Monday, July 20, 2015

Third Monday with Bob Boldt

The Grand Inquisitor: 
Loosely adapted from The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

By Bob Boldt

[This piece was written in October 2004 near the conclusion of the career of John Ashcroft. I live in Missouri, where our now ex-Attorney General’s strong imperial convictions, corruption, and even stronger religious fanaticism are legend.
    I am a believer in the concept of eternal recurrence. I have said elsewhere that I am certain that if Christ were to return to this sad world ruled by an empire that could teach even the Romans a thing or two about brutality and iron-fisted control of subject peoples, he would certainly be re-crucified.

It was not covered by CNN. Dan Rather knew nothing of His presence. Even the TV psychics drew a blank. Quite by ordinary circumstances one gray October afternoon, Jesus Christ appeared in the park across from the White House. At first, only the poor and the homeless recognized Him when He appeared in their midst. He went about quite inconspicuously. In fact, there is no indication that He had any intention of doing anything except minister to the pathetic indigents in the immediate vicinity. Soon a large crown of homeless had formed and if it hadn’t been for a couple of alert FBI agents short-cutting through the park, the presence of the Prince of Peace might have otherwise gone completely unnoticed. They alerted the DC police, who promptly responded to roust this rabble-rouser. The local authorities later decided, based on some comments He made expressing concern for the soul of the president, that this was a matter for Homeland Security. These circumstances are what lead to His being brought before Attorney General John Ashcroft himself.
    John was sitting behind his desk when the prisoner was brought before him. His flinty eyes surveyed the detainee. Having been briefed as to the claim that He was Jesus Christ, John was in no mood for joking around. After all, Jesus and all those false prophets the Bible had promised was an issue he was especially sensitive to, these being the end times and all. In grade school he had always wondered if he would be present for the Second Coming. Young John would spend hours deep in thought, tucked safely away behind the lilac bushes in the far corner of the school playground, while his playmates were busy with their worldly games. How would he recognize the true Savior, and would the Savior recognize him? If Christ were to look into his heart, would He see his true purity and his ardent devotion to The Word?
    Then he thought as a child. Today he thought as a man. He knew that the “time when no man knoweth the hour when the Son would return” was at hand. That was the reason he had appointed a special assistant specifically to monitor the police networks for any occurrence of people claiming to be the returning messiah. This may sound like a strange obsession for the Attorney General of the United States to concern himself with, but John Ashcroft was a man of many strange obsessions. Up until now, these investigations had yielded little. In fact, it was strange how few people had surfaced nationwide with Jesus complexes. It seemed to be no longer in vogue, like the classic Napoleonic delusions of old. He could not explain why, but he was certain that if Jesus were to come back, he, John Ashcroft, would be the first to know.
    When he first saw this disheveled man before him in his office, he was dubious. The DC cops had roughed him up a lot – the usual “resisting arrest” charge. They were just letting off a little steam. It had been a slow week in the Capitol with all the focus on the candidates on the campaign trail. Also, he was not wearing the robes and the customary sandals usually associated with the Nazarene. Christ had on a somewhat worn, torn, and bloody once-white workout suit. No sandals, he was wearing Salvation Army Nikes. Curious as to how much of this damage might have been the handiwork of DC’s finest, he asked Jesus to come closer. He waved off the two Secret Service agents as the Prisoner obediently approached the front of the desk. At closer range, John was able to look clearly into His eyes.
    Now for any other mortal, eyeball-to-eyeball contact with another creature would not seem so extraordinary. Ordinary people did not look John Ashcroft directly in the eye, certainly not his subordinates and not even the President himself. Ashcroft was a man to be feared, the alpha primate in the Washington jungle, and that was something he rather relished and cultivated. Only in the presence of his wife did he ever avert his own eyes, but that was a different matter. At first, there was the shock of another, a stranger holding him (him!) in His gaze. A line immediately came to mind: “eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase.” Almost at the same time a thought like an electric current shot through him: This is Him. This is the Christ! Without relinquishing his gaze, he firmly dismissed his Secret Service agents. Only after he heard the solid door close behind them, did he reluctantly lower his eyes.
    He slowly walked to the window as if a glance over his kingdom might somehow return him to a sense of himself and his self-control. He turned his back on the Son of God and stared out across the Potomac. The late autumn sun was setting, glinting off the constant stream of cars crossing the bridge to Arlington, Virginia. His eyes were filled with tears as he spoke, half to the twilight and half to this Supreme Being in his presence. “Is it really you? You know I have waited my—” Abruptly he turned and was shocked to find his soul swamped by the great pools of Christ’s sad, compassionate gaze. “Don’t answer!” he almost shouted. Then, after recovering his composure and a measure of his old authority, he said with a forced flippancy, “After all, what could you say to me now that has not already been written – that is not already a part of the record?”

    A moment of unease returned when it appeared as if Jesus had no intention of responding. “In fact,” John continued, “what does this whole return visit of yours mean? It cannot be the end times, because God has not opened the skies and sent the Archangel Gabriel to herald your return.” He walked away from the window to a switch on the wall. Immediately the room was filled with harsh, white fluorescent light. “I think I am right in assuming that this is an unofficial visit?”
    The Man of Sorrows remained silent. Only His sad eyes gently tracked the Attorney General’s movements around the room.
    “You know, I have been expecting you. I think I know why you are here before me at this time,” John said almost rudely, returning involuntarily to the authoritarian manner he had used for interrogating so many lesser mortals. “I know that your return can mean only one thing: that you are here to question my authority and the authority of the President as you did the leaders of old.” John was unconsciously spinning the globe next to the flag behind his desk. With a barely perceptible sense of embarrassment, he stopped its spinning.
    “I have spent my whole life studying your teachings, loving the word of Our Father and awaiting the swift, full descent of the Holy Spirit, like a faithful servant.” The muscles tightened in his jaw and he held the globe as if the whole world itself would have to give him the strength to find the words that he knew he must speak. “Even though I love your Testament and your holy blood shed for our salvation, I cannot let you continue here at this time. You must not assume that you have any teaching that you can administer, or any works that can have anything but a disruptive effect on our country at this time.” His gaze lowered to the floor. “That is why at dawn I will instruct the CIA Special Ops to fly you out over the Atlantic, fire a bullet through your brain, and drop you into the sea.”
    His resolve and composure were now complete, and the Attorney General once again looked directly into the Christ’s eyes. His gaze did not return, but looked seemingly through John at the sodium vapor streetlights just flickering on beyond the office window.
    John sat down. “I trust that this time we will have no miracles.” He opened a desk drawer and took out a well-worn Bible. Leafing through it, he looked up at Christ’s eyes, which remained fixed on the darkening sky beyond. On the horizon the tiny crescent of the planet Venus was following the sun to a fiery death below the horizon. “I know you thought you could come and fix things, attempt to reenact in some way – to refresh that message of old.” John felt his words faltering somewhat. As if to re fortify his resolve and drown any lingering doubts, he rose from his high-backed leather chair and approached Christ, and said angrily through clenched teeth, “It is too late!”
Then more quietly, in a sinister half-whisper, “You are not needed here. We are in control now and we will not let you meddle with us!”
    He thumbed through the beloved volume and said, “In this New Testament you taught the message of freedom. In John 8:31-32 you said: ‘The truth shall make you free.’ Your words. And did you give any thought to what you would start with that promise of freedom, or the headaches you would create for those of us whom you had charged to govern such rabble?” John was warming to his topic now. How often had he rehearsed this conversation privately, practicing each argument, every nuance? “I suppose you think you will grace us with another parable, another great teaching that will give new hope and improvement to the downtrodden you loved so much. Let me tell you: if you think your parables fell upon deaf ears in your day, they will no doubt have even less appeal with the masses today.” He carefully placed the open bible on top of his desk, “You should leave well enough alone and not try to add or amend what you taught of old. We have paid dearly for it, that freedom you proclaimed over two thousand years ago.” Sensing his rising anger and excitement, John paused a moment, calmed himself and continued. “Now, in this new century of ours, we have finally completed the groundwork for the world that is just beginning. The freedom you proclaimed is finally over and done with. We have extinguished it in your holy name and in the very name of your precious freedom.”
    Christ’s eyes were now lowered. His hands crossed over one another in the familiar attitude of bondage and submission from the “Ecce homo” paintings of the scourged Christ being presented to the mob by Pontius Pilot.
    “I see that you cannot, even now, allow yourself righteous wrath. I suppose I should take your acquiescent meekness as a form of rebuke. Perhaps I can make you understand that we do all these things not for their harm, but for the love we bear for those your misguided words were meant to liberate. Indeed, I should say we bear these wretched ones an even greater love than you did. You took upon yourself the cross of their sins but once, and then went to sit at the right hand of God the Father. We take up the cross every day for their salvation.” John could feel the almost palpable weight oppressing him as he spoke these words. The phrase, “Atlas, son of Jupiter,” flashed through his mind.
    “Yes, you sought to set them free, but what has this rabble used their precious freedom for – to turn their backs on us, your servants, and to engage in all the slaveries of the senses and spirit? For centuries, we in authority have cursed this freedom you presumed to give to the mob. You made them think this precious gift was something that would lift them up, not become a crushing cross of sin, guilt, and perdition. Since you promised all men freedom—” John paused to look for the right words, the right argument. “Wasn’t the lesson in the garden enough for you? Man is an inherent rebel, a naysayer, an unruly, disobedient sinner, who for the sake of a bite of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would set himself up as a usurper of God’s power. I tell you, what he needs is an iron rule, not this freedom you proposed.”

    John walked over to the large globe. His eyes followed the familiar irregular blue oval of the Mediterranean Sea east until they rested on the land of Israel. “Fortunately, you did one intelligent thing in your ministry. In the laying on of the yoke of authority to your beloved rock, Peter, you handed over to us the task of completing your work in the world, that whatever we would bind on earth would be bound in Heaven. Until now the powers of the church and the divinely appointed rulers of this world have tried with varying degrees of success to tie down this unruly pack of blasphemers. That is why we, the last, remaining, undisputed, supreme worldly power on earth in this new American century have accepted this divine mandate – your mandate – to rule over both our citizens and all the world’s peoples. We do not presume to do this by their consent, but by the covenant with God the Father Himself. That is the real meaning of ‘One Nation and One World Under God.’” He paused.
    Christ still had made no attempt to speak, yet His presence was a palpable force in the room, like the atmosphere itself. John once again picked up his beloved volume and leafed through it looking for a passage.
    “It’s not that you did not have the opportunity to establish this kingdom even in your time. It is written in the fourth chapter of the book of Luke that the Lord of the World, the Great Advocate, offered you an opportunity to coalesce your hegemony over both Heaven and earth. Do you not think that the questions, or ‘temptations’ posed to you by that great and dread spirit in the wilderness did not contain wiser council than all the knowledge on earth? I might add, if all the philosophers, governors, and theologians throughout all of human history were consulted, there could not have been framed a more relevant set of questions with which to ‘tempt’ you. Indeed, these temptations sum up all the yearnings of humanity for the whole of human history. When the Spirit asked you to convert the stones to bread saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread,’ and you answered, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word of God,’ did you not realize that by rejecting the opportunity to rally all of mankind to you under the banner of ‘Free Bread,’ you passed up an unparalleled opportunity to overcome centuries of striving for the downtrodden? You had only to offer up a small miracle, one you might have tossed off with no more fanfare than the feeding of the faithful with loaves and fishes before the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, when tempted to use your divine power to convert mankind to your cause and ease their suffering to boot, you passed on this great chance. I think I know why. You were still laboring under this obsession you have with freedom. Freedom. As if men must be free to freely choose you, only for the truth of the message and the beauty of the way. As if any modern politician would even try rhetoric when the electorate could be won over so easily with bribes. That’ll be the day!” John put his Bible back in the desk and sad down again.
    Now relaxing a little, he moved to his summation. Confidently he met Christ’s beatific gaze with a renewed assurance. “I know all your idealistic reasons for rejecting our strategy for establishing your kingdom, and I say you are wrong. Not only that, but your turning away from the tempter in the wilderness amounted to less than nothing. I will tell you why. Man does not want this precious freedom you offer him, this precious prize you hold out. Even if free will existed – and I still think it does on the spiritual plane, even if it is no longer viable in the arena of politics or commerce – men are always rushing out to sell their precious human birthright to the highest bidder, or if they are hungry enough, to the first bidder. Men are always seeking for wonders and miracles as an excuse to sell their souls. They rush back and forth in the marketplace seeking gurus, purveyors of snake oil and human potential, beloved leaders to protect them from the terrorists, and saviors to shield them from themselves. Centuries ago you could have accomplished liberation from this illusory freedom for a song. How much suffering you could have circumvented by acquiescing to the tempter on this! And yet, as with everything else you did, you again left it to us, your servants, to make the compromise to bring mankind to the side of safety, security, and sanity in your name, with our own clumsy sleight of hand. I hate your freedom; you accomplished nothing!”
    The interrogation was over. The Attorney General slumped in his high-backed leather chair. He seemed to sink into it, small and diminished. The exertion of the summation had required an unexpected amount of effort, more than he had had have to give, and his proud, ramrod-straight authority appeared to have drained from him. He felt like a husk collapsed into itself, as if the slightest passing breeze might blow him away.
    The silence of the Son of Man bore down upon him like a millstone with the weight of all the ages, and he felt a great sadness. He felt old, very old. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. John longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But Christ suddenly approached him. He rounded the desk in silence and, lifting his tear-stained face, softly kissed John on his bloodless lips. That was all His answer.
    John shuddered. His lips moved. He went to a side door that led to a stairwell directly to the street, opened it, and said to Him: “Go, and come no more...come not at all, never, never!” And he let Him out into the dark Washington street.
    The Prisoner went away.

Copyright © 2015 by Bob Boldt


  1. An interesting exercise. I had to re-read Dostoevsky to see how closely you followed him. I'll admit that I don't see the U.S. as quite the dark power you do (though in the hands of trash such as Ashcroft and his accomplices, it sometimes tries.)

    1. Chuck, I'm impressed that you actually got out your copy of The Brothers Karamazov to compare Bob's piece with Dostoevsky's. I think I must have vaguely remembered how "droning" a read Ivan's section was, for I had no impulse to dive into Dostoevsky at all!
          Well, if the U.S. does something (or does more) to prove its darkness, we'll be able to say of Bob Boldt: "He told us so." I hope more light will return and we never have to say that.

  2. Every age updates the old stories to blend with it's culture and appetites. Bush and Ashcroft seemed like an ideal fit for the narrow-mindedness, violence, and religiosity of the Spanish Inquisition in Dostoevsky's excerpt. I tried to copy what I was reading from the original (the essence of the original) as closely as possible. I was surprised to find my re-reading of that portion of Brothers more boring from a literary standpoint than I remember from my last reading years ago. My version is also mercifully shorter than the original.

    1. Ivan did drone on, didn't he? Your length works better.

    2. Religiosity is right. Ashcroft was a classmate of mine at Yale, although I don't believe that I ever met him. I was told, though, by a roommate familiar with Ashcroft as an undergraduate, that he was very active in a local church of his denomination.
          I guess it was a Pentecostal church, for I see in the book of our 50th class reunion (last year), in Ashcroft's essay, that "I didn't want to be born in Chicago, but my time had come and Mom and Dad were in the Windy City (5-9-42). My Dad, a Pentecostal, evangelical minister, soon moved the family to Connecticut then to Missouri where I began grade school."
          Interestingly, in the book for our 25th class reunion (published in 1989), Ashcroft provided no essay, and the space was filled with excerpts from "John's campaign literature."

  3. Interesting connection with Ashcroft, Morris. I believe he was a prominent parishioner of the church featured in my essay "The Dinosaurs are Coming; The Dinosaurs are Coming. Nuff said.