This is my third post about great writers and what they have taught me about life and faith. You can read what George Orwell helped me to understand about fighting for a better world here and what Flannery O’Connor taught me about grace here.
But now to the novelist, playwright, and humorist, Kurt Vonnegut and what he has shown me about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
It might seem funny to draw on the work of one of America’s most well-known humanists to illuminate our understanding of the Sermon on the Mount, but Kurt Vonnegut talked a lot about Jesus. So much so, in fact, he has been called a “Christ-loving atheist.” Although, in his autobiographical book Palm Sunday, Vonnegut softened that description, referring to himself as a “Christ-worshipping agnostic.”
This isn’t to say he was much impressed with Christianity as an organized religion. He took the view that religious fanaticism (of any stripe) always leads to violence, and he despised American televangelists. But when it came to the Sermon on the Mount, he couldn’t get it out of his system. He once wrote:
“Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort. I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. … But I myself have written, ‘If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake’.”
Vonnegut’s initial interest in Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount began when he met the legendary American trade union organizer and Socialist Party leader, Powers Hapgood. A Harvard graduate from a wealthy Indianapolis family, Hapgood had become famous for organizing strikes with the United Mine Workers in the 1920s. Young Kurt Vonnegut, fresh out of the army after World War II, thought he might like to work for a labor union and managed to arrange to meet Hapgood for lunch.
Hapgood, who had been arrested and even jailed many times in his career, had just been to court that same morning, to testify about violence on a picket line some months earlier. As he sat down with Vonnegut for lunch, Hapgood reported that the judge had asked him, “Why would a man from such a distinguished family and with such a fine education choose to live as you do?”
“Why?” Hapgood said. “Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”
This reference to Christ’s teaching as the bedrock of public service and social justice took young Kurt by surprise. But it landed deep within his imagination. In fact, it shaped his thinking for the rest of his life. In a speech in the 1990s, he said, “I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far.”
Through Hapgood, Vonnegut not only read Matthew’s Gospel but also the speeches of another unionist and president of the Socialist Party of America, Eugene V. Debs. One passage from those speeches touched Vonnegut profoundly, and he quoted it often. While being sentenced to prison for sedition for speaking out against America’s involvement in the First World War, Debs said:
“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Vonnegut called those words “a moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount.” I don’t know how many times he read the sermon and Jesus’ teaching on mercy, justice, care for the needy, judging others, and forgiveness, as well as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) and the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), but in his writings Vonnegut appears to have deduced that, if followed, the Sermon on the Mount had the power to fashion two unique and precious things — a deep sense of community and a capacity for true kindness.
On the first thing, Vonnegut viewed the radical ethic presented in the Sermon on the Mount as having the potential to take strangers and convert them into a family. This, he wrote, explained “the fantastic growth of Christianity in a Roman Empire which was so cruelly opposed to it.” He continued:
“The state religion formed crowds of strangers to propitiate gods in enormous buildings or plazas. Christians prayed with cozy little bunches of friends who met regularly in cozy little places, which felt much better… What made Christianity comforting to so many was the congregation. Surprise, surprise, an extended family, as essential to human health as food.”
In a Playboy interview, Vonnegut said “I admire Christianity more than anything — Christianity as symbolized by gentle people sharing a common bowl.”
The Sermon on the Mount isn’t a set of rules for impressing a cold, harsh, distant taskmaster god. Instead, it is a guide for a whole new way of being human — Jesus’ way of mercy, grace and forgiveness — which in turn fashions us into a whole new kind of human society.
But secondly, Vonnegut was so touched by the way the Sermon on the Mount insists its adherents learn to be kind. Kindness, he came to believe in his irreverent way, was the answer to all humanity’s problems. In his 1999 commencement address at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, Vonnegut told the graduates:
“[Jesus’] greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words. They are the antidote to the Code of Hammurabi, a formula almost as compact as Albert Einstein’s E = mc2. Jesus of Nazareth told us to say these twelve words when we prayed: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ And for those twelve words alone, he deserves to be called ‘the Prince of Peace’.”
Kurt Vonnegut reminds me that Christians can attend church weekly and assent to all the right doctrinal beliefs; they can celebrate the eucharist and study the scriptures; they can learn Greek and Hebrew and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; they can volunteer for all manner of committees and boards and rosters; but it’s all for nought if they cannot be kind.
I think Kurt Vonnegut’s outlook is best summed up in a scene from his 1965 novel, God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater. Eliot Rosewater, not unlike Powers Hapgood, comes from a wealthy family but has developed a social conscience and spends his time (and his father’s money) doing good deeds for everyone in town. When a neighbor asks Eliot to say a few words on the occasion of the baptism of his newborn twins, Eliot crafts the following:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.