I have been disheartened by the accolades that Donald Trump has received from centrists and even liberals for dropping bombs, including the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan. Apparently all you need to appear presidential is to send in the U.S. air force. As someone sarcastically tweeted, since Trump craves adulation and is getting it for his belligerence, “what could possibly go wrong?”
For my Lenten observance, I read Milton’s Paradise Regained for the first time and can’t help but apply the four-book poem to our situation. The narrative focuses on Satan tempting Jesus in the desert and, since his major temptations concern military glory and conquest, it seems only too applicable.
Paradise Regained has pretty much the same plot as Paradise Lost. Just as Satan goes after Adam and Eve in the first work, so he goes after Jesus in the sequel. The council of hellish angels is still around, agreeing to whatever Satan proposes, and we see Satan once again using all of his rhetorical powers of persuasion to corrupt someone. Unfortunately, as in Paradise Lost, there’s not much drama when Satan’s adversary is perfect, so Jesus isn’t any more interesting than God is in the first work. Jesus knows exactly who Satan is when he shows up disguised, he knows exactly why he should reject each of the temptations, and he never exhibits any doubts.
We can ask ourselves, however, whether Satan’s offers would tempt us. Unfortunately, by falling for Trump’s bellicosity, a number of Washington insiders, mainstream media outlets, and others are demonstrating that they would not pass the test.
I’ll get to Satan’s offers in just a moment, but first a word on the temptations episode. More than any other, it brought me to the Episcopalian church when I was in my forties. I was in spiritual search but wasn’t interested in stories of perfection. Once I saw Jesus as genuinely uncertain and conflicted, however, I realized that I could relate to him. He could help me with my own journey because he too had moments of doubt.
My Jesus, in other words, is not someone who started off with all the answers. In that respect, he’s more like the Jesus of Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ than of Paradise Regained. As I interpreted the desert episode, Satan’s temptations were actually Jesus’s own inner thoughts, which he wrestled with and then overcame. In that way, he became a model for me.
As we watching the uptick in military posturing, we would do well to follow the lead of Milton’s Jesus, even if we can’t do so in quite so serene a fashion. The two temptations that are currently the most relevant are wealth and power. When he sets out to tempt Jesus, Satan rejects Belial’s notion that he employ a beautiful woman and instead opts for “manlier objects”:
Therefore with manlier objects we must try
His constancy, with such as have more show
Of worth, of honor, glory, and popular praise;
Rocks whereon greatest men have oftest wrecked…
If Jesus is to be “king of kings,” Satan says, he will need money, and that he can supply:
Therefore, if at great things thou wouldst arrive,
Get Riches first, get Wealth, and Treasure heap,
Not difficult, if thou hearken to me,
Riches are mine, Fortune is in my hand;
They whom I favor thrive in wealth amain,
While Virtue, Valor, Wisdom sit in want.
Given our society’s obsession with wealth and the increasing influence of money in our politics, we must admit Satan’s offer to be potent. But Jesus doesn’t fall for it, prompting Satan to switch to an offer of glory. If you inspire people by appearing glorious, he points out to Jesus, won’t you inspire them to praise God?
All Earth her wonder at thy acts, thyself
The fame and glory, glory the reward
That sole excites to high attempts the flame
Of most erected Spirits…?
When glory is rejected, Satan offers Jesus positions of power, first to “sit upon thy Father David’s Throne” and then to succeed Augustus Caesar and take over the Roman Empire. With such power, he would be able to fulfill God’s promise to his people and to establish the kingdom of God in the world.
When we worry that the U.S. is not respected enough in the world (glory) and believe that our power resides in our wealth and our military might, we are following a Satanic road that leads to bloodshed. As Milton’s Jesus puts it, we are relying on the “cumbersome luggage of war,” which is
Of human weakness rather than of strength.
What should we really look for in a leader? When Satan claims that virtue, valor, and wisdom are irrelevant, Jesus counters that a great leader “governs the inner man, the nobler part,” unlike the leader who “o’er the body only reigns,/ And oft by force…” The great leader does not “subject himself to Anarchy within,/Or lawless passion” but rather is guided by honor, virtue and merit. On his shoulders, Jesus says,
each man’s burden lies;
For therein stands the office of a King,
His Honor, Virtue, Merit and chief Praise,
That for the Public all this weight he bears.
Yet he who reigns within himself, and rules
Passions, Desires, and Fears, is more a King;
Which every wise and virtuous man attains:
And who attains not, ill aspires to rule
Cities of men, or head-strong Multitudes,
Subject himself to Anarchy within,
Or lawless passions in him, which he serves.
Unfortunately, Trump follows his lawless passions, and for the moment that’s what we’re stuck with. We can, however, strive to rule our own passions, desires and fears. This means not falling in love with grandiose shows of military might where America struts its stuff.
Imagine if we were guided by Honor, Virtue, and Merit as we strove to serve the public. Sign me up.