Section Eight of WH Auden’s “For The Time Being.” (FTTB)
And so, after the theological/philosophical ramblings of the last section, WH Auden returns us to the characters again.
Let’s get to it.
First, as I’ve done with other sections, a few words of what we know of the actual King Herod….
Herod was a puppet king, installed and blessed by the Roman Empire. Yes, he was “King of Israel,” but it’s not like he had full and total independent control of his kingdom. As I said the other day, Herod often saw himself caught between a “rock and a hard place.”
The rock: The Roman Empire.
The hard place: His own people, and their desire for theocratic rule in the name of Isreal’s God.
Herod himself, we are to believe, was a “Hellenistic Jew.” This means that while he was culturally and religiously Jewish, he was also educated in Greco-Roman philosophy. He was an “elite” in every sense of the word, perhaps out of touch with common Jewish folks. The historical Herod was, indeed, also a tyrant. He slaughtered members of his own family to preserve his political power. There are stories of common Jews being slaughtered near his ornate palace outside of Jerusalem.
I say all this to note this historical truth: While there is no historical evidence to suggest an actual slaughter of two-year-old boys in Israel…everybody who read this story…everybody who knew of the actual, historical King Herod, might have thought to themselves, “yeah…that sounds like something Herod would do…”
So, Auden’s Herod is a bit more sanguine and calm than the Biblical Herod. In Matthew, Herod is described as being “stirred up.” And his being “stirred up” also stirs up “all of Jerusalem with him.”
As I like to say when I preach on Herod, this is opposite of good leadership.
In my Christmas meditation of a few weeks ago. I reminded you all of what social commentator Naomi Klein has said about our age. That in a time of great distress:
But Herod is not calm.
Herod is “stirred up.”
And his own anxiety and fear stir up everyone else.
In this, the Biblical King Herod reminds me far more of Donald Trump than anyone else in modern times. Trump is an evil master at using the language of religion, and at “stirring up” his followers into a frenzy. That frenzy resulted in an actual attempted insurrections against the United States, three years ago.
For Christians —those of us who actually read these stories carefully— we have been struck by the paradox that “January 6th” now has an entirely new cultural meaning.
1,200 hundred people have been charged with crimes associated with that insurrection on that day. Hundreds are already convicted, and hundreds more have pled guilty.
When I look at the Bible, and look at our insurrection I cannot help but see the parallels. These contemporary rioters were, exactly as Matthew describes, “stirred up” by a cesspool of pundits and social media sources…even our President at the time…convinced that the election had been stolen. They were so “stirred up” that they tried to take over our government.
This leads me to a tangent…before we come back to WH Auden’s King Herod…
This leads me to think of my own Father, and a story he told of his life as a young man.
Dad was a Goldwater Republican. He was —in college and in his twenties— a staunch “anti-communist.” As such, he fell in with some folks who were protesting left-leaning politicians and celebrities. And one night, he found himself signing up to picking President Kennedy at an even in Los Angeles (where my Father was living at the time…).
The night of the protest, he and the anti-communist group showed up an an LA theater, where JFK was holding a political fundraiser. They no doubt had angry signs and anti-communist slogans.
Dad tells of how the protestors were shunted off to a side of the building, away from the main entrance. But, low and behold, that meant they had been pushed over to a side door, where a very famous guest had unwisely decided to try and slip out, undetected.
It was Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra had been at the fundraiser, and had mistakenly assumed the protestors were still near the front of the building. Instead, the side door he chose as an exit put him right in front of a bunch of young, angry anti-communist protestors…all of whom immediately recognized him and all of whom immediately started yelling at him and heckling him.
Dad says that this moment ended up changing his life. Because he got close enough to Sinatra to look at him, person-to-person.
“I saw the fear in Frank Sinatra’s eyes,” Dad said, decades later.
And as he saw the fear in Frank Sinatra’s eyes, it was as if my Father’s eyes had also been opened too. While Sinatra’s eyes were opened in FEAR, my Dad’s eyes were opened to the fact that he was CAUSING that fear.
My Father vowed, then and there, never to be a part of another mass protest. In fact, over the years, he gradually retreated from any kind of social or political activism. Dad would say that this encounter helped him realize just how close to the line things can sometimes get, when everyone in a crowd is “stirred up.”
I think about that story a lot these days. I myself have certainly been part of a lot of protests. I seriously doubt I have attended my last.
But it’s also crystal clear to me that crowds can get “stirred up,” to a point where all control can get lost.
Thanks be to God that my Father, on that night in Los Angeles, somehow saw the humanity in Frank Sinatra. He saw the fear HE was causing. He no longer saw Sinatra as a “celebrity,” or a “liberal,” or a “political enemy.”
My Father saw a scared human being, with fear in his eyes, who just happened to be all those other things too.
My own fear is that we are losing that ability: The ability to see each other as human beings.
Those January 6th protestors were stirred into such a frenzy that it’s very clear they no longer saw the Capitol Police, the members of Congress, even the sitting Vice-President…as human.
You cannot mount that kind of armed insurrection without seeing your “enemy” as less than human.
Christ’s incarnation is all about seeing each human being as a child of God. It’s about seeing the inherent humanity in every person. It’s about understanding that every human person has a bit of God’s Spirit within them, co-combined with our human flesh.
But stirred-up King Herod, the story tells us, slaughters innocent children instead.
Which gets us back to WH Auden, and his own version of Herod.
In FTTB…Herod is a LIBERAL. Or, so he says he is. Herod is a believer in the myth of progress. Herod is clearly well educated, and finds fanciful religious beliefs to be foolish and ignorant.
What I think Auden gets RIGHT about Herod is that Herod would have been an elitely educated, government functionary who was passionate about helping keep “Pax Romana.” The Roman peace. Herod would have been proud of his achievements. And Auden makes clear that indeed he is.
Herod describes the situation thusly:
“There is no visible disorder. No crime— what could be more innocent than the birth of an artisan’s child?”
“Barges are unloading soil fertiliser at the river wharves. Soft drinks and sandwiches may be had in the inns at reasonable prices. Allotment gardening has become popular. The highway to the coast goes straight up over the mountains and the truck-drivers no longer carry guns. Things are beginning to take shape. It is a long time since any- one stole the park benches or murdered the swans. There are children in this province who have never seen a louse, shopkeepers who have never handled a counterfeit coin, women of forty who have never hidden in a ditch except for fun. yes, in twenty years I have managed to do a little.”
But Auden’s Herod sees a threat….and that threat is the continued desire for belief what American Protestants would call “a personal god.”
Herod sarcastically mimics the prayers of these folks around…and in doing so, Auden is of course parodying both himself and all who would believed in a personified Christ:
“Leave thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his homework, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.”
That is the problem with Incarnational Theology. It can indeed be seen as ridiculous….which it is.
Herod/Auden seems to issue some scathing critiques, not just of religious thought in general…but I cannot help but read into what comes next, the still very modern critique of modern Christianity and belief in “God.” Said another way, Herod is one of the OG “Postmoderns.”
Herod notes this about the foolishness of belief in God, should this foolish belief in an Incarnational God not be stamped out:
“Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible ldol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it.”
“Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow” Every crook will argue: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.” And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance.”
Ouch…and yet, true, yes. This is indeed how religious faith gets understood in the popular culture, and why so very many reject it — as Herod does here— as preposterous. But after this, it seems to me we get at the heart of Herod’s concern. Herod is concerned that Jesus’ message will indeed turn over the accepted order of things.
And of course, Jesus’ message IS supposed to do that.
As Mary sings in the Magnificat:
“God has shown strength with his arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Jesus would later say: “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
An Incarnational theology is an anathema to hierarchy, because in Christ “there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave of free.”
Jesus’ message IS a threat to the status quo…IS a threat to anyone in power and privilege. It cuts right though all human caste systems of race, religion, economics, gender, class, orientation.
Of course, the Church of today is incredibly corrupted itself. No need to dwell on this. I’m talking here about the words of JESUS, not the actions of the CHURCH. The meaning of Incarnational Theology, not how the institution consistently, in every generation, corrupts that message.
Auden’s King Herod sees all of this, and sees is as the reason the troops must be sent in to slaughter in the innocents:
“The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.”
What a beautiful and indicting paragraph about the contempt of “Elites” for the common people.
But Auden’s Herod is a bit more cold and calculating than either the Biblical Herod or Donald Trump. And he puts it this way:
“Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved, even if means sending in the military, as I supposed it does.
How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilisation always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate.
O dear, Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid. Why can’t they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is.”
One thing I tend to think Auden misses about Herod is how much the real Herod was —like Donald Trump— about self preservation before anything else. Herod of the Bible orders the slaughter of the innocents (again: no evidence it actually happened) for the very same reasons ALL leaders try to cling to political power: their own self preservation, narcissism, and foolish belief they they are either special blessed or specially gifted to lead others.
Nothing is further from the truth. God’s Incarnation destroys up and down. It assures us that common folks can do extraordinary things too. That ordinary humans are endowed with gifts and grace from God the world needs, more than it needs any “King” or “Empire.”
Auden’s Herod, and a majority of postmodern thinkers of our time, see religious faith such as an incarnational view as preposterous. But Auden’s Herod also CORRECTLY names the implication of Incarnational Theology too. Herod says:
“And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man…it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in, He could not play such a horrible practical joke.”
Yes! That’s exactly what it means! It means God gives us the horrific power to not only destroy each other and our planet, but to also literally destroy a piece of God too. Because…God is in and through all these things. Rather than see all things as sacred…or as blessed with some holiness of the infinite God, we see them as disposable and expendable.
Herod is right: God HAS given us power to destroy. And it’s not a practical joke. It’s the horror of our God-given free will and choice.
We CAN destroy the planet.
We CAN Otherize whole races and religions.
We CAN foolishly believe our power is the only power there is, and our decisions “must” be “just.”
That’s exactly the horrible implication of Incarnational Theology. As I cited in an earlier chapter here, Incarnation is as Frederick Buecnher says: “ultimate reality, born with a skull you could crush one handed.”
“Could and do,” I would reply to Buechner. Dear God in heaven, we could…and we often do…
My only critique of Auden’s Herod is that he turns him into a semi-sympathetic character, ala “Pontius Pilate” in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Both the “Pilate” of JCS and the “Herod” of FTTB are depicted as being filled with a sense of personal anxiety and conflict about their decisions. But, while I really appreciate the moral theology they are allowed to unwind, and the interesting character development, in both cases this is too soft and kind to the actual historical figures.
The real Pilate and Herod were cogs in the vast Powers That Be of the Roman Empire. And to preserve both “Pax Romana” and their own fiefdoms, they no doubt dispatched with Jesus without much angst or debate at all. Jesus was a tiny, minor, figure to them. And they behaved as all Powers That Be, in every age, behave.
So….why did Auden mischaracterize Herod in this way? What was he intending?
More than equating Herod with the growing fascist threat of his day, I think Auden was trying to speak to progressive thinkers in the West…to urge them to give Christianity another look…as he himself had done. (In a moment, you’ll see that he has Herod exclaim “I’m a liberal!”)
In a review of a Rienhold Niebuhr book (Auden and Niebuhr became good friends…) Auden says a prescient line, which could be written about our own time:
“It has taken Hitler to show us that liberalism is not self-supporting.”
We might say “It has taken American Christian Nationalism to show us that liberalism is not self-supporting.”
Liberalism…the theoretical kind, not the political kind…must be renewed in every generation.
Democracy takes a kind of effort and participation that perhaps our culture is tiring of?
And perhaps our growing American fascist voices of our time feel weirdly comforting?
Maybe we’re just all too tired of what democracy takes?
Maybe we’re tired of corporate greed that sells our idealism back to us as products that, too often, kill us instead?
Maybe the system has beaten all idealism out of far too many of the poor and middle classes?
Maybe a little of all of this…and more?
But, I keep going back to another quote by Auden, from an essay he wrote during World War II. It was titled “Poetry and Total War.” And in it, Auden wasn’t so much concerned with the Fascist threat —which he assumed must be defeated—as he was with what “democracies” might do to defeat it.
Auden said: “the danger is that, in order to win, the democracies will construct an anti-fascist, political religion, and so, by becoming like their enemies, lose the peace.”
Read that quote over and over, until it sinks in, deeply. Like Eisenhower’s 1950s warning about the “military industrial complex,” it seems to me, dear readers, that this is exactly what has happened in the past eight decades.
Western Democracies, time and again, have violated their own core beliefs in horribly foreign adventures in Vietnam and Iraq, to name just two. Western Democracies have been infected by “Civil Religion.”
By a kind of creeping AMERICAN Nationalism.
We are, indeed, becoming like our enemies….because we far too often OTHERIZE our enemies.
Auden’s Herod isn’t so much the Biblical Herod as he is a supporter of a United Nation’s style World Order, where rationality and sensibility rule….where democracy magically springs forth. (The very kind of progressive leader our many conspiracy theories today fear, btw…)
If there is one thing my past three decades of ministry has taught me, its that whether it’s Russia, Haiti, Iraq, Vietnam, Central America…and any number of other places…democracy never “magically” springs forth.
People of the Earth don’t “hate us for our freedom.”
They “hate us for our hypocrisy.”
They hate that we have so compromised our own core principles that we somehow believe democracy can be spread by guns or covert action.
It cannot. These things, in fact, spoil the possibility of democracy. And I don’t think we’ve yet to fully understand this….to our, and our world’s, great misfortune.
(Hint: I think in their hearts, the insurrectists are correctly seeing this hypocrisy too…just choosing a dangerous, foolhardy, solution…)
And so, Auden’s Herod is filled with a guilt and remorse that the real Herod did not likely have.
But! It absolutely IS the guilt and remorse of Post-Modern Americans, as we foolishly attempt to use force to keep the “Pax Americana.”
Guilt racked Herod says what perhaps every American politician/thought leader, who genuflexively believes their just cause, ALSO believes:
“Why should He(God) dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.”
Eighty years ago, Auden wrote these words which —with each passing year— feel even more relevant to our time than he could have possibly imagined.