Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4, 14

Luke 23.39-43

I Peter 3.17-18

Vonnegut & Habakkuk:  So It Goes

1969:  That Was The Year That Was

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

I wonder how many of us have either children or grandchildren who are eighteen years old or younger?   This is a generation for whom the United States has always been at war.  Since 2001 to the present day, the US has been fighting in Afghanistan, between 2003 and 2011 we were at war in Iraq, and since 2004 US troops have fought in Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Yemen.  Some historians have argued that we have been involved in war at some level for 222 of the nation’s 243 years, but I think that’s a stretch.  Nevertheless, for the last eighteen years, war has been a constant for our country, whether it happens to be in the news on any given day or not.

And throughout history, one of the ways humanity has dealt with the sad reality of war has been through writing and literature.  From Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to Mark Twain’s The War Prayer to Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 the horrors of war have been amply documented from the printed page – and that small sampling is only on the fiction side of the ledger.  Fifty years ago this year, in 1969, another classic was added to the collection in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in February of 1945, and his book, for all of its multiple detours, uses that incident in which about 25,000 people were incinerated to make a larger statement about the nature of war.  His book was published of course smack in the middle of the war in Vietnam, which was the thinly veiled object of Vonnegut’s book. After all, both Dresden and Vietnam saw the use of napalm, so perhaps it is not veiled that thinly after all.

The book itself seems at first glance to be a hodgepodge of random people and events.  Vonnegut himself breaks the fourth wall and appears a couple of times, but the main character is Billy Pilgrim, who stands in for the author most of the time.  Billy Pilgrim is a likeable, sympathetic figure, at times he borders on being Christ-like, which is why Vonnegut gave him the name:  Billy, from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, who is clearly a Jesus figure, and Pilgrim, from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  And the hodgepodge is intentional: the very first line of the story is this:  “Listen:  Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”  A good deal of the novel involves time-travel, though it happens randomly and Billy can’t control it.  The story has space aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.  It has movies that run backwards, it has an alternative gospel of Jesus written as a gift to humanity by the Tralfamadoreans, and it has a fictional author named Kilgore Trout, who is another stand-in for Vonnegut, and who has published multiple novels, none of them any good, but one of which, one that isn’t even mentioned in Slaughterhouse Five, nevertheless helps propel the plot of the book.

Got it?

Slaughterhouse Five has multiple themes, but the one that drives the story is as old as the ages:  How do we deal with death and catastrophe and war and yet still go on living?  Or from a religious point of view, how do we witness the carnage of Dresden and Hiroshima and Vietnam and Afghanistan, and continue to believe in a loving and compassionate God?  The question is at least as old as the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?...  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.  The wicked surround the righteous – [and] judgement comes forth perverted.”    Why do the righteous suffer, Habakkuk wants to know, and why do the wicked prosper?  The firebombing of Dresden took place when the Second World War was nearly at an end in the European theater.  There were no industrial or military facilities of any importance in the city.  Most of the dead were civilians.  Many, though not all, historians agree that the real intent was not so much to punish Nazi Germany, but to make the Russians sit up and take notice.  But Dresden aside, Vonnegut’s point is that war is horrible wherever it is found, the more so when it devolves into the arbitrary and capricious, which it nearly always does.  Why do the righteous suffer?  Why do the wicked, at least appear, to prosper?  In its brief three chapters, Habakkuk turns the question into one of faith and righteousness: “The righteous will live by their faith [and] the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”  Vonnegut’s answer is very different.  His question, voiced by fictitious writer Kilgore Trout, is “Why are we born only to suffer and die?”  Vonnegut’s response?  Why not?  I know, rather fatalistic answer, but an answer nonetheless.

But the author has another answer that’s key to the story.  Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.  Which is why, in one part of the book, he is able to watch a war movie backwards.  And what he sees is a vision of healing and redemption that would do any Old Testament prophet proud.  This is one of my favorite parts of the story, because in its own way it is so tender and so restorative.  Imagine that we too are watching this war movie backwards – and Listen:

“American planes full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England.  Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen.  They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames.  The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them in cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes.  The containers were stored neatly in racks.  The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes.  They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes.  But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair.  Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work.  The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas.  It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.”

This is what Billy Pilgrim saw when he watched a war movie backwards.  “And the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”

I mentioned that Billy Pilgrim is also a kind of Jesus figure.  Because he can travel back and forth in time, his death comes about two-thirds of the way through the novel, but he doesn’t remain dead because time is fluid.  Here is his way of viewing time, which he learned from the Tralfamadoreans:  “All moments, past, present and future, have always existed, always will exist.”  We can look at different moments the same way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, or a string of pearls.  It’s a collection of moments, and we choose which one to focus on.  One may be here, one may be here, one may be there; we may view them in isolation, or we can understand them as a whole, like eternity.  And so, Billy says, “When a person dies, they only appear to die.  They are still very much alive in the past.”  They are only dead in one isolated moment; in all the other moments, they are alive.  And so when Billy is killed, he is dead for a while. Then he swings back into life again thirty-one years earlier and the story continues.  Thirty-one years.  Do we know anyone else who was killed at the age of thirty-one and then went on to live some more?

Slaughterhouse Five also gives humanity the gift of a new gospel, courtesy of the Tralfamadoreans.  Those space aliens recognized a flaw in the crucifixion of Jesus that Peg read for us earlier.  When people who read the life of Jesus see him lifted up on the cross, the Son of the God Most High, we may be tempted to think, boy they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch.  What the aliens believed was that if there are wrong guys to lynch, the corollary is that there are also right guys to lynch.  So they delivered a different gospel story.  In their gospel, Jesus is not the Son of the God Most High, he’s just a nobody – a bum who has no connections.  It is not until the moment of crucifixion that God announces to everyone that God is adopting this bum as his very own Son, “giving him the full power and privileges of the Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity.”  The idea of adoption is very theological; when the voice from heaven boomed at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved son,” it was a direct quotation from Psalm 2, which is a royal adoption liturgy.  And here is the lesson of the Tralfamadorean gospel where Jesus is adopted, not at baptism, but at the moment of his death:  From this moment on, [God] will punish… anybody who torments a bum who has no connections.”  In other words, judgement awaits anyone who mistreats the less fortunate, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the refugee.  Now that sounds like a gospel.

Because in spite of the horrors of war, in spite of the firebombing of Dresden – which by the way, is the only plot line in this time-warp of a book that actually unfolds chronologically – in spite of the way human beings who are not Billy Pilgrim treat each other in Slaughterhouse Five, it remains a story of hope.  Writer Salman Rushdie published a reconsideration of Vonnegut’s book in The New Yorker last month, on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, and said this about the work:

“Slaughterhouse Five is a novel humane enough to allow, at the end of the horror that is its subject, for the possibility of hope.  Its final passage describes the end of the war and the liberation of the prisoners, who include Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut himself.  ‘And somewhere in there it was springtime,’ Vonnegut writes, and in the last moment of the book birds, once again, begin to sing.  This cheerfulness, in spite of everything, is Vonnegut’s characteristic note.  It may be… a cheerfulness beneath which much pain is hidden, but it is cheerfulness nonetheless.  Vonnegut’s prose, even when dealing with the dreadful, whistles a happy tune.”

So it goes.




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