Apocalyptic Temptations and God’s Call to Love

Walking down the street, I see them: three young upper-middle-class people loudly talking on their way to a fancy dinner up the block. I am furious with them almost instantly: for their fine tailored clothes, for their trĂ©s chic dining plans, for the way they take over the street, for the air of smugness and entitlement that wafts from them, for the entirety of their class privilege and their apparent absolute lack of thought about the 99.9 percent of the world that doesn’t get to have what they have, to do what they do. In that moment, I could kill them. I could absolutely pick up a gun and do them in, and all that they represent to my poor, besieged social justice-minded heart.

This oblivious group, however, is not the only set of people I would like to remove from human existence. Recently I saw a book titled The Grabbing Hand: Government Pathologies and What to Do About Them. I don’t know who wrote it, but I’d like to take all of their belongings and leave them helpless in a run-down apartment with lead and rats and roaches, and with no health insurance. (I’d at least like to write a book in response: “The Greedy Bastards: Market Pathologies and What to do About Them.”) I have cruel fantasies about how to take vengeance on those who destroy our physical, natural, emotional, mental and spiritual environment. On various occasions, I have been tempted to aim a weapon at Jerry Falwell, Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Dice Clay and all the other homophobes. The racists, too. And at the men who wolf-whistle at women in the street just to show their power, not because of any attraction. Ultimately, I sometimes wish I could do away with all the people who disrespect, demean, devalue and ultimately diminish other people simply because they can.

I am, of course, well aware that the paragraphs above reveal my own proclivities to hate, and to diminish others in the process of my hating. But darn it, isn’t my anger justified if it’s toward people who hurt other people, animals and the earth? Doesn’t it become prophetic then? And didn’t even the prophets fantasize violently about the downfall of their opponents?

In James Morrow’s moving and thought-provoking novel Only Begotten Daughter (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1990), Julie Katz is the messiah of the late 20th/early 21st century, and Phoebe is her (bisexual) best friend, born of a lesbian mother through artificial insemination. Fundamentalists (who call themselves Revelationists) play an important, dangerous role in the story, managing to turn New Jersey into a “Handmaid’s-Tale”-esque theocracy, torturing and executing religious dissenters. The Revelationist leader, Billy Milk, is a sick and sad demagogue who, over the course of the novel, blows up a sperm bank (killing Phoebe’s father when a brick wall falls on him and cuts him in half at the midriff), burns Phoebe’s mother alive at the stake for being a lesbian, and crucifies Julie Katz (again, Phoebe’s best friend). Late in the novel, after all the bloodshed, Phoebe encounters Billy Milk and has a gun in her hand but decides that killing him would not be worthy of her. After she leaves him (p. 302), the following occurs:

Crack: a long forking thread of lightning, slicing open the sky. Whitening the bog. Striking Milk.

Phoebe discovers that the lightning has killed Milk by bisecting him lengthwise, just as his bombing bisected Phoebe’s father at the waist. As I read this, I think, Damn. Why can’t God do that for me, striking down my foes in just such a perfect way?

John Dominic Crossan, the distinguished Biblical scholar, has an answer for me, one that he shares with such thoughtful theologians as Walter Wink and also with such social justice activists as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These days, Dr. Mel White (Jerry Falwell’s ghostwriter for many years, now an out gay Christian) is using this same insight to develop a nonviolent resistance movement to convert Jerry Falwell to homo-positivity. All of them, regardless of the religion they practice(d), got the insight from the story of Jesus. I find Crossan’s approach most helpful, so I will use his terminology here. The relevant distinction, for our purposes, is between apocalyptic and ethical eschatology. But first, some context is in order.

In his book The Birth of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1998, chapters 15-16), Crossan distinguishes between three kinds of eschatology: ascetic, apocalyptic, and ethical. He first defines eschatology (p. 282) as a “fundamental negation of the present world’s normalcy based on some transcendental mandate.” People who are happy and content with the world as it is, such as the dinner party described above, do not have eschatological outlooks. People for whom normalcy works, who are successful under current conditions, have no reason to believe that God desires a different social order. Usually, eschatology is most appealing to those who are suffering cruelly due to the unjust behavior of others with more power. Crossan means the following forms of eschatology to apply to the Jews in Jesus’ day, but it is fairly easy to see how lesbian / gay / bisexual / transgender people could wind up holding each of these eschatological outlooks.

An ascetic eschatology (try saying that one ten times fast!) involves looking back to the Golden Era, the Garden of Eden, the Primal State where all was perfect before “the fall” (however one conceives of that event) took place. The practitioner then tries to mimic that primal condition through detachment from worldliness, negating things as they are “by withdrawing from normal human life in terms of food, sex, speech, dress or occupation” (Crossan 1998: 283). This strategy involves giving up on improving the problematic situation(s), and retreating instead. Ascetic eschatologies tend to be purist and puritan, perfectionist and highly demanding. Celibacy and the monastic life represent historically popular forms of turning away, but others are possible as well, with workaholism and exercise addiction among the current manifestations of ascetic eschatological practice. Such practices are problematic because they represent, in effect, a relinquishing of any participation in actual struggles for justice, and because of their implicit rejection of people as well as troubling practices. Though ascetics throughout time have gathered in groups, today’s ascetics are often highly individualistic, and focus on perfecting themselves at the expense of other people – whether spiritually, physically or mentally. Finally, while I know some joyful ascetics, it is hard to believe that asceticism is not, at least some of the time, a form of sour grapes.

Apocalyptic eschatology, in contrast, looks ahead to the “end-times” (usually right around the corner) when God will restore justice and punish the wicked and unrighteous. This approach may or may not involve any particular actions, since it is also a kind of giving up on human improvement, based as it is on waiting for God to break in and make everything right again. The main difficulty with such a position is made clear in Crossan’s (1998: 283) appraisal of the standard apocalyptic scenario: “There is too often a transition from justice to revenge, a divine vengeance that results in human slaughter. When those two aspects are combined, apocalyptic eschatology almost inevitably presumes a violent God who establishes the justice of nonviolence through the injustice of violence … [A]pocalypticism is perceived as a divine ethnic cleansing whose genocidal heart presumes a violent God of revenge rather than a nonviolent God of justice.” You might have noticed that this essay begins with what is essentially a confession of my temptation to hold violent apocalyptic views when faced with injustice, thus the title. But if I am so concerned with those who are violent, isn’t it rather inconsistent (at best) and hypocritical (at worst) for me to accede to my own violent hopes – even just in theory? If I don’t like human ethnic cleansing, whether it takes place in Kosovo, Wyoming, or Colorado, how could I possibly countenance divine ethnic cleansing? Ah, but what is the alternative? Permanent frustration? Ulcers? Doesn’t my anger count too? Isn’t injustice wrong? And yet, isn’t it clearly winning on almost all fronts?

Here, we come to the heart of the solution lived by Jesus and followed by Gandhi, King, White, Wink, Crossan and others, including Albert Schweitzer. Ascetic and apocalyptic eschatologies are not the only ways of negating an unjust present. There is also what Crossan terms ethical eschatology, the refusal to accept injustice by living in nonviolent protest against a violent world. Here is a fuller description of this approach, again from Crossan (1998: 279, 284):

If enough people … lived in nonviolent protest against systemic evil, against the normalcies of this world’s discrimination, exploitation and oppression – the result would be a new world we could hardly imagine … Ethical eschatology (or ethicism) negates the world by actively protesting and nonviolently resisting a system judged to be evil, unjust and violent … It looks at the systemic or structural evil that surrounds and envelops us all and, in the name of God, refuses to cooperate or participate any longer in that process. Instead, it sets out to oppose systemic evil without succumbing to its own violence. In ethicism, as opposed to apocalypticism, God is waiting for us to act … Ethicism is present wherever nonviolent resistance to structural evil appears in this world. And the courage for it derives from union with transcendental nonviolence.

This description requires a bit more discussion in order to see just how radical the idea of ethical eschatology is. First, the idea that human beings could actually create such a just, peaceful world is almost unbelievable. We’ve never been able to do so in the past. However, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., were among the ethical eschatologists that were able to accomplish at least some facet of their goals. In both cases, success (such as it was) came because of the sheer number of people willing to put their bodies on the line for their cause. A tremendous number of people would need to gather together in order to create a significant enough tidal wave to wash away the rock of hardened hearts, stony political/economic/social systems, and rigid prejudices. But each person that joins in advances the possibilities a little bit further. Moreover, by letting lives lived nonviolently become a protest, ethical eschatologists begin to live in the world they wish to bring into being. It is in this sense that such an approach is eschatological.

Second, ethical eschatologists use the liberation theological model of starting with sociological reflection on their own lives and moving out to analyze the world around them. Such a systematic approach is necessary given the systematic nature of injustice, which hides its face in individualistic philosophies but remains structured around the experiences of different (and differently valued) groups. The normalcy of inequality, with which I began this essay, is a central aspect of both the problem and the solution, and requires that inequality be rendered abnormal (through nonviolent protest) so that new norms can be created. Each person must begin with him- or herself because there is no other way to begin that retains integrity. But each person must turn, sooner or later, to the experiences of others, because the tragedy of injustice is precisely the destruction of people who are, in fact, connected with everyone else at some level.

Third, ethical eschatologists act rather than waiting for an outside force to do so, finding ways to refuse to support the system, actively resisting injustice and thereby negating what is (wrong). Resistance can be as small as challenging a racist, sexist or homophobic comment, and as large as organizing a national civil disobedience action. Resistance must be as systematic as injustice, and must meet it on all of its fronts. This, however, is an ultimate goal; ethical eschatologists start wherever they can bear to begin, and go as far as they can. The more people are involved, the more extensive the change will be.

Fourth, ethical eschatologists renounce violence because it offers no permanent solution to the problem of injustice. It is profoundly difficult to take seriously the idea of renouncing violence, yet if violence is present, injustice is still locked into place, and it is too easy for the cycle of violence begun by oppressors to speed up, ultimately destroying even the best-intentioned violent liberationists. Nonviolent activism is not passivity. It is activism that does not “play the game” of degrading the oppressor.

Finally, while ethical eschatology may look suspiciously like traditional political activism, it takes place in God’s name (or, rather, in any of God’s many names), and draws on the participants’ connection with the Holy to empower and encourage people to take action. Ethical eschatology is prophetic, not just in terms of denouncing injustice, but in its explicit connection with the Biblical prophetic tradition. It welcomes people of all faiths or none at all, but is itself spiritually motivated, and its participants are strengthened and renewed spiritually over the course of their ethical eschatological actions. Ethical eschatology requires trust that something larger than just the people involved is at work in the process, even if the “something larger” is simply the spirit of the community.

What does all this have to do with God’s call to love? That Jesus was an ethical eschatologist, even without actually using the term, I take as a reasonable position. His teachings (especially in the parables and the Sermon on the Mount/Sermon on the Plain), his healing work and his open table are all clear examples of nonviolent protest, and contemporary Biblical scholarship suggests that many of the more apocalyptic passages may be later inserts by the early church. Given that the early Jewish Christians faced oppression on all sides, the apocalyptic temptation may have been too great for them to renounce entirely. But it need not be too great for us. Perhaps we can begin to choose the ethical option more broadly as people of faith in a profoundly troubled age.

Making this choice is not easy. It has often led to martyrdom historically, and it requires an overwhelming surrender to God, or it is impossible to carry out on a day-to-day basis. Even the surrender must be constantly renewed, or the difficulty of both challenging evil and remaining wholly nonviolent will be too much to bear. But I am slowly, grudgingly, coming to accept that this is the only way to truly challenge the many inequities of our age. I am becoming convinced that following the commandment to love my neighbor means adopting some form of ethical eschatology, believing in it and living it.

If this is the case, love is not the pastel, privatized word that our culture has made it. Love is about boldly and fiercely, yet gently and peacefully, seeking justice. The love of God is not simple piety, but entails providing for those in need (Matthew 25: 31-46) – always, no matter what. And love of neighbor is not an abstraction, but is inherent in every single decision we make. Every time we challenge injustice on any level, we are acting in love, and every time we let stand the hundred thousand ways that people are demeaned or unduly privileged, we are not taking up the work that is before us. If this is love, it will be the toughest demand that is ever made on us. But if God is love, God will be present in our actions, supporting us every step of the way.

I am reminded by Paul (1 Corinthians 13) that having prophetic powers, great knowledge, and faith strong enough to move mountains won’t help me do my part without love. Apocalyptic eschatology is so very tempting, but it is both arrogant and resentful, and it doesn’t hope or endure things very well, insisting as it does on having its own way. If I am not struggling to love the privileged dinner party mentioned above as part of God’s creation, I am partaking in some way of the very dismissal of the value of others for which I would criticize them. Surely, if I believe that love is something we all owe each other, I owe it even to those with whom I profoundly disagree about the value and worth of all people. Let the young wealthy folks enjoy their dinner. I’ve got to catch up with some people, and with the Holy, about changing the world.