the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence,
and the violent take it by force

The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past Release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come.

So begins the second part of Angels in America. And that question persists. Two men are dying of AIDS, often alone, in humiliating pain and decay. Another has left his wife, whose addiction to prescription drugs exacerbates her hallucinations. And behind all the doom, God is gone.

Quite literally gone, actually. Through a rather convoluted sequence of events, an Angel visits the protagonist, Prior Walter, and she declares him a prophet. From under the floor of his apartment kitchen, she shows him a sacred text, The Anti-Migratory Epistle, and the mystic peep-stones he must use to read it. (Yes, like that other story of an angel in America.) God, she says, has left the scene, inspired by human restlessness, and the only way to get him back, to make him mend everything, is, in the Angel’s words, to “STOP MOVING!”

In the plays’ fanciful cosmology—part Kabbalah, part Mormonism, with a pagan or secular vision of human heroism—God created humans after he got bored with the Angels. As Prior explains, “In making us God apparently set in motion a potential in the design for change, for random event, for movement forward,” and at that point, “everything started to come unglued.” God became enamored of our way of life, of change, of arbitrary doing and moving, so much so that, one day, he left. And never came back. Hence the Epistle, and Prior’s prophetic call. But he can’t fulfill that vocation; moving, desiring, changing, he says—“it’s what living things do.” If we fix (or affix) ourselves, then God will fix everything else. But that doesn’t seem possible. And until it is, God remains gone.

“I smell a motif,” one incredulous character says. “The man that got away.” Which is exactly where God’s absence fits here: Prior’s lover leaves him after AIDS begins to ravage Prior’s body. Harper’s husband leaves her after falling in love with someone else (Prior’s lover, actually). In the play and in history, the federal government notoriously dragged its feet in response to the AIDS crisis (Angels is set in the ’80s). And God is even less present than all of them. As Harper says of her husband, “I don’t think God loves His people any better than Joe loved me.”

The plays’ religious imaginary is eclectic, and it’s obviously not trying to be a guide for believers of any kind (Jewish, LDS, Christian, or humanist). It’s worth pondering theologically for this reason, though: Kushner presents a faithful depiction not of any orthodoxy but of widespread longing and abjection in a world where God feels markedly absent.

Prior’s own response to this absence provides some catharsis and clarity, since he says with bluntness what lots of us feel but don’t express. When he arrives in Heaven—which “has a deserted, derelict feel to it, rubble is strewn everywhere”—he confronts the Angels, and telling them the truth they all know:

He isn’t coming back.
And even if he did …
If He ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, … if after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century He returned to see … how much suffering His abandonment had created, if He did come back you should sue the bastard. That’s my only contribution to all this Theology. Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He.

This indictment of God is more audacious than most believers could muster, but he gives voice to a pang of indignation that throbs in every body, at some point.

And who should take this divine “paternity suit” but a human lawyer, the other character afflicted with AIDS (which at this point has killed him, actually). Prior glimpses him somewhere in the afterlife, and he doesn’t mince words with God: “I gotta start by telling you you ain’t got a case here, you’re guilty as hell, no question you have nothing to plead.” To that resentful question, “Where was God when—?” our worst suspicions are confirmed. God really was negligent. But as in life, this lawyer has no scruples defending perpetrators. “[N]ot to worry, darling,” he reassures Him, “I will make something up.”

This man offering to defend the Almighty, with less-than-honest tactics—“yes I will sing and eviscerate, I will bully and seduce”—is one of a few characters in Angels based on a real person. This one’s name is Roy Cohn. He was a virulent supporter of Senator McCarthy, crusading against suspect communists and homosexuals and vying for harsh punishment, even execution when possible (as for Ethel Rosenberg, who appears in Angels to haunt Cohn). But, like most of us, he was a hypocrite: until his death, he claimed what was killing him was liver cancer, despite knowing it was AIDS, and it was not contracted from intravenous drug use. After a lifetime of suits and indictments directed against him, he was finally disbarred by New York State for “fraud, conspiracy and corporate manipulation” (the charges listed in his obituary). He was disbarred only six weeks before he died of a disease he also misrepresented. This is the man giving legal advice to God (among other powerful personages).

Even in the afterlife, Roy is still abusing the law, and this is the last thing he does in the plays. But the last thing that is done for him is extraordinary. Roy (a Jew) wanted his father’s blessing before his father died; he never got it. Yet after his death, those who knew him only in mutual hatred convene to bless him: Belize, the poor black nurse Roy relied on and reviled; Louis, his protégé’s lover, also Jewish but politically opposite Roy; and even Ethel Rosenberg, a victim of his nationalist furor. They gather to pray for him, to give him the words his own father denied him. Although Louis protests, Belize insists,

He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe … A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at least. Isn’t that what the Kaddish asks for?

So Louis, with the ghostly Rosenberg in his ear, chants over Roy the funeral Kaddish, an exaltation of God’s name and an appeal for peace and flourishing. Louis can’t even remember it, but Ethel, unseen, gives him the words. They conclude (in Hebrew): “He Who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. You sonofabitch.”

The generosity and mercy here made me cry. What I found more moving even than this fictional scene is that Tony Kushner, the playwright, a real person, wrote it for Cohn, another real person. The AIDS memorial quilt, that enormous register of the dead, remembers him under similar terms, with three short words. As anyone could tell, he was a bully and a coward, but he was also a victim. Even if Roy’s last words are curses, Kushner’s last words for him are blessing.

Which is really the heart of the play. Themes include political questions, the problem of evil, the absence of God, self-destructive desire, the possibility of change, the inevitability of death—for individuals, for everything—but the last word, and the last hope, really is Blessing. Or, more specifically, “more life.” That’s how Kushner renders it; he stole the expression from Harold Bloom, in the latter’s writing on the Hebrew Bible. This language of blessing is not incidental for either writer, though, and each offer thoughtful reflections on their relationship to God.

Kushner has written, “I want to be both a God-believing Jew and a historical materialist socialist humanist agnostic”—a convoluted description, certainly, but an honest one (even his “want” to believe, perhaps in the face of doubt, is a moving claim). With a similar ambivalence and vigor, Bloom has said, “I am nothing if not Jewish. … But I can’t understand a Yahweh, or a God, who could be all-powerful and all-knowing and would allow the Nazi death camps and schizophrenia.” Bloom’s voice resonates in Kushner’s (through Prior). It is the problem of evil, always, always—not an intellectual puzzle, but the ache of 6 million halted hearts, and many, many more.

The Shoah (“the catastrophe”) is for many people, especially for Jews, the unrelenting question—the supreme indictment—against God. It is an everlasting obstacle, for which all attempted answers must be silent. Angels does not mention the Holocaust, but the annihilation of AIDS would have resonated in Kushner’s memory, with a similar accusatory lament. That Prior sounds like Bloom is evidence.

Certainly one of the most acute examples of a human response to God’s absence is Elie Wiesel’s Night. In one scene, he recounts the moment when he heard his fellow Jewish prisoners chanting Rosh Hashanah prayers, but he could only stand apart, in bitter silence. “I was the accuser,” he writes, “God the accused.” How could he feel otherwise?

Like the Jews in Angels, Wiesel remembers funeral Kaddish in his own time, too. He wonders grimly, “I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.” These men said their own burial prayers, but he can’t bring himself to chant it. How could he thank and praise a God silent to their moaning? Eventually, the prisoners stop praying even for their deceased loved ones, so profound is their numbness.

More haunting even than this scene is a certain hanging Wiesel had to watch. He saw many other executions, but this one was unique, to everyone who saw it. On the gallows, standing before the whole camp, two men asphyxiated quickly under their own weight, like legions before them. But between them, the third victim squirmed for more than half an hour. He was still a boy, angelic and silent. Wiesel records the moment with solemn reserve:

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
‘For God’s sake, where is God?’
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
‘Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…’

This extraordinary response moved Jürgen Moltmann, a conscripted Nazi soldier who became a theologian, to include it in his own work, The Crucified God. And after the quotation, he can only affirm Wiesel’s inner voice: “Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon.”

Which is how God often feels to sufferers. “Sue the bastard for walking out,” Prior fumes. “He ought to pay.” This is dangerous talk here. It’s not only doubt, but outright blasphemy, the stuff of damnation. Can we say such a thing? Even if it feels true, do we dare to echo Prior?

The word of the cross is an absurd “Yes!” because we have already done it and can do no worse. Moltmann worries that bad theology would “make God a demon”; God let us malign him that way (“He hath a devil, and is mad”). Prior calls him a bastard; God let us think ourselves, in every way, more legitimate than he was (“We be not born of fornication”). God let us hurt him. The comfort of the horror of the crucifixion is a threefold mystery, and works in paradoxical ways: as we usually say, it is where God suffers for us, to absolve and liberate us. And as Moltmann illuminates, it is also how God puts himself alongside us, to suffer with us. But it serves yet another purpose, one still more stunning: the crucifixion is how God suffers under us, taking all the rancor, all the hypocrisy, all the guilt that we tremblingly brandish at the Absence, and he lets it crush him.

And that antagonism is how Angels lets us relate to God. We don’t just miss or accuse him. We fight him, and tell him exactly what we think and feel, knowing that he can take it, and that he invites us to do so. Like good Jews and Mormons, the main characters in the plays all know about Jacob, who, as Dickinson writes, “Found he had worsted God!” So they follow his example. Opposing his divine vocation, Prior wrestles the Angel, declaring, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” And he prevails, and gets to take his case to the rest of the Angels. And when he finally gets to Heaven, to present his case, to get his Blessing (“more life”), he meets his lover’s dead grandmother, who implores him, “You should struggle with the Almighty! … It’s the Jewish way.”

Yet this Jewish God, who shows himself in godforsakenness, who lets us pin him down and pin him up doesn’t put up a fight. Because though our fight is with him, his isn’t with us. He’s here to conquer Sin and Death. And he’s on our side. He is the Resurrection. He is More Life.