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The Met’s Klinghofer: Does Art have a “Contract with Society”?

The New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’s 1991 opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” has provoked outrage among some who maintain that the opera is “anti-Semitic.” In a letter to the Editor of the New York Times (a version was read at the protest at the Met on Monday, September 21, 2014), Judea Pearl, the President of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, writes:

“There is nothing more enticing to a would-be terrorist than the prospect of broadcasting his “grievances” in Lincoln Center, the icon of American culture. Yet civilized society has learned to protect itself by codifying right from wrong, separating the holy from the profane, distinguishing that which deserves the sound of orchestras from that which commands our unconditional revulsion. The Met has trashed this distinction and thus betrayed its contract with society.”

Civilized society has indeed learned to protect itself. The “normalcy of civilization” as John Dominic Crossan defines it has been so successful at self-protection that rules governing law & order have led to systems that result in the suppression of human rights. The Apostle Paul went so far as to claim that social systems – the “law” – comprise the strength of sin itself. In response to repressive laws that confine people to particular neighborhoods, levels of income, categories of employment, and that hold minority populations to different kinds of rules from the majority – such as laws against loitering and parking; photo identification cards – people quite naturally look for ways to survive without violating the rules. But of course, countering those restrictions often breaks the law.

Distributive justice-compassion, or “restorative” justice, argues that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and that while the back-story may be compelling or repelling, violence is never the solution. When society’s protective systems “codify right from wrong, separating the holy from the profane,” who will call attention to the injustice that gets embedded in those very codes whose purpose is to protect and defend the safety and security of that society?

A prime illustration of art that protests against those “protections” that society has created is the work of Charles Dickens – especially his “Christmas Carol.” The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals the demon children Ignorance and Want beneath his robe. “Want is keenly felt” by the poor, the Ghost says, and Scrooge himself is Ignorance: “I don’t know that….It’s not my business,” he says.

Other artistic protest that comes to mind includes Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites, which explores the intersection of human fear with false security, and the moral dilemma of suicide disguised as martyrdom, the epitome of protest against injustice – talk about echoes with themes from Klinghoffer. Then there is Picasso’s Gurernica, which lays out in excruciating detail the results of government war against its own people. One of the musical interludes in Klinghofer the “Hagar Chorus,” relates the Islamic story of Hagar and the Angel and the Jewish story of Hagar and Ishmael. The story is one of exile (Genesis 16-22). Hagar provided Abraham with a son, Ishmael. Then Sarah produced a son for Abraham named Isaac. Once Isaac came of age, however, Sarah prevailed upon Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, where God himself provided food and water. The opera represents the story as the beginnings of Arab–Israeli tension, of which the hijacking is one historical result. Other protest literature in the Hebrew Bible includes the stories of Ruth, Esther, and Job.

Anyone who knows the Old Testament (or the Tanakh) should know that God shows no partiality when dealing with Israel and its enemies. In fact, throughout the entire Bible, God consistently sides with justice against the unjust people of Israel. One of the most-read Old Testament stories when Christian worship leaders follow the Revised Common Lectionary is the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5). It is a clear illustration of the radicality of God – who really only cares about distributive justice-compassion, not the ostensible participants in the often broken Covenant. Faith is not belief about God. Faith is trust in God’s word.

In Rabbinical literature, Naaman is described as the archer for the king of Aram, who mortally wounded Ahab, King of Israel (I Kings 22:34). Naaman is represented as vain and haughty, on account of which he was stricken with leprosy. Naaman’s wife has an Israelite slave who tells about the great prophet Elisha who lives in Samaria, who could cure Naaman’s leprosy. When the king of Aram learns about this, he agrees to send Naaman immediately with a letter to the current king of Israel – presumably so the king would not think that Naaman was invading with an army. When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, he is insulted that Elisha does not come out to him, wave his hands over the leprosy, invoke the God of Israel, and bibbety-bobbety-boo! Alakazam! the leprosy is gone. Instead, a messenger comes out and tells Naaman to bathe in the Jordan River seven times. Why not bathe in our own river? gripes Naaman. Our rivers are better than the Jordan! And he storms off in a rage. But his servants point out that all he has to do is wash and be clean. So he does. No magic. No ritual. No conventional junk performed by a priest. All that is required is trust in the word of God from the representative of Israel’s God, the prophet Elisha.

What’s radical is, you don’t have to be Jewish. Gentiles who trust God’s word are equally eligible for healing.

God seems to be reaching around the king of Israel and saving Israel’s enemies – who keep their word, and follow the instructions of God’s prophet. Then Elisha’s servant Gehazi completes the story and the point. When Elisha declines to accept the gentile Naaman’s gifts in exchange for his miraculous healing, Gehazi is scandalized. “As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something out of him,” he says. When he catches up with Naaman, he makes up a story about unexpected company that needs silver and clothing. Naaman not only complies with Elisha’s supposed request, he doubles the amount asked for. (Shades of Jesus’s recommendation found in Matthew 5:40-41: that if the Roman occupier demands your shirt, give him your cloak, or if he demands you carry his bags one mile, go for two.) The outsider Naaman is generous to a fault. The insider Gehazi is corrupted and therefore cursed by Elisha with the very same leprosy Naaman was cured of. As Paul writes to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow” (Galatians 6:7).

Elisha’s servant Gehazi pays the price for the corruption that defines the normalcy of civilization. The outsider Naaman trusts the Hebrew God’s word and bathes in the River Jordan and is cured. All he had to do was choose to accept Elisha’s instruction. At the end of his flaming letter to the Galatians, Paul reiterates the importance of choosing to obey the only law that matters: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Those who teach otherwise are complying with the prevailing normalcy of civilization, acting in their own self interest, trying to fit into the culture and avoid trouble.

At the end of Klinghoffer, the hijackers have ordered the Captain to say they will kill another passenger every fifteen minutes. Instead, the Captain offers himself as the sole next person to be killed. After the hijackers have surrendered and the surviving passengers have disembarked safely in port, the Captain remains to tell Marilyn Klinghoffer the news of about her husband’s death. She reacts with sorrow and rage towards the Captain, for what she sees as his accommodation of the hijackers. Her final sentiment is that she wished that she could have died in Leon’s place.

Just as with Polenc’s Carmelites, and the healing of Israel’s enemy while the pious Gehazi is condemned, we are left with dilemmas and conundrums, not a clearly codified sense of “right and wrong.” This is understandably disappointing. But Art and our religious heritage tell us not only that justice is more complicated than we would like. The “contract with society” actually ignores society’s injustice, and the separation between the holy and the profane condemns us all.


Topics: The Arts & Culture. 8 Points: Point 6: Peace and Justice and Point 8: Compassion and Selfless Love. Seasons & Special Events: Ordinary Time. Ages: All Ages. Texts: Galatians and Kings (1&2). Resource Types: Art, Articles, and Read.

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