held: someone to talk to about Teilhard de Chardin and Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa and Thérèse of Lisieux and Peter Maurin and G.K. Chesterton and Danilo Dolci and the Worker Priests of France and Cardinal Suhard. Shriver loved the vein of Catholic thought that wanted to "reconstruct the social order," "put the yeast of the gospel in the world," "feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted." He thought of the Catholic faith as a culture-changing force, a shaper of civilizations, an inspirer of great works, a builder of great institutions that bring help of all kinds to the needy in all dimensions of need.

Some people always thought this passion was a Kennedy thing. Shriver had a certain nobility of soul regarding the Kennedys, and I never heard a negative word cross his lips. But Shriver had a sense of his own lineage, needing vindication by nobody else. His family had helped to launch Maryland on the side of Independence, had fought on both sides of the Civil War, and served gallantly in every American war.

Long before he got involved with the Kennedys, he had excelled in prep school (in fact, he bested there, by far, Jack Kennedy), at Yale, in the Experiment in International Living (which took him to Europe every summer until 1939--he was on the last ship to leave France the day the war broke out), in the Navy, at Yale Law School, at Newsweek, and in fact at everything he had tried to do.

He had joined the Navy after Yale and emerged a hero from a decisive battle off Guadalcanal. He was from the beginning handsome, dashing, athletic, self-confident, full of fun and zest, a restless thinker, and a man with an instinct for the grand and truly great, and an acute sense of destiny. Well before he met the Kennedys, he was preparing himself for high ambitions, certainly a governorship or Senate seat. Why not? His faith wanted him to, his family expected it, he had been granted great opportunities to prepare for such things, and his inner energy and expectations longed for them.

He was McGovern's second choice to run for vice president in a doomed campaign, and that was as close as he got to the highest peaks of national ambition. He never became president, or governor, or senator. To some, that may seem a curious failure for a man with so much talent and considerable success at every lower level.

WITH SARGE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SARGENT SHRIVER, Scott Stossel has written a really good biography. I hadn't expected it to be; so many such books aren't. But there are many things Stossel tells that I never learned while working for Shriver in that 1970 campaign, or as his speechwriter again during his candidacy as vice president in 1972. On that occasion, the moment Senator Eagleton withdrew his candidacy, I guessed that McGovern, for whom I was then working, would turn to Sarge, so I instantly began writing his acceptance speech; and I showed up unbidden at Timberlawn the morning the news became public. All the old Kennedy speechwriters were there the next day with drafts of an acceptance speech for Sarge. He read them all, and chose mine.

From Stossel I learned the details about the Shrivers (and Shreibers) of Maryland; and about Sarge's mother and her influence on him; and how the great Cardinal Gibbons often used to come to stay with his family for days at a time (and during his final illness) and called them the best Catholic family in Maryland. From Stossel I also learned the dramatic story of his courage and decisive leadership as gunnery officer of the battleship South Dakota, which very nearly went down under furious bombardment off Guadalcanal. After that, Sarge trained to gain command of a submarine, but on assignment day, he overslept--much to his cold fury at his bad luck. (He was later to learn that all six of his companions who received commands perished at sea.) The story of Sarge's long, difficult courtship of Eunice, Stossel tells most affectingly through passages from letters. Eunice was such a strong, determined, active, personally driven woman that it speaks extremely highly of Sarge that it was precisely for these qualities that he loved her. That he pursued her so long and so singlemindedly, when other women were falling all over him, is also a great story in itself. That marrying her meant living in the shade of the Kennedys was a burden to him, and yet one he had reflectively and deliberately assumed. He felt the blessing of God in it.

He also took real pleasure in helping his wife to be the leader she is, and he put himself at the service of her dreams in helping with the Special Olympics. Only a Kennedy and a Shriver could have made that happen. It meant mobilizing legions of athletes and movie stars and journalists and publicists and health workers and volunteers. The vision came from Eunice (who from her teenage years longed to help the most needy) but the organizational skill, salesmanship, and jack-of-all-trades talents of Sarge made it happen.

MOST PEOPLE HAVE FORGOTTEN, if they ever knew, that Sarge was almost Lyndon Johnson's choice for vice president, instead of Hubert Humphrey. Johnson liked and admired Shriver and knew he could be his salesman on Capitol Hill--and also a hedge against the ambitions of Bobby Kennedy. He entrusted Sarge with the War on Poverty. Again, it may not mean much today, but the French loved Sarge when he was ambassador to France. He was everywhere, and glamorous, and intellectual, and all the things the French admire.

In his late-starting 1972 race for the vice presidency, the cause was hopeless. But Mickey Kantor, Mark Shields, Jeanie Mains, Doris Kearns, and a host of talented volunteers poured out to join him. McGovern assigned us the task of winning back the Catholic ethnic vote that Nixon had so knowingly cut into in 1968. We saw a lot of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, occasionally St. Louis, and then around and back again. Toward the end, when the crowds were huge and enthusiastic, we began to feel--unbelievable as it now seems--that the press must be wrong, and the campaign might have a chance of winning. What the crowds were actually saying is that they weren't going to vote for us, but we shouldn't take it personally, because they really did like Shriver.

At a factory gate, on one occasion, I watched one of the advance team hand out flyers in a see-through blouse, a miniskirt, high boots, and a big red "Abortion" button. Turning away from her in disgust, the older workers weren't meeting Shriver's eyes, and I saw two spit on the ground in anger--this in a factory in Joliet, Illinois, from which the Democrats should have gotten, maybe, 114 percent of the vote. It wasn't Sarge's fault. But such experiences of the Democratic party that year, not respecting its own base, were enough to make a neoconservative out of me.

Most people also forget that Sarge ran for president in 1976. Once again, as in 1970 and 1972, Teddy Kennedy and his professionals didn't rally round. Just before the crucial Massachusetts primary, Stossel relates, after he sat down from a rousing St. Patrick's Day talk at a big luncheon in Boston, Teddy Kennedy got a sharp rebuke from Eunice, because not once had Teddy even mentioned Sarge's name or urged the faithful to help him. We knew back in 1970 and 1972 that Teddy and his guys were carping about Sarge's speeches--once Sarge even threw in a mention of Teilhard de Chardin just to torment them a little. Sarge kept doing things his way, and even today, a number of his best lines keep getting picked up, like his 1970 "culture of life, culture of death" speech.

STOSSEL IS MISLED on a related point by Mark Shields's telling of the famous anecdote about Sarge, in a crowded ethnic bar, buying drinks for all the workers and then, at his turn, after all the shouts for various American beers, calling out: "Make mine a Courvoisier." Sarge knew exactly what he was doing. He thought if he ordered a beer, everybody there would know he was a phony. He respected other people for being who they were, and he was damned well not going to pretend to be what he wasn't. He admired the hard work, the family life, the faith, the hopes of these guys. But he didn't think they wanted him to be exactly like them. It wasn't Tip O'Neill's way of campaigning, and Sarge may have had it wrong. But he did it his way, and I liked him the more for it.

Even here Stossel, to his credit, gets to the essence of Shriver, for he keeps pointing out how much the guys in the bars actually liked Sarge. Stossel isn't so good on why the same guys weren't so sure about the national Democrats any longer--not after McGovern said he would apologize to the North Vietnamese. And not when they listened to Shirley MacLaine going on and on (and there seemed to be ever more radical voices in the national campaign, and fewer and fewer familiar local pols and party "bosses"). The new guys had forgotten that one radical's "party boss" was some regular's source of patronage and garbage service.

After 1976, Shriver turned his attention back to charities and public life, including (in his law work) all sorts of activities to link civil society in Russia to the outside world. (Once, his young son, whom he took on a trip to Russia, chased a ball down the hall, opened a door, and found Russian agents inside minding tapes that were picking up everything the Shrivers did.)

Sarge also kept up his support for all the institutions he had helped get started--and, if you think about it, there are still standing, and sometimes thriving, forty years later a number of truly beloved institutions Sarge Shriver helped to found--not only the Special Olympics, but also the Peace Corps, Upward Bound, Head Start, the less successful Jobs Corps, and not a few initiatives of the much-mocked War on Poverty.

It is astonishing how many of these programs anticipated later writings on civil society. Many were designed to raise flying buttresses outside of government, involving "mediating structures" (most notably, the urban churches and big business and the world of celebrities) and civil society. Much that Shriver had a hand in creating contained significant elements of "compassionate conservatism." A lot of big government liberalism, too--but with an arresting number of conservative elements.

In Sarge, Stossel describes the conversation in which many of Shriver's friendsadvised Sarge not to reveal the early signs of Alzheimer's (which set in three years ago), and Shriver replied, "Reagan had a much worse affliction than I did. Hard-core conservatism. Whatever I've got now, I never suffered from that." I cannot believe Shriver would mean any comment like that cruelly, but it is, in fact, how he often thought of conservatives. Sarge could understand liberal Republicans; many of his Yalie friends were such--he could see the tony similarity that certain Republicans and certain Democrats share in good spirits, which leads them to believe that they are not ideological. But people like Reagan seemed to them beyond the pale.

Yet for Shriver, this was not entirely a matter of social class. His ancestors helped found the Maryland Democratic party, and though he would never confuse politics with religion, his politics were quite equally a thing of faith. Those outside that faith seemed to him afflicted. Sarge would experience them as strangers, odd fish, and would feel sad for them. In a political campaign, he would lambaste them with zest. One on one, he would try to charm them, and do his best to try to understand them, as if they were another species.

I used to wonder, over many years, what would happen if Sarge ever came to see the flaws in the Democratic party's way of construing taxes, poverty, crime, welfare, and abortion, and so became a conservative. There were many aspects about his life that could have led him in this direction. His business experience prevented him from being a full-blown leftist on economic policy.

On abortion, he and Eunice were always flat out of accord with their party--but not ready to break from it or even to insist on their voices being heard. I always expected Sarge to have more sympathy than he ever actually showed with those former liberals who had been mugged by reality and become neoconservatives. I even thought, sometimes, that he might join us. But, the truth is, he really was a Democrat, a party man, all the way down. His loyalty was one of the reasons he was a great man--and also one of the reasons he was never as great in politics as he should have been.

Michael Novak is George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published in The Weekly Standard on May 24, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 35

Good, Evil, and My Friend Irwin

Recently THE WEEKLY STANDARD published Irwin Stelzer's truly brilliant account of a literary luncheon arranged by President Bush to honor Andrew Roberts's History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, a thick, heavy book that picks up the skein begun by Winston Churchill with his long four-volume treatment of the subject. The President was not at all intimidated by his fifteen or so guests, including the formidable Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Paul Gigot, Allen Guelzo, Seth Lipsky, Mona Charen, Kate O'Beirne, Irwin Stelzer himself, and of course Mr. Roberts and his wife, the writer Susan Gilchrist. The President was not pretentious; and he was not at all showing off. Stelzer gives such a vivid account of the event that there is little to be gained by adding new details. (How does he memorize so well what others say? I don't remember him taking any notes.) But there is one thing I must clear up to save my theological reputation and one interesting detail that I had caught wind of before the meeting, and took the occasion to confirm.

Prior to the event, I had fixed two points in mind to insert into the conversation if an opportunity came up. (From past experiences, I had learned that merely going with the flow and not adding something--or if adding, doing so only on the spur of the moment--is afterwards a bitter memory). Before sitting down, therefore, I was already determined to press the president on two of his favorite themes. The first is the peace and calm that he says comes to him from the Almighty, which allows him not to be perturbed by the high-decibel (and often mean) shrieks of critics. The second is a phrase he often uses, "the war between good and evil." Stelzer actually quotes me a tad inaccurately on the second discussion, in a way that brought me a sharp warning from a theologian friend. Stelzer had written: "The discussion centered on Novak's contention that although there is indeed evil, there is no such thing as absolute good." My theologian friend noted that this formulation not only abandons the orthodox Christian tradition (Catholic and Protestant) since St. Augustine, but is a total inversion of it. Augustine reasoned that there is an absolute good, namely God, in all His radiance and power; whereas evil has no ontological existence on its own at all, being no more than a defective good or a perversion of the good.

In actual fact, of course, a White House lunch or even a lunch with friends anywhere is no place for a formal disquisition. Nor did I wish to prompt the president in any pre-determined direction. When he himself introduced his usual phrase about the Almighty, I leapt in to say that some folks criticized him for claiming to have a telephone line to God, Who told him which policies to follow and what to do. The president scoffed. "Hey, no telephone line. I know I'm a sinner. I know that." He added that every day he wants to make sure that he is not being diverted from what is right. "I want to have my conscience clear with Him. Then it doesn't matter so much what others think."

On the question of good and evil, I had heard the president telling a group of clergymen a few days before that "We are engaged in a war of good and evil." The clergymen had said he should repeat that phrase publicly over and over: "good versus evil." That advice had made me very uncomfortable. So at this lunch I seized the chance to introduce that very phrase, and to say I didn't like it. "I have no problem with evil," I said, I have seen plenty of real evils in my lifetime. But I have a problem with saying that anyone is good. Purely good.

To my mind, the context here was solely about human beings, not God. And I was, without saying so, alluding to a point made by Reinhold Niebuhr, about the irony of American history: America serves a noble, good principle, but yet often does so through flawed men and flawed policies (such as slavery). "In my good, there is always some evil," I was thinking.

However, I was trying to instruct neither my fellow guests nor the president. Many (including my wife, she told me later) did not like my formulation. Some, pre-occupied with the threat from relativism, made fun of the left-wing fetish for limiting speech to various shades of gray. But my own worry concerned the tendency of the pious to be too moralistic and careless in speaking of good and evil. After batting this around, pretty soon the president and then the whole table came up with a rather neat formulation, very much as Stelzer records: In this world there are good causes and evil causes. When we commit ourselves to advancing a good cause, we need to recognize that we are not so good ourselves, but quite imperfect agents.

There is today an intense battle between good and evil principles. It is correct to focus on good v. evil in this sense. But it would be incorrect to imagine that we ourselves are purely good, without flaw and fault in ourselves. We must not let our imperfection, however, detract from the nobility of the good we serve, and the horrible damage the triumph of an evil principle always wreaks. All in all, the discussion ended up just exactly where I had hoped it would, without knowing it for sure, and without my trying to guide it there. My aim was to throw down the provocative propositions. Pardon me for writing all this, just to clear up my theological conscience. I do think of God as, to quote from George Washington, "the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." But no human being stands in God's sight perfectly good--exceptions made (in the Catholic view) for Jesus and his blessed Mother.

The one tid-bit I picked up prior to the lunch, and confirmed at the meeting, is that the president and Karl Rove are competing to see who can read the most books during 2007. For the first six weeks, the President was ahead. But by the beginning of March, Rove had surged ahead to twenty books, to the President's sixteen. Just to make sure that no one cheats, Rove also keeps track of the number of pages and the number of lines per page.

I would not have guessed that the President had read more books than most of us from January 1 to February 28. When I asked him about it in informal conversation, he said that the ones he was enjoying best "to relax his mind" were some of Travis McGee's novels. Those John D. MacDonald stories depict a knight errant who runs his own house-boat in Miami "engaged in the salvage business," and comes to the aid of needy persons (especially needy damsels) in distress. Travis McGee used to be one of my favorites, too, until when I was laid up for a week, I read six of them in a row, and over-dosed on them. For many years, though, they had given me considerable pleasure when I was tired and needed a book, on an airplane for instance.

Travis McGee: not such a bad choice for a President, especially one who thinks about good and evil, and often enough in a hard-boiled way.

Published in The Weekly Standard March 14, 2007

What the Islamists Have Learned: How to Defeat the USA in Future Wars

By the will of Allah, in all wars to come, may it prepare our brave martyrs for combat operations! Today, the purpose of war is sharply political, not military; psychological, not physical. The main purpose of war is to dominate the way the enemy imagines and thinks about the war. Warfare is not, these days, won on a grand field of battle. Nor is it won by the force that wins series after series of military victories. Nor is triumph assured by killing far higher numbers of the enemy. The physical side of warfare no longer holds precedence.

The primary battlefield today lies in the minds of opposing publics.

The main strategic aim of war today is to dominate the mind of the enemy's public, and then ultimately to dominate the mind of that public's leaders.

Let me offer three examples. At what moment did the war in Vietnam come to an end? At that precise moment when America's leaders decided that they could not resist the unrelenting storyline of the enemy, which had long prevailed in their own press. The press surrendered first, then the leaders of the nation.

Observe that the Cold War ended not in an explosion of unprecedented violence, but rather at the precise moment when the Soviet elites no longer believed their own storyline. Superior ideas cowed them, superior will, superior narratives. Quite suddenly, the invincible Soviet elites folded, accepted humiliation, allowed the Wall to come down, and watched in bitterness as hundreds of millions of formerly captive peoples chose new forms of government.

The endgame was psychological, not military. There was a military component--Star Wars--but nobody knew whether or not that would ever work. It was the idea of that weapon, and will or Reagan to proceed with it.

The weaker political will yielded to the stronger will.

Yet, as always, will followed storyline. First comes narrative, then the acts that give it flesh in history.

What we have discovered in Iraq is the weakest link in the ability of the United States to sustain military operations overseas. That link is the U.S. media. They are Islamists' best friends.

Experience shows that the mainstream press of the United States is alienated from the U.S. military. In addition, the American press is extremely vulnerable to anti-U.S. propaganda. Thus, the American public will be fed nearly everything that foreign adversaries--our band of brothers--wish to feed it about the war. Therefore, I write: Maxim # 1: To defeat America, impose upon the imagination of its media your own storyline.

Even if you can muster only 10,000 soldiers over the entire countryside of Iraq, paint the narrative like this: The Americans are irresistible occupiers, and yet they cannot prevent small (even individual) acts of destruction. Daily, unrelenting acts of destruction demonstrate that chaos rules. The American strategy, and the American storyline of the war, are invalidated by continuing chaos, highly visible, every single day, on worldwide television. The new dominating story is that the Americans cannot win.

Even though our own forces (for nearly two whole years now) can no longer afford to fight in a single operation lasting longer than a few hours, our martyr-brothers cannot be prevented from committing daily acts of destruction--the more stomach-turning the better--which demonstrate a ferocious will and a determination to destroy.

In such wars, my brothers, whichever party maintains the stronger will, along the most durable storyline, always wins.

To defeat the United States, then, it suffices to demonstrate that their vaunted military, for all its awesome power and tactical bravery in the field, cannot halt daily "chaos." To achieve this victory over America, it is not even necessary to create actual "chaos," but only its appearance. This definition of chaos cannot be made on cerebral, analytic, statistical, or comparative grounds. (In October the Times of London reported, "An average of 112 cars a day have been torched across France" this year, with 15 attacks a day on police and emergency services and nearly 3,000 police officers injured. We don't need comparisons like this or comparisons with traffic deaths and violent crimes in individual U.S. states.)

No, the shadowy existence of this "chaos" in Iraq is projected by a steady stream of stomach-churning, atavistic, destructive acts, staged day by day where the cameras of the U.S. press cannot resist them. Some of these acts bring orange explosions and black smoke, others consist simply of dumping dead and tortured bodies where the public cannot avoid discovering them.

We design these images to show that our fighters will go where the United States will not, that our brave martyrs have harder linings in their stomachs than anyone in the West, and that our ferocity and determination, day after day, cannot be resisted.

The aim of our terror is to induce surrender before the great battles are even fought. This is the true meaning of "asymmetric" warfare. The weaker side in military strength may demonstrate conclusively that it has a stronger stomach for relentless, unstoppable acts of terror.

Besides, brothers, there seems to be a psychological tic in the minds of American journalists, which prevents them from understanding that our terror is ultimately aimed at them. Today, yes, they think it is aimed at their government, and will cripple their political opponents within that government. Without qualm or fear, therefore, they do our bidding day after day. Willingly, gleefully, with much self-congratulation, they pump our storyline into the bloodstream of the Western public.

This is far easier than anyone ever taught us. This is our new discovery, our contribution to the history of warfare. Before our very eyes, the West grows fainter and weaker every day.

Maxim # 2: Take heart, then, my terrorist brothers! Bin Laden is even more correct than we knew before the last two years. The West does not have the will to resist. Those elites among them who do have the stomach to fight back, inexorably, day after day, are being undermined by their own media.

Now and in the future, the media will do our work. All we need are martyrs sufficient in number to keep a steady stream of orange flames and black smoke before their cameras, and to dump before them bodies that are stone-cold dead, and bear all over them the unmistakable blue marks of power drills and other disfigurements.

Of such martyrs, we need each day only a handful. In 365 successive days, we need fewer than one thousand.

This small band of brothers can defeat the most powerful army in human history. The path, my brothers, is to come to dominate the minds of their public, which they must suppose is supporting them, and in reality turns quite quickly into our best ally.

This is not so huge a task, my brothers! In the long run of glorious history, the time required is like the blinking of an eye.

Published in The Weekly Standard November 27, 2006

Passion Play

The Nicene Creed, recited by the world's more than two billion Christians every Sunday, declares that Jesus Christ "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried." More than anything else, these ten words are the theme of "The Passion," Mel Gibson's new movie. Although not scheduled to be released to theaters until Ash Wednesday, "The Passion" generated this spring more discussion than any film in recent memory: endless op-eds, press releases, debates, and denunciations-all about a movie, in Aramaic and Latin, that none of the commentators had seen.

Perhaps in response to all this publicity, both negative and positive, Gibson released a trailer for "The Passion" on July 14. And then, on July 21, he brought a rough cut of the film (with English subtitles) to Washington for a few commentators and interested writers to see.

It is the most powerful movie I have ever seen. In the days since watching that rough cut, I have not been able to get the film out of my mind. Although I have read many books on the death of Jesus, and heard countless sermons dwelling on its details, I would never have believed a human being could suffer as much as Gibson's Christ does. Seen through the perspective of the mother of Jesus, as this film allows the viewer to do, the suffering is doubly painful--for with her, we watch the unbearable scourging, gustily delivered by the Romans at Pilate's orders nearly to the point of death. The pillar to which Jesus is chained is less than waist- high, so that his back is bent while he must keep himself on his feet. When he is dragged away, blood lies pooled and splattered on the white marble floor. The soldiers' laughter echoes again at the moment of the awful downward push when he is crowned with thorns. And then there are the thundering falls of the scourged Christ upon his flailed and bleeding back, under the impossible weight of the cross.

There are, in a sense, only five historical accounts of the Passion: in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and, in bare but vivid outline, in the letters of St. Paul. Paul's accounts are by some thirty years the earliest and represent in large strokes the settled beliefs of the first generation of Christians. Down the centuries, the narrative of Christ's death and its meaning have remained much the same.

The fuller accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John supplement each other, often overlapping and sometimes contradicting one another on the sort of contingent details that eyewitnesses (or their note-takers) often report differently. But all the Christian accounts agree that Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of all human beings of all time, under the command of the Roman consul in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate.

Jewish accounts concur that Jesus was a Jew who suffered and died under the Roman authorities. His claims for himself seemed to Jewish authorities then (and since) to be blasphemous--for Christ clearly announced that he owned an authority higher than the high priests and the rabbis', said forthrightly that he was greater than Solomon, and put himself on a higher plane than Moses. He went even further, daring to call God his father.

The claims Christ made for himself seemed at the time divisive and dangerous. Many people, the Jewish authorities told Pilate, were following this man's lead. His history, they said, showed that he worked magic, performed miracles, and consorted with demons. He had been sent by God, he as much as said, to "fulfill the Scriptures." His continued preaching might lead to riot and rebellion. But only the Romans had the power to do to Jesus what was actually done, and so it was under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and at the hands of the Roman Empire, that Jesus "was crucified, died, and was buried.&qout;

AT THE TIME of Christ's death, Christianity was still internal to Judaism. The Christian Church itself began not at the Passion, but fifty-three days later on Pentecost, when the apostles left an "upper room" in Jerusalem speaking in tongues. With his preaching Jesus had clearly put a challenge to Judaism, expressly announcing a "new" covenant, whose mandate was to "complete" and "fulfill" the &qout;old" covenant. And there is no doubt that Jesus' death meant a parting of the ways between Christians and Jews. Nonetheless, from a Christian point of view, the life and teachings of Jesus and his new covenant do not remove or destroy the old covenant. God cannot be unfaithful to his promises. Besides, if the Creator is not faithful to his first covenant with the Jews, how can Christians expect Him to be faithful to His new covenant with them?

Thus, Christians hold that

Christianity fulfills the hopes launched into the world by Judaism. They also hold that those Jews who reject Christianity remain vessels of God's first love. In God's mysterious plan, the continuation of Judaism in time is a grace to be respected, on the same principle on which the faith of Christians rests--the fidelity of God to his everlasting promises.

The Jewish leaders of the generation that knew him did in fact reject Jesus and his claims, and they did accuse him of blasphemy. "Nevertheless," as the Second Vatican Council said in its statement on Judaism, "the Jews still remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made." The Council strictly forbids Catholics to hold Jews to be "repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from the Holy Scriptures." And it deplores "all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time and from any source against the Jews." This condemnation includes the Church's own sins. The Council stressed the two covenants' common spiritual heritage and foresaw a future in which both communities would serve God "shoulder to shoulder."

Gibson's film is wholly consistent with the Second Vatican Council's presentation of the relations of Judaism and the Christian Church. But "The Passion" will not be easy for Jews to watch. One reason is simply that its entire subject is the death of one who, for many Jews, is a figure of division, Jesus Christ. And a second reason is that it is never easy to relive a moment in which the leaders of one's community, however justified they might have been by their own lights and their own sense of responsibility, do not appear to viewers to be acting in a noble way. As a Catholic, I cringe every time I go to the theater when a pope, cardinal, archbishop, or even priest is portrayed in an unflattering light. Even when they deserve it, I do not enjoy the spectacle.

In the first part of the gospels' account of the Passion, the high priests of Jerusalem standing before Pilate are, painfully no doubt to contemporary Jews, the voice for the prosecution. During the early scenes of the movie, which I tried to watch as if I were Jewish or seated alongside a Jewish colleague, I thought: This is too painful. Having sat through many analogous moments as a Catholic, I did not like the experience.

VERY SOON, though, the action in the film belongs to the Romans. Roman soldiers inflict systematic pain on Jesus with gusto, lighthearted bantering, and the practiced sadism of those who know how to keep subdued populations subdued. The overwhelming drama consists in Christ's willing endurance of unbearable suffering, for the purpose of inaugurating an entirely new order in human life. The movie, like the gospels, is unmistakable in setting this meaning before our eyes. It is, somehow, our sins for which Jesus is dying.

The Passion of Jesus Christ is not a drama about ethnicity. It is about our humanity. The hero of this movie is Jewish, his mother is Jewish, his apostles and followers are Jewish. But one misses the whole point of the Passion of Jesus unless one sees that he submitted to his suffering for all of us. From the first, Christ's teaching in life had been, "Take up your cross and follow me." The meaning of that teaching could not have been plainly understood before his death. This movie suggests to viewers that in witnessing Christ's suffering, our own suffering has a forerunner and teacher. Suffering like Christ's may be redemptive. That depends on how we shape our heart to it.

On the cross, the Christ of Gibson's movie is offering forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity. To blame his suffering on others' sins, instead of one's own, would be to join the boisterous soldiers who inflicted on him all the pain that viewers will hardly be able to watch. If Christians blamed others, they would again make a mockery of Christ. They would again pound the crown of thorns into his skull.

Are there historical inaccuracies in this film? Yes, some minor ones (beginning with the Roman characters' Italianate Latin: Echay 'Omo, Pilate pronounces Ecce Homo, when he exhibits Christ to the crowd). Is the film unfaithful to its historical sources? One who hears the gospels often will feel at home in it, but Gibson did not set out to make an academic documentary. His film is a stream of slowly moving, vivid images, against a starkly universal backdrop. The spoken words are mostly in Aramaic (Latin when the Romans speak), which exceedingly few people understand these days.

The sounds of the unfamiliar tongue put the viewer outside any one time or place, in a kind of timeless, universal space. The mood "The Passion" generates is meditative and contemplative. The tone is awe. One finds one's emotions hushed. For minutes after the film ended, the audience at the showing I attended did not speak or move. We felt part of an indescribably important human moment. We had been drawn into an axial point of silence and wonder.

Such is the power of a genuine work of art--and in its artistic integrity, "The Passion" dwarfs any previous biblical film.

BUT THE MAKING of a film about the death of Jesus Christ is a public event, and it has public consequences that need to be considered. Before I saw "The Passion," I was sympathetic to the worries about the film strongly expressed by the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations. History is not reassuring concerning dramatic treatments of Jesus' Passion, and there has been considerable negative talk about Mel Gibson ever since his project was announced, much of it related to the schismatic views attributed to his father, who is ninety-two.

More important, ours is a particularly nasty time for Jews around the world. Taboos that had seemed firmly in place since 1945 have suddenly dissolved. Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated in France, horrible slogans are shouted in public throughout Europe, acts of violence against Jewish passers-by are caught on film, and "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which we thought discredited forever, is welcomed with a new credulity in the Arab world.

Gibson's film, however, is simply not part of this horrendous trend. On August 8, representatives of the Anti-Defamation League attended a private screening of the rough cut in Houston and, on August 11, released a new statement that still attacks the film "in its present form." Their interpretation of the movie does not square with the film I saw. Gibson omits some of the New Testament texts most painful for Jewish readers, such as "His blood be upon us and our children!" He also adds such moderating scenes as some of the Pharisees walking out in dissent from the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and, later, one member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, helping to lift the lifeless body down from the cross.

MOST IMPORTANT, Gibson's narrative shows that Pilate alone has the power to put Jesus to death, and the film's full narrative weight assigns responsibility to Rome and the Roman soldiers. The Anti-Defamation League is wrong to assert that the Jewish authorities are "forcing the decision" and that the Jewish high priest is "controlling" Pontius Pilate. The Jews had no such power, and they say so in the film. Pilate tries to shift the responsibility, first to Herod, then to the high priests. And he pretends that the decision is not his--but he knows it is, and he gives the orders that only he can give. His soldiers enjoy their brutal sport, as obviously they have done before: Historians suggest they performed this gruesome work about 150 times in crucifixions under Pilate.

There is no doubt that the trial of Jesus was not, in the Christian telling, the best moment of the high priest and his council. But the first two generations of Christians were nearly all Jews. They still thought of themselves as Jews, and they were at first astonished to see how they were rejected and persecuted by Jewish officials. The accounts by the evangelists are plainly written to convince believing Jews that Jesus fulfills the biblical anticipations, and nearly every word they write in criticizing the Jewish leaders of their generation was an allusion to condemnations of earlier Jewish leaders by the Jewish prophets.

The early Christians thought their criticisms of the Jews were of the sort one makes within one's own community, and therefore had a different edge than they would have had if they had come from pure outsiders. Only gradually, and with something of a shock, did Christians come to see that, even if they thought of themselves as serious Jews, they belonged to a new community.

Though visually powerful in the way only movies can be, Gibson's film recognizes that Christian criticism of the Jewish leaders has different valences today than it did in the first years after Jesus' death, and on the whole the movie softens the Jewish elements of the gospels' story and with the New Testament places the onus on the Romans.

Still, Jews will not agree that Jesus as the Messiah took the sins of all upon himself in self-sacrifice. That makes a movie about the Passion not only a memory of a painful separation between communities, but also a story with dramatically different meanings for Christian and Jewish viewers--and for that there is no immediate solution, short of banning all attempts to make films about the death of Jesus.

BUT GIBSON'S VERSION is not divisive or dangerous for Jews. Without preachiness, without external commentary, this cinematic reenactment has the potential to be transformative in powerful, mysterious, and quiet ways. When "The Passion" is released on Ash Wednesday its effect around the world will almost certainly be conciliating, quieting, and calming, for it induces awe at the suffering we inflict upon one another.

Through the film, the viewer is forced to see a single human being's passion. A man who claims to be the Son of God knows in advance, as the film shows, the unbounded pain he is about to suffer, the mere thought of which makes him sweat blood. But he willingly accepts this burden, and he perseveres through every shock to his flesh in order to open up a new way of living for the entire race.

Gibson's achievement springs not solely, not even mainly, from a cinematographer's art. Whether he intended it this way or not, perhaps because he puts on film the unadorned directness of the gospels, "The Passion" is a meditation and a prayer.

Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair of Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published in The Weekly Standard August 25, 2003