I’ve been considering John Milton’s Nativity Ode anew this Advent. Today, I saw a tweet from The New York Review of Books quoting from Milton’s Paradise Lost about the blood lust of the pagan god Moloch and the gruesome terms of his worship, child sacrifice.
I clicked through to the piece, which you can read here. The gun, says Gary Wills, is our Moloch. Maybe so. But if so, our collective and willful ignorance of America’s mental health crisis is something of an original sin from which we haven’t come close to working out or making right.
Wills reminds us that in Paradise Lost, “Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind.” Yes. And in Milton’s Nativity Ode, Moloch is among the first to flee his seat of power at the birth of Christ, the coming of the Holy Child.
I left this comment at NYRB:
“To continue the Milton and Moloch theme, on the Third Sunday of Advent, we remember that Moloch only flees with the birth of the Holy Child. I don’t offer that as a bit of religious imperialism, but as a comfort to those who will find comfort in it, and as a point of literary irony worth considering in the larger context of the extended metaphor.”
There’s something fundamentally profound about the juxtaposition of the reign and flight of Moloch with the coming of the Prince of Peace as an infant, as a child. I’m not offering a positivist religious fatalism, here. I’m saying that Wills makes one of the best arguments for pacifism you’re likely to hear if you bear mind 1) the Mennonite insistence that the crucifixion of Christ was God’s clear condemnation of violence as a means of ending violence 2) Milton’s liturgical resister in Advent, and 3) Milton’s insistence that God’s overthrowing of idols happened not only at Christ’s death but also, fundamentally, in his birth.
In the Nativity Ode, Milton struggles with the now-and-not-quite-yet nature of the Prince of Peace’s reign. I struggle with it, too. The child Jesus would grow up to say “The Kingdom of God is here!” but few and far between are the kinds of communities that prove the claim. Few and far between are the leaders who lead and live like Jesus, few and far between are churches with progressive witnesses for peace and mental health commitments.
Think what you will about guns. But it’s hard to argue that with our wars, our drones, our violent entertainment and our voyeuristic gaming, we’re not sacrificing children to the grim god Moloch, to the military-industrial complex, to big businesses and lobbyists and other interests. All the while spending a comparative widow’s mite on the nation’s mental health crisis. That’s idolatry any way you cut it. That is injustice, that is sin, that is, frankly, evil.
- Our Moloch (nybooks.com)