The Taser's Edge

Move Over, Prayer of Jabez

This morning, I was reading in Numbers and I was struck by this:

Numbers 10:35-36–“And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, ‘Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.’  And when it rested, he said, ‘Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.'”

The setting is the long march through the wilderness from Egypt to Israel.  So apparently, each moving day, the ark followed the pillar-shaped manifestation of God, and the people followed the ark, and Moses prayed for God to clear the roadway ahead.

As I have experienced exegesis of passages such as this, in churches and at Duke Divinity, we are presented with two options:

  1. Go deep into the history and grow to see how our Biblical narratives underwrite the atrocities of colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing, etc.  “Redeem” the passage by ignoring it.
  2. Read it metaphorically.  “Redeem” the passage by cleaning off all that messy physicality and history.  (We wouldn’t want murdered innocent body and blood involved in the church’s life.)

I’ve already made it clear from those definitions that I find them both lacking.  And that’s because I wonder if there’s a third option, which is the both/and option.  I wonder if that both/and might be the gift of postmodern exegesis.

It makes my post-colonial ears simultaneously shudder, curdle, and shrivel (something I would have bet wasn’t fully possible) to read such a passage.  God chose a particular people (Israel), gave them a bunch of other particular peoples’ land (Canaan) through taking a side in an armed conflict which was fought against against not only armed soldiers, but civilians down to children, and even animals.  That’s the claim the Bible makes.

How postmodern of me to be offended by the Bible!

From R. Crumb's "The Book of Genesis"

But that’s not postmodern.  Post-colonialism isn’t postmodern.  It’s entirely modern.  Conceptions of human dignity and freedom which drive contemporary theory are straight-up Enlightenment, and post-colonial theory (alongside plenty of other post- theories) is the blossoming of a very much modern flower.

Strange, then, that both post-liberals and fundamentalists would want to read this Numbers prayer as a narrative detached from real history.  The first group wouldn’t necessarily care about the history, as the story is what matters, and history gets in the way of a good, clean narrative.  The second group wouldn’t care about the history, because any reading of the story as grotesque would be a ‘liberal’ reading rather than a faithful reading of the good teaching of God.

So, why not do both options named above?  Why not be deeply offended by the historical claims of the Bible, that God ordered and was the power behind ethnic cleansing?  And why not, at the same time, be taught to pray by the very horror?  Why isn’t that the post-modern way forward?  Why isn’t that the faithful way forward?

Kip’s Provocative Interpretation

If there's one thing more annoying than a movie tie-in edition paperback, it's a cover that shows beautiful actors but doesn't mention that the book won the Booker Prize..

Near the very end of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Kip, an Indian Sikh man who has disarmed bombs and mines for the English throughout World War II, hears of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his belief in just about everything good in the world is lost:

My brother told me.  Never turn your back on Europe.  The deal makers.  The contract makers.  The map drawers.  Never trust Europeans, he said.  Never shake hands with them.  But we, oh, we were easily impressed–by speeches and medals and your ceremonies.  What have I been doing these last few years?  Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil.  For what?  For this to happen?…

American, French, I don’t care.  When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman.  You had King Leopold of Belgium and now you have fucking Harry Truman of the USA.  You all learned it from the English…

He [Caravaggio, a white Canadian character] knows the young soldier is right.  They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation.

I don’t know how to react to such a claim.  For this Indian man, ‘English’ and ‘whiteness’ are synonymous, although the latter term would be anachronistic in 1945.  This is the problematic piece for me.  Is Ondaatje, a post-colonial author born in 1943 Sri Lanka who now lives in Canada (and who is therefore a near-lifelong British subject), doing an unfair revision of history, or is he simply telling the truth (albeit in likely an anachronistic way)?

The evidence against Kip’s claim is the firebombing of Dresden and other European cities by the Allies, the race between Germany and the US to create the atomic bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the entire Cold War.

The evidence for his claim is that the bombing of the Japanese mainland’s population centers (military and civilian targets) by the Allies was unbelievably more brutal and sustained than the bombing of Germany.  In Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, Robert McNamara says that by late summer 1945 the US was mere weeks away from literally running out of targets for its conventional bombs, when we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Would that have eventually happened in Europe, would we have firebombed every civilian population center possible, would we have nuked Berlin?  If the political climate in relation to the USSR had been a bit different at the close of WWII, would we have nuked Moscow in ’46 or ’47?

These, of course, are ridiculous unanswerables, but the characterization, “They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation,” is one very much worth considering.

Interestingly, Ondaatje speaks some more about the Bomb as a major plot element in a interview from 1996, after the film version’s release.  The interviewer doesn’t really ask the questions about that one provocative line, but he does ask about the Bomb, and thus I can end this post with Ondaatje’s own words:

This is an element that has nothing to do with the film, it’s only in the book. I had some questions about Kip’s radical change after the A-Bomb was dropped, when he becomes enraged and breaks with everyone. It made sense intellectually, but it seemed a little deus ex machina-like to me.

Okay. That’s interesting. If ever there was a deus ex machina of our generation it was The Bomb. So how do you evoke that in a book? I thought about this a lot, actually. I thought about it a lot since I wrote it, because a lot of people have real problems with that scene. Some people think it’s the essential scene, some people can say it’s not. I was trying to convey that a public act like this does fuck up people utterly. It is what happens to Almasy as well. So, in a way, it’s a kind of parallel story about fate.

When I realized that that was where something was going to happen, when I went back and rewrote the book, I tried to somehow prepare the reader for it, with the arguments with his brother, the stuff in Naples, in a city that’s been blown up, references to words like “nuclear,” buried bombs, all those things, because I couldn’t say, “We know this is going to come in August.” It was a very odd thing. It was like preparing for Othello without anyone talking about him before he comes onstage. Usually you have 18 people talking about what a wonderful guy he was, and so it was a real problem how to do it. And I am not sure I did it right. I just think it is a thing where it suddenly happens like that [snaps fingers] and it is a complete deus ex machina. I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t prepare it enough, but when I wrote it, I couldn’t prepare it any more than I did. Because, you couldn’t tip your hand on that. I don’t know how it can work, I don’t know how to make it work better.