Published in The Chesterton Review, XXVIII (Winter, 2002), 503-19.

 

James V. Schall, S. J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200

 

The Newness of The New Jerusalem

 

I.

                  The Sixtieth Chapter of Isaiah begins, “Arise, Jerusalem, rise clothed in light; your light had come and the glory of the Lord shines over you.”  The “Old Jerusalem,” as it were, portends something beyond itself, something in light and glory.  The New Jerusalem is the title of a book that G. K. Chesterton, as an English journalist, wrote of a visit he made to the Holy Land in 1920.  “On the back of this book,” he wrote, “is the name of the New Jerusalem and on the first page of it a phrase about the necessity of going back to the old even to find the new...” (238).  To find the new, going back to the old is a necessity.

                  To acquire some idea of the remarkable “newness” to which this Chesterton book can still alert us, a newness that includes the ancient meanings of this most famous of cities, let me, in the beginning, cite for your consideration three passages.  Each passage, I think, will serve to pique the interest of those who, as Chesterton himself remarked, are not “bored” by the higher things.  We will understand the significance of what he meant here if we recall Chesterton’s startlingly true words from elsewhere: “There are no boring subjects, only bored people.”  Let us then be among those who are bored neither in the Old nor in the New Jerusalem.

                  The first citation is from Chesterton himself, from this very book, The New Jerusalem.  “The truth is,” Chesterton wrote,

that the things that meet today in Jerusalem are by far the greatest things that the world has yet seen.  If they are not important, nothing on this earth is important, and certainly not the impressions of those who happen to be bored by them.  But to understand them it is necessary to have something which is much commoner in Jerusalem than in Oxford or Boston; that sort of living history which we call tradition.1

Notice the deliberate solemnity of Chesterton’s words  – “the greatest things in the world” meet here in this Holy City.  If these things are not important, “nothing in this world is important.”  The bored are those who live in their self-chosen, self-contained world but find nothing surprising in it, nothing of the newness of the “New Jerusalem.”  We can evidently live in Oxford or Boston and lose contact with what we are.

                  The second not dissimilar citation is taken from the great Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss, from a lecture that was originally given in Jerusalem itself in 1955.  With great gravity, Strauss began, “It is a great honor, and at the same time a challenge, to accept a task of particular difficulty, to be asked to speak about political philosophy in Jerusalem.  In this city, and in this land, the theme of political philosophy  – ‘the city of righteousness, the faithful city’ – has been taken more seriously than anywhere else on earth.”2  Strauss is in agreement with Chesterton’s words about the “tradition” that is more common, more real in Jerusalem than in Oxford, Boston, or other university cities.  The “theme” of political philosophy, Strauss affirms, is precisely “the city of righteousness,” “the faithful city,” in its various names, one of which is “Jerusalem” itself..

                  My third introductory citation, again designed to recall something of this city, though this time from a greater distance, comes from the famous American Puritan divine, Cotton Mather, from his Magnalia Christi Americana.  Listen for its rather quaint words that recall Jerusalem, “the city of righteousness.”  “But behold, ye European Churches,” Mather wrote in 1702, “There are Golden Candlesticks ... in the midst of this Outer Darkness; Unto the upright Children of Abraham, here hath arisen Light in Darkness.  And let us humbly speak it, it shall be Profitable for you to consider the Light, which from the midst of this Outer Darkness, is now to be Darted over unto the other side of the Atlantick Ocean.”3  The “Children of Abraham,” it seems, are vicariously present in the landing at Plymouth Rock, on the other side of the “Atlantick Ocean,” far from the “Outer Darkness,” where there is no light from the Golden Candlesticks.

II.

                  In Gilbert! (March, 2000), Frances Farrell recounted her recent trip to the Holy Land.  She entitled it, significantly, “The Newer Jerusalem.”  She is talking about the Jerusalem of today that she saw.  She compares it with the Jerusalem that Chesterton saw on his visit there some eighty years previously.  The title of my present consideration, “The Newness of The New Jerusalem,” refers, however, not so much to Jerusalem as a contemporary city, now or eighty years ago, but to “Jerusalem” as the end of our longing, not that our longing should not be real, and, hopefully, not that it should end except in its attainment.  It is the “Jerusalem” of Augustine’s “City of God,” a Jerusalem that does not forget either the end of Isaiah -- “I will take delight in Jerusalem” (65:19) -- or the end of the Apocalypse  – “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem” (21:2).   But it is not that more dubious “New Jerusalem” of Enlightenment or modern ideology, however it be called, that wants, with “lowered sights,” to set up the kingdom of God on this very Earth, a rather more dangerous idea, as it turns out. 

                  What is at first striking about Farrell’s account is the sheer numbers.  When Chesterton went to Palestine in 1920, she tells us, the population was 700,000, “of which 574,000 were Muslims, 74,000 were Christians and 54,000 were Jews.” When she went in 1999, the figures, which would have, no doubt, changed Chesterton’s perspective of the place, were startlingly different.  The total population today is five and a half million, of which 81.5% are Jews, 17% Arabs, and only 1.5% Christian ‘and others.’”  These figures, of course, leave out the controverted questions of just what lands and which peoples belong to what political entity in this historic area.  While Christians are leaving Muslim lands as rapidly as convenient or possible, Muslims, with much higher birth rates, become an ever more numerous presence in Europe and America.  Compared to the total  population of over a billion each in the Muslim, Chinese, and Indian worlds, the relative size of the European nations and even of the United States is rather modest. 

                  The Jews show impressive increases in Palestine, due mainly to immigration, but their world wide birthrates are significantly down, as are those of the “Christian” nations in Europe.  The Economist recently reported (August 24, 2002) that the lowest birthrates in the world, rates well below relpacement) are in Spain and Italy, traditionally Catholic countries.  As Farrell reports it, Muslims want to build mosques in Nazareth, the Christian town, while Jews object to traditional Christmas decorations in the large hotels in Jerusalem.  Chesterton  hoped eighty years ago for an increased Christian presence in the Holy Land .  “It is now (1920) more certain than it ever was before,” he wrote, “that Europe must rescue some lordship, or overlordship, of these old Roman provinces” (262).  This hope seems quite improbable today. 

                  Yet, at the same time, from Rome itself, now with its own mosque, the Holy Father, in the Year 2000, fulfilled his long-desired ambition of visiting this Land of Jesus’ birth and death.  “Following the path of salvation history, as narrated in the Apostles’ Creed,” the Pope said in his Homily (26 March 2000) at the Holy Sepulchre ... “I have reached Jerusalem ....  Here, as in no other place on earth, we hear the Lord say once again to his disciples: ‘Do not fear; I have overcome the world!’” Chesterton’s words, Strauss’s words, Karol Wojtyla’s words about the importance of Jerusalem are striking and strikingly similar.

                  The American Pilgrim Fathers who came to these shores in the seventeenth century belonged to that Calvinist branch of Protestantism that was closest to the Old Testament.  They consciously thought of themselves as “children of Abraham” following the path of the Exodus into the wilderness.  They were, once across the “Atlantick Ocean,” to establish a “New Jerusalem,” a “City on the Hill,” a “faithful City.”  No doubt without this tradition of the Hebrew experience, both our own understanding of what these early Americans had in mind and of the whole history of mankind’s meaning in the world would be largely unintelligible to us. 

                  Let me cite here how Chesterton, the quintessential Englishman, on his 1920 trip, described, on first seeing it, the Holy City.  Notice that the words he uses are mindful of the early American imagery: 

For when the train stopped at last in the rain, and there was no other vehicle for the last lap of the journey, a very courteous officer, an army surgeon, gave me a seat in an ambulance wagon; and it was under the shield of the Red Cross that I entered Jerusalem.  For suddenly, between the post of the wagon and a wrack of rainy cloud I saw it, uplifted and withdrawn under all the arching heavens of its history, alone with its benediction and its blasphemy, the city that is set upon a hill, and cannot be hid (41).

This city mirrors that Zion that Cotton Mather hoped to set up in the wilderness, beyond the “outer darkness” of European decadence, on the other side of the “Atlantick.”

                  Even the sophisticated attempts to demythologize what the Pilgrims did, to explain it rather in terms of a rationalist political philosophy, are themselves often but secularized versions of the same imagery that we can read more fruitfully in Scripture itself.  John Locke, in his famous Second Treatise on Civil Government, itself one of those efforts used by later American thinkers to explain themselves to themselves in less than biblical terms, observed that “in the beginning the world was America” (I, c. 5, #49).  Who can really suppose that the great Locke himself did not know of the “in-the-beginning” words found in the Genesis account of Creation or of the “in-the-beginning-was-the-Word” phrase found in the Prologue of St. John?

III.

                  Gilbert Chesterton and his wife Frances, who had been ill and in need of a change of climate  -- even though she encountered unusual and heavy snows when she got there --  departed by train from London on December 29, 1919, for a journalistic trip to the Holy Land.  Travel accounts were to be published regularly in the Daily Telegraph as Chesterton reported them.  Later, he would modestly call his chronicle of this trip “an uncomfortably large notebook,” but it turned out to be something rather more profound, as Chesterton’s trips were wont to be (v).  “The modern man,” Chesterton explained, “is more like a traveller who has forgotten the name of his destination, and has to go back to whence he came, even to find out where he is going....  I ... saw for a moment in my mind the true map of the modern wanderings” (1).  Modern man has forgotten the name of his destination.  But Chesterton journeyed to the very destination that, more than any other, defined where we were going, or better, because we had at least spiritually been there, to where we ought to go.  The couple traveled to Paris and Rome, on to Brindisi, by boat to Alexandria in Egypt, then to Cairo, and finally by train and car to Old Jerusalem.  Palestine had recently been freed from long Turkish rule by the famous Colonel Allenby, to whom Chesterton had an introduction from his diplomatic friend Maurice Baring.

                  Chesterton was, to his own way of thinking, an impractical man.  “I am so constituted,” he confessed, “as to be capable of losing my very way in my own village and almost in my own house” (21).  In his Autobiography (1936), in a chapter entitled appropriately, “The Incomplete Traveller,” Chesterton gave a retrospective account of his various trips to America, Canada, Poland, Ireland, but he began  with his earliest trip to the Holy Land.  “I can proudly claim,” he wrote, “that I do know the date of my pilgrimage to Jerusalem; partly because it was a year after the close of the Great War, and partly because, when my publishers suggested my going to the Holy Land, it sounded to me like going to the moon.”4  Going through the desert to get there  in a Ford, no less, he later remarked, was in fact something like being on the moon. 

                  Yet,  his journey, as an intellectual experience, was orderly.  He was not lost.  It  led him backwards to beginnings.  “We must begin at the beginning; we must return to our first origins in history, as we must return to our first principles in philosophy,” he wrote (6-7).  Chesterton was, in effect, “walking backwards through history” on this journey to discover where we now were by again finding first origins and first principles, without which no human journey can reach its ultimate destination.

                  One hesitates, at this point, to sort out the various meanings of Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem, the Newer Jerusalem, the City on the Hill, the Faithful City, the wilderness, and the moon.  Perhaps the one thing to keep in mind when dealing with Chesterton is that, for him, neither the moon nor the New Jerusalem had any meaning unless, as he told us in the first chapter of The New Jerusalem, it passed through that power of will that grounds all things in what is.  “For it is the sign of a truly Christian thing,” he wrote, “that sharp combination of liberty and limitation which we call choice.  A man is entirely free to choose between right and left, or between right and wrong” (4).  “Entirely free” and “entirely responsible” for the choice he wills  – such is the implication of Chesterton’s “sharp combination.” 

                  The fate of any “New” Jerusalem, of which our civilization has known not a few,  is always decided by this choice that its inhabitants must make “between right and wrong.”  Indeed, the “Chosen People” themselves, in an incident mindful of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” of the Fall,  were given, in the wilderness, those famous Tablets that made this separation between right and wrong to be the defining purpose of their chosen-ness.  The striking combination of “liberty and limitation” is called precisely “choice.”  That is to say, a liberty without limitation is a liberty, as Nietzsche said, to go “beyond good and evil,” itself, once beyond, still just another choice between the same good and evil.   It is said to be a modern “liberty” for ourselves to proclaim, by our own powers, the very meaning of right and wrong, even of left and right, even in contradistinction to the words written on the Tablets.  Here is the human claim to surpass the divine liberty that somehow overshadows our whole sacred and profane history.  We claim here a liberty without limitation, that is to say, a liberty that is not liberty.  It consists in man’s free rejection of the order of what is, something always possible to finite beings for whom choice is a given power of their souls to be used for God’s, not simply for their own, glory. 

IV.

                  Chesterton’s “methodology,” if I might call it that, in this “uncomfortably large notebook,” is almost phenomenological.  That is, he begins his reflections by describing how things appear to him, how they disclose themselves to him in his traveling.  He is willing to make metaphysical points of passing incidents because he sees something of permanent reality in them, in their passingness.  And he sees this permanence of the changing scene because he recalls the long “tradition” out of which our understanding of ourselves originally came.  He notices, for instance, something that few others would pick up in quite the same way.  He observes that dogs seem to be present in the West, while donkeys are everywhere in the near East.  “Who could make anything of that?” we ask.  Chesterton reflects on them both as symbols. 

                  “But in truth they (the dog and the donkey) were in some sense symbols of the West and the East after all.  The dog’s very lawlessness is but an extravagance of loyalty; he will go mad with you three times on the same day, at going out for a walk down the same road,” Chesterton reflected.

The modern world is full of fantastic forms of animal worship; a religion generally accompanied with human sacrifice.  Yet we hear strangely little of the real merits of animals; and one of them surely is this innocense of all boredom.  Perhaps such simplicity is the absence of sin.  I have some sense myself of the sacred duty of surprise; and the need of seeing the old road as a new road (2).

Already here we have noticed the juxtaposing of animal “rights” over against human sacrifice that has come to be so characteristic of our time if we would just see it.  We protect the whales but not the babies. 

                  Chesterton, moreover, calls the sense of “surprise” precisely a “sacred duty”  – as if it is actually possible to think of surprise in terms of duty, let alone in terms of the sacred, which is, in the end, the greatest surprise of all.  We are to be astonished that anything at all exists, for the actual existence of anything is not of our making or of our own choosing.   Chesterton then proceeds to remind us that we can fail to see an old road as also a new road because we have forgotten to where the old road led, to the Jerusalem of the Promised Land, to the Jerusalem of the Crusaders, to the Jerusalem of the Pilgrims.  To see what is there we also must see what is absent, what was once there.

V.

                  If Chesterton had any prejudices, though he was not a socialist, the first prejudice was no doubt against “capitalism,” which he thought at the time largely dead.  The second was against the Germans, or the Teutons, or the Prussians, the allies of the Turks, the enemies of the English, in the Great War just completed.  For him, they symbolized, even caused, much of what was wrong with modern science and with the modern world.  He did not in fact dislike the Germans because they were Germans but because of certain particular ideas, dangerous philosophic and theological ideas that came from German thinkers in the previous two centuries. 

                  While in Jerusalem, to continue his phenomenological analysis, Chesterton recalls seeing the various gates of the city, the Damascus Gate, the Joffa Gate, the Gate of Humility.  Suddenly, reflecting on the nobility of the walled city, he came across a gate beside which there was blasted a large hole in the wall “with a wide road running through it” (56).  Evidently, this annoying hole had been constructed by the “great Prussian Imperial system.”  “We shall now probably weary the world with calling the Germans barbaric, just as we very recently wearied the world with calling them cultured and progressive and scientific,” he wrote.  We have indeed, be it noted, wearied the world by calling the German precisely “barbaric.”  “The Christians made the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Moslems made the Mosque of Omar; but this is what the most scientific culture made at the end of the great century of science.  It made an enormous hole” (58).  There is something amusingly typical of Chesterton in finding the end purpose of something very scientific and very political to be found in what is in effect nothing, in, what else, “a hole.”  He is not in the least surprised by the nihilism of the German philosophers when he comes across, in the historic wall of Jerusalem, a hole dug through it by the Imperial Prussian engineers.

VI.

                  The immediate center of Chesterton’s interest in The New Jerusalem is, if anything, Islam.  He recognized the facticity of their long presence there.  He has much to say, no doubt, about the Jews and Zionism, about homeland, and about the British politics that first proclaimed the need and desirability of such a homeland in modern times, beginning with the Balfour Declaration (1917).  Chesterton admired the simplicity of Muslim theology, yet found it unable to confront the complexity of reality.  “Islam was not originally a movement directed against Christianity at all.  It did not ‘face westwards,’ so to speak; it faced eastwards towards the idolatries of Asia.  But Mohomet believed that these idols could be fought more successfully with a simpler kind of creed; one might almost say with a simpler kind of Christianity” (257).  Islam contains many Christian things  – Purgatory, devotion to Mary, for instance.  The problem, as Chesterton saw it, was the notion that Christianity could be made “simpler” without making it something other than what it was.  (C. S. Lewis noted the same problem in Mere Christianity).  “Those who complain of our creeds as elaborate often forget that the elaborate Western creeds have produced the elaborate Western constitutions; and that they are elaborate because they are emancipated” (258).  The constitutions limit the liberty, so that it can be liberty.  They do not pretend that reality is simple when it is in fact full of variety and complexity due in large part to this same liberty.

                  Chesterton did not, moreover, think that the historic relation between Islam and Christianity was mostly the fault of Christians.  “When people talk, for instance, as if the Crusades were nothing more than an aggressive raid against Islam,” he observed, “they seem to forget in the strangest way that Islam itself was only an aggressive raid against the old and ordered civilization in these parts.  I do not say it in mere hostility to the religion of Mohammed; ... I am fully conscious of many values and virtues in it; but certainly it was Islam that was the invasion and Christendom that was the thing invaded” (23). 

                  Chesterton is aware of the slender thread of history that is signified by Lepanto, Spain, Austria, and France by which the whole of Europe might easily have been conquered by Islam.  He meant no disrespect to a mighty conqueror to be glad that he did not finally succeed everywhere.  Moreover, as our times show, a time that now includes Jewish armies as well as secularized western ones, this historic relationship is by no means settled.  The war in Serbia, the war in Sudan, the war in Cyprus,  the war in Iraq, the war in Timor, the wars on the former Russian Empire still, among other things, have a Muslim-Christian component.  The bombings of September 11, 2001 and their long aftermath have almost reinvented this history that was lost to our consciousness.

 

VII.

                  But if he saw Islam, he also saw something older than Islam, which was Rome itself.  If we see Rome, we also must recall that Israel predated Islam and behind Israel in these lands were the Jebusites and the Canaanite, Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. 

The sorrow of all Palestine is that its divisions in culture, politics and theology are like its divisions in geology.  The dividing line is horizontal instead of vertical.  The frontier does not run between states but between stratified layers.  The Jew did not appear beside the Canaanite but on top of the Canaanites; the Greek not beside the Jew but on top of the Jew; the Moslem not beside the Christian but on top of the Christian (108). 

And there are not merely “Christians,” but Armenian Christians, Greek Christians, Russian Christians,  Coptic Christians, Chaldean Christians, Roman Christians, Protestant Christians, all of whom have different stakes in the Holy Land that few of them any longer inhabit.

                  The title of Chesterton’s book, The New Jerusalem, does not directly prepare us, perhaps, to realize that this book is also an essay on the end of the Middle Ages.  And it is perhaps the poignancy of this end that gives rise to modern secularized efforts to establish some secularized “New Jerusalem” in lands far away from Jerusalem.  “The first Crusaders had really had some notion of Jerusalem as a New Jerusalem,” he wrote.  “I mean they had really had a vision of the place being not only a promised land but a Utopia or even an Earthly Paradise.  The outstanding fact and feature which is seldom seized is this: that the social experiment in Palestine was rather in advance of the social experiments in the rest of Christendom” (251). 

                  In these travels in the Holy Land, Chesterton wonders why the Middle Ages did not so much die but come to a halt in the midst of its very flourishing?  He concluded that it was a thing of the spirit, that military defeats, which, contrary to popular modern opinion, can preserve as well as destroy, did in this case destroy something.  After the famous battle at the Horns of Hattin (July 4, 1187), when the Templars and the great knights were defeated by Saladin, Chesterton wrote,

In that hour fell, as I have fancied, more hopes than they themselves could number, and the glory departed from the Middle Ages.  There fell with them all that New Jerusalem which was the symbol of a new world, all those great and growing promises and possibilities of Christendom of which this vision was the center, ... all the hopes of a happier transformation of the Roman Law wedded to charity and to chivalry.  There was the first slip and the great swerving of our fate; and in that wilderness we lost all the things we should have loved, and shall need so long a labour to find again (254).

These are poignant words.  Chesterton is quite prepared to grant that the loss of a battle can constitute the loss of a spirit.  The loss of a spirit can change a civilization, and turn it back in on itself.

VIII.

                  The last chapter of this book is entitled “The Problem of Zionism.”  When he wrote it for the Daily Telegraph part of it was not published.  Two reasons are given.  One that the editors thought it “anti-Semitic” somehow, the other that it went contrary to British policy at the time which was more concerned about pacifying the Muslims than in fostering Jewish settlement in the British mandate.  We are in the habit today of reading what comes after in time in necessitarian terms of what went before.  In retrospect we tend not to see the “free” element in historic facts.   We read 1920 as if we are reading 1945.  History does not have to happen the way that it does happen.  Of all the European writers, including Jewish writers, Chesterton was one of the first to point out the dangers of the Nazi position.  Chesterton, as I noted, wasted no love on the Germans so he probably was not overly surprised by the Nazis.  Yet, as quickly as he understood what they were about, he did see the Nazis as something quite different and quite dangerous. 

                  Chesterton died in on June 14,1936, some years before the worst of the Nazi atrocities were carried out and long before the general American and European public clearly understood what was going on.  Yet, he wrote, in 1934:

In our early days Hilaire Belloc and myself were accused of being uncompromising Anti-Semites.  Today, although I still think there is a Jewish problem, I am appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities.  They have absolutely no reason or logic behind them.  It is quite obviously the expedient of a man who has been driven to seeking a scapegoat, and has found with relief the most famous scapegoat in European history, the Jewish people.  I am quite ready to believe now that Belloc and I will be defending the last Jew in Europe.5

How many men who lived in the middle of the twentieth century or at the beginning of the twenty-first wish they might have written similar words as early as 1934.

                  What was Chesterton’s position on the Jews and Zionism as he presented it in 1920?    Chesterton was the mildest of men.  As far as I can judge, he wanted what he thought any good Jew would want if he could have it.  He believed good Jews took their faith seriously and that very faith was premised on a homeland, a homeland that was the Holy Land.  He knew this same land had been occupied by Alexander, by the Romans, by Islam for centuries.  His view about the good of the Jews was not intended to be to the detriment of either Christians or Muslims.  He knew the population of Palestine in terms of numbers of Jews was small in 1920.  He did surmise, perhaps erroneously, that if the Jews received an official homeland, most would want to go there.  They would not decide to remain nationals of the lands in which they had settled.  England had, in fact, received several hundred thousand Jews from Eastern Europe from persecutions there in the early part of the twentieth century.  Indeed, many thought that the British enthusiasm for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was, at bottom, to deflect more Eastern European Jews from coming to Britain.  However this may be, Chesterton held that the so-called “Jewish problem” was caused by these talented and energetic people not having a civil state of their own in which they could merge their faith, their nation, their loyalties. 

                  “If I were violently opposed to anything, it was not to Jews, but to that sort of remark about Jews; or rather to the silly and craven fear of making it a remark about Jews,” Chesterton wrote in “The Problem of Zionism.”

But my friends and I had in some general sense a policy in the matter; and it was in substance the desire to give Jews the dignity and status of a separate nation.  We desired that in some fashion, and so far as possible, Jews should be represented by Jews, should live in a society of Jews, should be judged by Jews and ruled by Jews.  I am an anti-Semite if that is anti-Semitism (265).

This policy was by no means conceived as “segregationist” in contemporary terms, nor as putting Jews in another ghetto.  Nor was it a foreshadowing of an infamous Nazi proposal to place all Jews in someplace like Madagascar.  It was simply Chesterton’s interpretation of what good Jews, after conversing with many of them, including  Dr. Weizmann, meant by Zionism. 

                  Chesterton probably would have been perplexed, as things turned out, by the vast majority of Jews who wanted to remain in some other land, keep citizenship there, and not immigrate to the Holy Land.  Chesterton did think that, not unlike certain accusations against Catholics because of the Vatican, Jews had a kind of double loyalty that prevented them from being totally at home in any land but Israel.  In this, many contemporary Jews would disagree with him, having made the proper accommodations between religion and citizenship.  But others would take the identification of Judaism and Israel for granted, whatever the legal distinctions that needed to be kept.

IX.

                  Recently, I was reading in class the chapter in Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Politics on the “Merchant of Venice.”  One of my students was, at first, quite bothered by Bloom’s treatment of Shylock.  He could not understand how Bloom, a Jew, could treat Shylock, another Jew, so unsympathetically.  The young man had been reading modern critics of Shakespeare who maintained that the great bard’s picture of the Jewish money-lender was merely a stereotype.  As it turns out, of course, Bloom’s Shylock is really a most sympathetic understanding of a pious Jew who wants to obey the Law, but whose life circumstances, especially with his daughter, Jessica, lead him to extremes of hatred.  Bloom’s point was that in fact Shakespeare, far from dealing with Shylock as a stereotype, saw him as a real human being overwhelmed with grief and love. 

                  Chesterton’s treatment of Shylock in this same chapter on Zionism is surprisingly like that of Bloom.  A controversy in the London papers at the time revealed that some thought Shakespeare was an “anti-Semite,” while others thought him to be “pro-Semite.”  No one seemed to understand what the play was about.  The play is “a medieval satire on usury” (274).  It was a good story for the moral it sought to teach.  Modern men, especially if rich, could not understand the problems that usury caused.  This is fair enough.  But there is another side of the story, its more profound side.  Shakespeare “attempted to understand Shylock; in the true sense to sympathise with Shylock the money-lender, as he sympathised with Macbeth the murderer.  It was not to deny that the man was an usurer, but to assert that the usurer was a man ...  Shakespeare not only makes him a man but a perfectly sincere and self-respecting man” (275).  In its own way, this is almost a paraphrase of what Bloom had to say about Shylock some half a century later.6

                   The Zionist position that there should be a Jewish nation ruled and inhabited by Jews, Chesterton thought, was “perfectly reasonable” (282).  If Jews seemed “abnormal” to many people, it was because of “the abnormal position of the Jews.  They are traders rather than producers because they have no land of their own from which to produce, and they are cosmopolitans rather than patriots because they have no country of their own for which to be patriotic” (282-83).  If Jews had a true homeland, there would not be just famous Jewish industrialists, scholars, lawyers, doctors, or pianists, but also “Jewish ploughmen, many laborious Jewish blacksmiths, many active Jewish hedgers and ditchers, or even many energetic Jewish hunters and fishermen” (284).  No doubt, if the modern Israeli experience means anything, it means that this wish of Chesterton has come about, though its details he could not have foreseen in 1920..  Moreover, with their own homeland, he thought, Jews could die for their own country, the ultimate sign of true patriotism.  “The Jews did die for Jerusalem.  That is the first and last great truth in Zionism” (285). 

X.

                  Chesterton understood in 1920, that, however much we might desire the Jews to return to their historic homeland, to set up their own nation, whatever its political configuration or the size of its future population, that it would necessarily encounter the hostility of those already there for whom the same place is also a homeland.  “The greatest of the real difficulties of Zionism is that it has to take place in Zion,” he wrote (298).  Chesterton, likewise, brought up the delicate topic of the Temple, whose original location is where the present Dome of the Rock is constructed.  He thought that the Jewish religion required a center of proper worship.             

The nature of that religious center it must be for Jews to decide; but I think if I were a Jew I would build the Temple without bothering about the site of the Temple.  That they should have the old site, of course, is not to be thought of; it might raise a Holy War from Morocco to the marches of China....  That the Jews should have some high place of dignity and ritual in Palestine, such as a great building like the Mosque of Oman, is certainly right and reasonable; for upon no theory can their historic connection be dismissed (298).   

Chesterton from eighty years ago was concerned with the spiritual and historic side of Israel. 

                  We cannot know what Chesterton might have made of what has eventually transpired to form the Israel that we know today and the particular circumstances of its coming to be happening some decade after his death.  He thought that if there was indeed a “Jewish problem,” it could only be settled by a “Jewish solution” (301).  He would not have been surprised at the continuing hostility of Jew, Muslim, and Christian, for he saw that all claimed to occupy the same land, that the justice of one appeared to be the injustice of the other.  The fact that  given a homeland in Palestine that all Jews did not want to return there would have perhaps surprised him both practically and theologically.  But he would have understood the intense loyalty towards Israel that is commonly displayed by Jews who remain in the diaspora, even Jews who claim not to “believe” in the tenets of the faith. 

XI.

                  On the completion of his visit in 1920, Chesterton returned home, to England, to Beaconsfield, his home.  He thought it possible that midst the shifting sands and wandering tribes of the East that perhaps “the genii of the East might well build the palace or the paradise of a day.”  But on seeing the “low and solid English cottages rising around me amid damp delightful thickets under rainy skies, I felt that, in a deeper sense, it is rather we who build for permanence or at least for a sort of peace.  It is something more than comfort; a relative and reasonable contentment” (303).  Surely these were also the words of Chesterton’s friend Tolkien at the end of The Lord of the Rings, another book of travels about the Promised Land.

                  And, finally, in comparison to the modern ideology, often German, that he so distrusted, Chesterton even preferred the pagan idols.  “I have far more sympathy with the enthusiasm for a nice green or yellow idol, with nine arms and three heads, than with the philosophy ultimately represented by the snake devouring his tail; the awful skeptical argument in a circle by which everything begins and ends in the mind” (303).  If modern philosophy, modern epistemology, has been anything, it has been precisely this struggle to get out of its own mind into what is. 

                  As his train took him back home from the landing slips at Dover, Chesterton wanted to linger there, to tell the folks in cottages along the way of the Holy Land.  “It seemed to me that all my fellow countrymen must be my friends; all these English places had come much closer together after travels that seemed in comparison as vast as the spaces between the stars” (304).  All the hop-fields of Kent and even London, there just beyond the “End” of Beaconsfield, now seemed like home to him.      

                  In seeing the “New Jerusalem,” Chesterton discovered that,  in the end, it had something to do with his home.  “The most important things in the world crossed in Jerusalem.”  Symbolically, the homeland of the Jews, Jerusalem, the City on a Hill, is also reached via his “solid and comfortable” home in Beaconsfield.  The Holy City also portends our home.  It passes through the churchyard in Beaconsfield where, some sixteen years later, Chesterton himself was buried.  He knew the light of the Golden Candlesticks; he thought of the Temple of the Jews in Zion, the City set upon the Hill that could not be hid; he knew of Islam’s mighty victory at the Horns of Hattin, of the Imperial Rome that once ruled all these lands.  Strauss was right, the “theme of political philosophy, ‘the city of righteousness,’ ‘the faithful city,’ has been taken more seriously here than anywhere else on earth.”  The last words are Chesterton’s, “if the things that meet in Jerusalem, the greatest things that the world has yet seen,” are not important, then “nothing on this earth is important.”



                  1G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Hodder and Stougton, 1920), 110.

                  2Leo Strauss, “What Is Political Philosophy?” What Is Political Philosophy and Other Essays (Glencoe, IL.: The Free Press, 1959), 9.

                  3Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana in Colonial American Writing, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962), 139.

                  4G. K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936), 319.

                  5Cited in Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton (New York: Paragon House, 1990), 216.

                  6Allan Bloon and Harry Jaffa, “On Christian and Jew,”  Shakespeare’s Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 13-34.