BY MATTHEW HERBERT
By the time Kurt Vonnegut was old and almost dead, I suppose he had gotten tired of being charming. I think he was starting to take it personally that his compatriots had let him down. Americans had such a nice country, but they were such lunk-headed sadists. So in his last book, Man Without a Country, he let them have it.
Among other things, he had this to say to his readers:
Doesn’t anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools or health insurance for all?
How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. …
And so on.
Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
When Vonnegut published Man Without a Country, many American Christians had reached a point where they openly rejected the main teachings of their religion.
That was in 2005. Under George W. Bush, we had conquered and occupied Iraq. The war had been started on a false pretext, as almost everyone knew. We killed about a hundred thousand civilians in Iraq and, in loosing tribal and sectarian mayhem across the region, caused the violent deaths of several hundred thousand more. Vonnegut thought it was a low point for our Christian nation.
If you’ve never read Vonnegut, you might think, when you first take him up, that his basic idea is to slag Republicans, make fun of Christians, and tell kooky scifi stories that satirize everything normal and good about America.
But you would be wrong. Vonnegut was a liberal humanist, which meant he thought cruelty was the worst thing people do and that we should try as hard as we can to treat one another well. The way he summed up his own socialist politics was that, like Christianity, it advanced the idea that “all men, women, and children are created equal, and shall not starve.” Vonnegut was a huge fan of Christian principles.
You can see this in his books, even without looking very hard.
Jesus famously tells two fables that upend humanity’s ideas of compassion. One is the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the other is about the young man who asks Jesus how to attain perfection and Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Mat. 19;21). In God Bless You Mr. Rosewater Vonnegut illustrates what it would be like to live by these principles. He makes the antagonist, Eliot Rosewater, a rich, holy fool. Mr. Rosewater befriends the unfriendable (the hated Samaritans) and does his legal best to give all his wealth to the poor. The fact that Rosewater’s family and legal representatives consider him insane because of these behaviors is essentially Vonnegut’s comment our “Christian” society.
Despite our professions of loyalty to Jesus, we evince a much stronger belief in the credo of Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko–“Greed is good.” Vonnegut the satirist thought this level of hypocrisy was funny. Vonnegut the humanist thought it was tragic: we could have had a compassionate, generous society if we only stuck to our professed religion.
And what would Jesus have thought of America’s love of guns? I pose this question at the end of a week marked by four (more) mass shootings, in California, New York, Texas, and Ohio. As usual, the loudest voices blame the shootings on mental illness or “pure evil.” Vonnegut believed gun violence had something more to do with guns.
In Deadeye Dick, Vonnegut has one of his characters reflect on American gun culture. After his wife is killed in a tragic, not-quite-accidental shooting, this character, a journalist, says this:
My wife has been killed by a machine which should never have come into the hands of any human being. It is called a firearm. It makes the blackest of all human wishes come true at once, at a distance: that something die.
There is evil for you.
We cannot get rid of mankind’s fleetingly wicked wishes. We can get rid of the machines that make them come true.
I give you a holy word: DISARM.
Well, that genie has already escaped the lamp. Americans will not disarm. We used guns to found our country. We love guns far more than we love the peace that a republic might enjoy without them. We have shot at one-quarter of our sitting presidents, scoring hits on 13 of them and killing four. (Two U.S presidents killed men with guns themselves, in peacetime.) We love the right to bear arms far more than we love any humans that make up our society.
Deadeye Dick is a wonderful book because it prompts Americans to consider whether this attitude is morally tolerable. What, we are prodded to wonder, would a true Christian think about gun culture? You can imagine a society that worships Jesus, and you can imagine a society that worships guns. Deadeye Dick challenges us to consider whether two such societies can coexist in the same country.
If a truly Christian state that followed the radically compassionate teachings of Jesus were possible, it would be a place of profound peace. Among other things, Jesus tells us to forgive our aggressors 70 times seven times. He himself begged forgiveness for his executioners, where he certainly could have called down holy fire on them instead. Jesus famously told Simon Peter to put away his sword in Gethsemane. You can work out what he would have had to say about a single gun, let alone everyone owning one. He would have scoffed at the idea of his followers being armed to the teeth.
I myself am a pragmatist about disarming. Although I think it is a lovely ideal, I cannot see a tractable set of laws or policies for achieving it. America has gun-love baked into its culture.
But I believe all the defenders of gun culture should be honest enough to admit that they despise and reject the peace-loving principles of Jesus. The problem with believing in a gun-loving but Christian republic is that, if you can believe in that, you can believe in anything. You are an apt candidate for the worst kind of totalitarianism, because you are capable of believing the constant, garish lies that a totalitarian regime must tell about itself to sustain power. Instead of limply flying your Jesus flag, just come out of the closet and declare yourself a death-dealing Roman: say you would have taken King Herod’s side over Jesus’s. I cannot recommend this exercise highly enough. Do it, and you will feel your spine actually straighten; your gaze will become stronger and clearer.
I recommend Deadeye Dick because it invites this refreshing level of honesty.
Like Jesus, Vonnegut loved parables. He even told the occasional obscure one (try to unfold the layers of The Sirens of Titan, for example). But he also knew when to drop the literary pretensions and just prophesy.
“Get out of the road you dumb motherfucker!”
This is what Vonnegut has a seasoned infantry scout growl to tall, lanky Billy Pilgrim, who is loping along through the Ardennes Forest in December of 1944. The quotation is from Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. In it, the Germans are mauling the Allies in the Battle of the Bulge, and Pilgrim’s “involuntary dancing, up-and-down, up-and-down,” draws German fire.
Vonnegut explains directly to the reader why the scout used such shocking language. “The last word was still a novelty in the speech of white people in 1944. It was fresh and astonishing to Billy, who had never fucked anybody–and it did its job. It woke him up and got him off the road.”
The job of prophetic language is always to alert the audience to unpleasant information. Vonnegut also believed humans should be able to laugh at themselves–grimly, of course–for taking offense at a mere word but not at real, existing atrocities. The savagery of war is what Slaughterhouse Five is all about. Vonnegut fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was taken prisoner by the Germans. In Dresden, where he was jailed, he witnessed the firebombing of a civilian population that killed 25,000 in an hour. He thought the American and British people should know a massacre had been perpetrated in their interests.
To be sure, Vonnegut believed in the justness of the war against Nazism. He said in 2005 that he wanted to be buried with full military honors. But he retained his lifelong horror at the industrialized violence that war awakened in large states and the cruelty it enabled in “civilized” societies. What Christian could argue with Vonnegut’s final judgement on the matter of mass killing?–
I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.
And yet our country tolerates massacres and leads the world in massacre machinery.
Any Christian society worth its salt would mobilize behind a pacifist ideal. Christian nations should abandon their weapons and “learn war no more,” as Isaiah famously put it. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not believe this is possible. I am more or less a Thucydian realist who believes war is inevitable. But Christianity came as a light to the world, to change minds like mine. If you are in any way a Christian, you must be willing, at least on paper, to give peace a chance and to preach it among nations.
But Christian America is a satire of this idea. We are armed to the teeth, and we telegraph our aggressiveness to get what we want from other countries. Not exactly meek or forebearing.
The moral sentiments that Vonnegut promotes again and again in his novels include the most radical principles of Christianity–that the meek shall be protected; that the hungry shall be fed, the poor cared for; that one’s enemies shall be forgiven and even ministered to in kindness.
These are high ideals, of course, perhaps even unachievable by countries and other groups of fearful humans. But Vonnegut’s dreadful disappointment in Christian America is that we haven’t even given our professed faith an honest try. Our greedy, bellicose, philistine actions do not just speak louder than our fine words–they obliterate them. We openly scorn Jesus’s warning that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. We fear and despise the Samaritans for the foreigners they are. We blame the poor for their own weakness. The entirety of our public life is spent in hectic pursuit of things that would horrify Jesus.
At the close of Vonnegut’s novel Jailbird, a labor activist is asked by a judge why, despite his Harvard education and immense inherited wealth, he took up the life of a poor working man to identify with the downtrodden–the losers in America’s winner-take-all society. Why, the judge presses him, would he give up the privileges of a commodious, respectable life? His answer, I believe, is the same reason Vonnegut wrote the novels he did–“Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”