June 16, 2006
Caption: Forget about the Forbidden Fruit. Venus decides to eat the Forbidden Tree.
This is the final post of a five part series on America’s current fascination with end time religion and its historical background.
To recap, in their original context, apocalyptic literature encouraged oppressed and persecuted communities to remain faithful in their nonviolent resistance to unjust and violent empires.
Outside of that context, the results are a little different. If there’s any lesson about the history of apocalyptic movements, it might be this: while no one knows what the future holds, the past would indicate that they don’t generally bring out the best in religion, politics or human behavior.
One problem with thinking and acting as if the end was at hand is that it encourages the same kind of short term thinking which can lead to desperate and regrettable actions in other human endeavors.
For example, when business leaders focus exclusively on the short term, the results can be disastrous for the community, workers, shareholders, and the business itself, as the case of Enron demonstrates.
As game theory demonstrates, people are more likely to cooperate with each other for mutual gain if they assume long term interactions. Conversely, in short term scenarios, they are more likely to defect or relate to others in hostile or uncooperative ways (see Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation).
More concretely, if one is convinced that a New Earth is about to come, there’s not much sense in trying to protect and conserve the earth we have. For examples from the past about how short term thinking about nature has resulted in human and ecological disasters, see Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
People who are convinced that God is about to strike the earth with plague and famine in fulfillment of prophecy are not likely to work hard to promote health or end hunger or live out any of Bible’s calls for justice and compassion.
Apocalyptic thinking can become disastrous when politicized, in part because it leads one to view one’s own side as all good and the Other, whoever that may be, as totally evil. This also the theology of suicide bombers.
Good religion reminds us that while we may have to take a stand in the conflicts of our time in the interests of justice, all conflicts on earth are between sinners.
Jesus taught that we should remove the logs from our eyes before we try to remove the speck from another’s. That’s hard to do when we are convinced that we are the children of light and everyone else are children of darkness. As Bob Dylan sang, “You don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.
There’s also something religiously dangerous about trying to gain converts on the basis of fear. To accept a religion to avoid suffering through the Great Tribulation and burning forever in the lake of fire is a little like agreeing to marry someone under threat of torture…not very likely to lead to a healthy relationship.
With or without an apocalyptic worldview, no one knows how long we have to live or what individual and collective ordeals or opportunities are ahead. The best we can do is live a full life in this world and try to do what is necessary so that others can do the same.
Two examples from the Jewish and Christian tradition suggest a better approach to Last Things than obsessing about the end.
According to the first century Jewish sage Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai, “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to greet the Messiah.”
On the same arboreal note, the Reformer Martin Luther once said, “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: APOCALYPTIC
by El Cabrero