30 September 2019

Should we heed the
Angel of Death as
political vocabulary
becomes more violent?

the language of gorgiveness and hope in the face of death and mass murder … a fading rose on the fence at Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In my sermon yesterday [29 September 2019], I speak about the Archangel Michael, and tried to say how the few Biblical references to him and the attributes ascribed to him and other angels in the rabbinical and patristic traditions are relevant to today’s struggles against evil and oppression.

Some churches have translated their celebrations of the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels to today [30 September 2019], and so many congregations may not have had to reflect on the Biblical meaning of Saint Michael and All Angels.

But if we leave the archangels and angels aside, there is a danger of handing them over to ‘New Age’ thinking that exploits the foibles and needs of vulnerable people.

Discussing yesterday’s reflections and sermon with a friend earlier today, I realised how that most frightening images of an angel, the Angel of Death, is relevant to the rise of political extremism today across Europe and in North America.

As Donald Trump and Boris Johnson play with words, repeating mantras such as ‘Make America Great Today’ and ‘Get Brexit Done,’ the storm clouds rumble and the far-right continues to seize the opportunities it is offered.

John Bright, who made his ‘Angel of Death’ speech in the House of Commons in 1855, was the first MP to refer to the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was reminded today how the Angel of Death plays a very terrifying role in an oratorio written by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Dona nobis pacem, written as fascism was on the rise across Europe, and the world once again stood on the brink of war, chaos and destruction.

The fifth movement in this oratorio is called ‘The Angel of Death.’ Vaughan Williams derived his text for this movement from a speech in the House of Commons on 23 February 1855 by the great Victorian politician and reformer, John Bright, in which he condemned the Crimean War.

John Bright (1811-1889), who was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War, was a leading Quaker, a Radical and Liberal statesman, and one of the greatest orators of his generation. The historian AJP Taylor says ‘John Bright was the greatest of all parliamentary orators … the alliance between middle class idealism and trade unionism, which he promoted, still lives in the present-day Labour Party.’

Bright was an MP from 1843 to 1889, opposing the Corn Laws and promoting free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. He was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In a speech in Birmingham in 1865, he became the first politician to refer to Westminster as the ‘Mother of Parliaments.’

Bright’s speech in the Commons in 1855 draws on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spared any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted the lintels of his door posts with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).

Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this tenth and final plague. But his eloquence helped to popularise this image, although his speech did not stop the Crimean War and 600,000 people were left dead.

Afterwards, Benjamin Disraeli told Bright: ‘I would give all that I ever had to have delivered that speech.’ However, the speech did not prevent the Crimean War. As Bright had predicted, the campaign wasted many lives. More were lost through incompetent preparations than on the battlefield. Despite the technical military advances the British military had acquired, the war was marked by incompetence and 600,000 people were left dead.

Shocked by the disaster, and frustrated by his inability to avert the war, Bright experienced a nervous breakdown. He lost his seat as MP for Manchester, although he was soon elected MP for Birmingham in 1858.

At the time Vaughan Williams was writing this oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.

Bright’s words were given new prominence in those fearful days in the 1930s, with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war. They were quoted by the pacifist former Dean of Canterbury, HRL (‘Dick’) Sheppard (1880-1937) in his We Say No (1935). This book was published a year before he founded the Peace Pledge Union and a year before Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem was first performed.

Vaughan Williams wrote Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra in six sections or movements:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

In the fifth movement, Vaughan Williams creates an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

The ostinato bass which has played out the ‘veterans’ in the last movement now plays in the Angel of Death.

The fifth movement begins with the baritone soloist and a quotation from John Bright’s speech in which he tried to prevent the Crimean War: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land...’ Darkness seeps through the music, first quietly then with a dramatic interjection of Dona nobis pacem.

In the final movement that follows, the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death causes the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble rolls across the land: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came... The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved...’

The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land;
you may almost hear the beating of his wings.
There is no one as of old …
to sprinkle with blood the lintel
and the two side-posts of our doors,
that he may spare and pass on.

Vaughan Williams uses these words to create an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

These words have relevance once again today as we worry about an increasing use of bellicose language and the vocabulary of hate by politicians who in previous generations might have been expected to be the ‘leaders of the free world.’

Footage has emerged on social media today of Boris Johnson asking for support for his use of military metaphors to describe the Brexit debate. The Guardian reports this afternoon how, at a Conservative conference fringe event in Manchester, he asks: ‘Do you think it’s OK for me to call it [the Benn Act] the 'surrender act’? Am I fighting a losing battle to use these military metaphors or should I stick to my guns?’

A vocabulary that relies on offensive and incendiary words and phrases such as surrender, collusion, battle and sticking to guns draws on Trump’s rhetoric and ignites a toxic political climate that incites violence.

It is probably without reward to point out that while Vaughan Williams was writing about the Angel of Death, the politicians who engaged in surrender and appeasement were Conservative Prime Ministers such as Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, who caved in to the demands of Mussolini and Hitler, Lord Rothermere, the proprietor of the Daily Mail, Lord Beaverbook, proprietor of the Daily Express, and the ‘Cliveden Set.’

‘The Falling Angel,’ Marc Chagal (1947)

But if the image of the Angel of Death disturbs us, we are not the first.

Not only do I find myself asking why Pharaoh and his army had to drown. Why could events not take another turn so that they arrive late, after the people cross and after the waters return?

To make matters worse, Moses and the Israelites later sing a triumphant song of gratitude to God for wiping out their enemies, declaring: ‘God is a Man of War’ (see Exodus 15: 3). The Bible does not get any more masculine and militaristic than that.

Why is this Shirat Hayam (‘Song of the Sea’) so violent and unforgiving?

Where is God’s compassion and mercy?

Truth, Justice, Mercy and Peace … four figures on the façade of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This story is part of a longer Biblical passage known to Jews as Beshalach (בְּשַׁלַּח‎ – ‘when he let go).’ It is read in synagogues on a Saturday around January or February, a Saturday that is known as Shabbat Shirah, after the ‘Song of the Sea.’

The story calls up the contrasting images of God parting the waters of Creation (Genesis 1: 6) and God promising after the Flood that the world would never be flooded or drowned again (Genesis 9: 11). So, this is a story that we need to search through for promises of new creation and God’s redemption.

Traditional Jewish commentaries have been sensitive to the ethical problems this story creates. The Talmud says that when they see the Egyptians drowning, the angels are about to break into song. But God silences them declaring, ‘How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying’ (Talmud, Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39b).

Rabbi Johanan says that when the Egyptians are drowning in the sea, the angels want to sing a song of rejoicing. But God rebukes them, asking them rhetorically: ‘The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you want to sing songs?’

The Talmud reminds us that our personal elation should never make us forget the misfortunes afflicting others (Berachot 31a). The mediaeval commentaries, the Tosafot, say this is the source for the Jewish custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. And this is also given as the reason why Jews spill out drops of wine on Seder night, the night of the Passover meal, as a reminder that the cup of deliverance and celebration cannot be full when others have to suffer.

The mediaeval rabbis point out that God continues to pour out pity and mercy for the rest of life even while wrongdoers are destroyed. Even when the oppressors engage in gross evil, God is open to forgiveness.

When DreamWorks made the movie Prince of Egypt (1998), they realised it was not politically correct to show the Israelites singing for joy at the death of their foes, so they had them begin to sing the ‘Song of the Sea’ as soon as they left Egypt. The song ‘When You believe,’ which became a hit single, refers to God’s power but conveniently avoids any mention of violence.

‘The Song of the Sea,’ or ‘The Song of Miriam’, is so challenging, so disturbing, that the General Synod of the Church of Ireland dropped it from the canticles in the 2004 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

There is a dichotomy. If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough. But if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened. The Prophet Ezekiel reminds us: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live’ (Ezekiel 33: 11).

Perhaps the two shores of the sea represent two sides of the one story. Perhaps, for us, we must pass through the middle, preserving and valuing life, yet not drowning in war and hate. The middle path between justice and mercy is a difficult one to tread and at any moment we can be washed away. We need to tread carefully and try not to get wet.

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

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