With Billy in chains and guarded by a sentry, there is a profound incongruity in the presence of a chaplain, who ostensibly represents Jesus, the prophet of forgiveness, meekness, and mercy. Emphasizing this irony, Melville describes the chaplain as “the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War”—a man of the cloth who nevertheless “receives his stipend from Mars,” meaning that he is fed and paid by the navy, not the church. The warship employs the chaplain to place the ethical seal of approval on that which is “the abrogation of everything but brute force.” Religion does not transcend the state of war, but instead has to subordinate itself to “the discipline and purposes of war.”
The chaplain himself is quite powerless to change Billy’s fate. He is well aware of his subordinate role on board the warship, and knows that he is in no position to put his Christian code of morality above the commands of the officers. As such, he has to modify his convictions as the circumstances of war and naval discipline demand, comforting himself with the thought that Billy’s innocence will serve him well at Judgment, even if it cannot save him here on Earth. In any event, the chaplain’s discussion of salvation is lost on Billy, who receives his abstract talk more out of simple politeness than out of awe or reverence. And, sensing Billy’s good heart, the chaplain is content to leave it at that, withdrawing with a secular kiss of benediction before parting. The merging of religion with war is not specific to Billy Budd but, in fact, can be seen throughout history. The Christian religion itself did not begin to spread in earnest until it was adopted by bellicose Roman emperors such as Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century A.D. Similarly, organized religions have survived and flourished thanks to their military might. Upon close examination, the line in such cultural traditions begins to blur, leading us to question whether religion advances war or war advances religion.
In these chapters, Vere becomes the quintessential representative of the cold power of war. Even though the narrator notes Vere’s potential shock when Billy praises him while being strung up to the gallows, Vere remains the very image of military power. He is resembles “a musket in the ship armorer’s rack,” standing at attention without flinching. Like the ship’s chaplain, Vere does not feel completely comfortable in the role set out for him, but he nevertheless remains steadfast in his position as captain throughout the proceedings, sacrificing Billy as a “Lamb of God” to the greater good.
Outshining both the chaplain and Vere, however, Billy flourishes in his final sacrificial role. Indeed, from Billy’s initial stutter down to his last breath, the details of his final day and night recall the last days of Jesus. The Passion traditionally refers to the story of the suffering and death of Christ, and the narrator’s tale appears like the denouement of what could be called Billy’s Passion. Billy’s agony upon being accused was “as a crucifixion to behold,” and through his silence and shame until his death, he strikes a most familiar pose, right down to the sense of a resurrection. At the moment that Billy expires, the dawn breaks dramatically, and in an unusual and remarkable twist, Billy is free from the convulsions that normally accompany death on the gallows.
However, as the narrator clearly shows, Billy dies not as a Christian, but more vaguely as a spiritual man. Billy’s cryptic final blessing seems almost divine in its patient understanding of Vere, nearly outdoing even the repose of Jesus upon the cross, who questioned rather than praised his father. The narrator establishes that Billy welcomed the chaplain but he did not adapt to the chaplain’s particularly Christian advances. Instead, Billy was “spiritualized” in the end. As before, Billy appears to be connected to a more primitive, innocent, and childlike nature, but here the narrator shows that Billy’s simplicity is a spiritual alternative to Christian theology, not an abrogation of spirituality itself.