James Carroll, a novelist, memoirist, and historian, may have left the priesthood as a young man, but the priesthood has never quite left him. Passionate and charismatic, he goads our conscience and tells painfully inconvenient truths, whether about the Catholic Church's history of anti-Semitism (Constantine's Sword) or what he calls "sacred violence" in his forthcoming book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Inspired in part, he says, by the love he has developed for the holy city during regular visits there over the past 15 years, Carroll's new book traces how religion and violence have been inextricably linked from their very origins in prehistory as represented in the caves of Lascaux, where prehistoric paintings may have been a means of coping with the violence of hunting, and the primitive rite of child sacrifice.
If Carroll's nonfiction writings can be seen as a continuing narrative, the first and most personal chapter was his National Book Award–winning memoir, An American Requiem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the latest chapter, is a profound, and profoundly disturbing, study of a belief Carroll claims is shared by the three monotheistic religions: "redemption comes through violence." Jerusalem—literally "city of peace"—"is the home base of religious violence."
Jerusalem, Jerusalem traces the history of the "sacred violence" that is rooted in an understanding of the city as the seat of God's presence in the world. It was there that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, there that the Crusaders sought to re-establish dominion, and, Carroll says, America's view of itself as an incarnation of Jerusalem—the "city on a hill"—that has motivated much of American aggression.
A Chicago native, Carroll has lived in Boston for almost 40 years, since arriving to serve as chaplain at Boston University. He lives there with his wife, novelist Alexandra Marshall. They have two grown children; their daughter is an educator, and their son an aspiring actor. Carroll revels in his adopted home, which was the setting for his first novel, 1978's Mortal Friends; he is delighted to have a publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, committed to its own Boston roots; and for almost 20 years, he has written a weekly column for the Boston Globe.
That column, he says, complements his books: "Every week I have to set time aside to think what I care about. It roots me... when I'm working on a larger nonfiction book, like Jerusalem, Jerusalem."
Whether in his column or in his books, Carroll is clear about his central concerns: "My defining commitments are to peace and reformed religion—critical religion—and democratic values."
Those convictions can be traced to Carroll's childhood, recounted in An American Requiem. He grew up during the cold war in the shadow of the Pentagon, where his father headed the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was ordained as a priest in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War.
His subsequent rejection of war has shaped Carroll's evolving idea of himself as a Catholic. "I was raised to think of [Catholicism] as a triumphal self-affirmation: I'm Chevy Chase and you're not. I have the truth and you don't." Now, after years of what he calls "reckoning with my own complicity" in two millennia of Church-inspired anti-Semitism, he views religion as "essentially an act of self-criticism."
Paradoxically, while 50 years ago, at age 18, Carroll turned to God in despair, today he says that writing about religion and violence actually leaves him hopeful that the current battle over Jerusalem, between Israelis and Palestinians, might be resolved. The two peoples "are in a corner, but the walls of the corner they didn't create, and the walls are [Western] anti-Semitism on one side and [Western] racist colonialism on the other.... Dismantling those walls is a key element of what has to happen for the Israelis and Palestinians to be at peace with each other."
"Jerusalem is in a way the end of the story," Carroll says, a story he has told for 25 years in his nonfiction works. But nonfiction is "tethered" to facts, and he turns to fiction, he says, to free his imagination. He is working on a new novel, though like all superstitious authors, he declines to discuss it.
"I'm liberated from the belief that this [violence] all ends with a flash of God's revelation," says Carroll. Rather, it is in our hands to reckon with and repudiate violence. Asked if his beliefs make him a pacifist, Carroll replies wryly, "I like to think of myself as a peacenik."