Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war, stir up the mighty men, Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up.
Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; Let the weak say, "I am a warrior."
No, this is not an ironic misquotation of the well-known words from the prophet Isaiah about beating swords into plowshares, which are inscribed on the wall of the UN. This one comes from a later biblical prophet. I have never seen it inscribed on any church or synagogue wall. Little wonder. It is a call to arms, something of an embarrassment to those who would like to claim that although someone else's religion might inspire them to violence, ours certainly does not. And it is not an isolated text. Both the Old and New Testament are replete with similar, if even less widely quoted, ones. According to the Gospel of Matthew, even the Prince of Peace tells his disciples, "I have come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).
In the aftermath of September 11, we all learned a lot about religion and the American psyche. Droves of people crowded into prayer and memorial services, lit candles, sang hymns many of them scarcely knew and listened, sometimes in near desperation, to readings from ancient scriptures. Of course, they were looking for sympathy and consolation. But they were also looking for something more, perhaps some intangible frame of reference that might bring a bit of meaning to their rage, fear and bewilderment. It is notable that in a society that is so famously dependent on therapies of all kinds, the therapists were not much in evidence. When the cataclysm came, what the historian Sidney Mead once called "the nation with the soul of a church" groped for something deeper but more elusive. The sheer enormity of the horror visited upon us in Manhattan suddenly made our various feel-good remedies look a bit thin. Neither New Age nostrums nor channeling can help when it comes to such an eruption of primal malice.
In his 1995 book The Death of Satan, subtitled How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, Andrew Delbanco posed what has suddenly become an achingly pertinent question. Now that the classical symbols of radical evil–Satan, apocalypse, etc.–seem to have evaporated, how, he asked, would Americans respond if we ever again experienced radical evil? "I believe our culture is now in crisis," he wrote, "because evil remains an inescapable experience for all of us, while we no longer have a symbolic language for describing it." Some years earlier Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor, asked how we could possibly regain our moral bearings "when we have a sense of evil; but no longer the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil." These are stubborn questions, and I am not sure the classical religious traditions, already so compromised by their quest for a share of the booming spirituality market, will provide the needed help. But I can understand why so many people are foraging around in them. Did Job or Augustine or Dante know something we don't know? I am quite sure, however, that President Bush's response to this symbolic vacuum–namely, that we are now waging a war against evil, and that one day there will be a clear victory–will not satisfy many people for very long.