Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Imminent Apocalypse in Evangelical Circles: World Change and Apathy

Ideas have consequences.

By way of example, modernism, the belief that things can and will get better by dint of modern technology and ingenuity, has paved the way for the slag heap, the tailings ponds, the endless barrels of nuclear waste, the mountains of short-lived computers and cell phones, the forever plastic.

My forays into the problems of pollution and neoconservative bellicosity have brought me into contact with an impenetrable and implacable enemy, an idea. Few ideas have as horrific consequences to the world as the evangelical belief in an imminent Apocalypse: specifically, global war and unchecked polluting of the planet.

[I am not knee-jerk anti-evangelical. Most Orthodox and Catholics also believe that these are the end times, and of that number many belief the Apocalypse to be imminent. I wish I could share the blame here (equal opportunity bashing), but I don't find the same attitudes coming out of the liturgical communities in response to an imminent Apocalypse. They seem to use it as a catalyst for an exploration of interior landscapes and for a trimming of their wicks, here and there a hysterical "the Beast is nigh!", but I don't see the same "if ... then" causality outside evangelical Protestantism that I see in her.]

There are two sides to this, and they usually involve the same people.

The world changers

This group tries to change the world in order to bring about the Apocalypse. Typically not fearing the horrors preceding the Eschaton because of a faith in a Rapture, they hope to speed up God's schedule. Their interpretation of future events is based on a narrow, literal reading of Revelation.

It was Protestant Zionists (like George Eliot) who began to advocate the need to "return" Palestine to the Jews, based on their reading of Scripture. It was evangelical support for Zionism (as well as world guilt) that caused the West to create the state of Israel*, and it is a continued evangelical support for Israel (in part based on a perceived need to sustain this precursor to the Apocalypse, in part based on a misunderstanding of Israel's place in salvation history) that gives the U.S. the mandate to buttress the state of Israel uncritically. Naturally, well-placed American Jews as well as neoconservative government strategists want Israel to continue to have the U.S. behind it, but although political heavyweights their numbers are by no means enough to justify unrelenting Congressional support. It needs the vast numbers of self-identified voting evangelicals to provide this justification.

Now I am beginning to see a new and troubling trend: evangelical support of reckless international belligerence on the grounds that "there will be wars and rumours of wars." Regrettably, this becomes an easily self-fulfilled prophesy. I will never be able to understand the hypocrisy of Christian warmongering, but there you have it. The evangelical voting block threw its weight behind the Republican incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq, supported an Iranian war, and is willing to discuss war with Russia and/or China. What kind of madness is this? It is the madness of those expecting not to live long who yet do not expect to live through the disasters to which their positioning may lead.

Please don't get me wrong. I do not believe evangelicals to be singlehandedly responsible for the continued existence of Israel or for the West's current wars. If evangelicals had that kind of power, abortion would long since be made illegal. But while they may not be able to alter America's culture of death and the unapologetic selfishness that permits abortion, they can certainly cease supporting the annihilation of others. And I suspect that without evangelical support of war there would be insufficient political capital to permit the democratic waging of war.

* Of course, it is the creation and continued existence of Israel that is the primary catalyst for Muslim anger at the West, and their subsequent insurgencies and acts of terror. It is not a "hatred of our freedom" that impels them but an abiding resentment for Western meddling.

The indifferent

This group drives me crazy, probably because I count members of my own family in it. This group fails to act in an ecologically sound manner because the Apocalypse is coming and, hey, the world is passing away in any case.

While the rational Christian, no matter how apocalyptic their mindset, can see that the phrase "end times" is sufficiently vague to allow for considerable liberty of interpretation, there are many Christians who are unwilling to take any action to save or preserve even a small portion of this world on the ground that this world is not going to last anyhow. To me, this is like soiling one's bedsheets or refusing to change soiled bedsheets on the grounds that the cleaning lady will be coming. Uh, when exactly? As someone with an apocalyptic turn of mind, I am willing to believe that the horrors of Revelation will unfold within my lifetime and Christ will return before I die, but I am equally willing to believe that the "end times" will continue another two hundred years before their final resolution.

A Christian ecology needs articulation, where the world is recognized as the qualified good that it is, and treated with the reverence and respect that should be accorded the work of God's hands. Unfortunately, I doubt that Christians will have much impact in this arena while the significant majority of North American Christians are completely apathetic.

- V.

8 comments:

Stephen said...

V – You mention a disturbing trend: “evangelical support of reckless international belligerence on the grounds that "there will be wars and rumours of wars." Regrettably, this becomes an easily self-fulfilled prophesy. I will never be able to understand the hypocrisy of Christian warmongering, but there you have it. The evangelical voting block threw its weight behind the Republican incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq, supported an Iranian war, and is willing to discuss war with Russia and/or China. What kind of madness is this? It is the madness of those expecting not to live long who yet do not expect to live through the disasters to which their positioning may lead.”

If these are, indeed, evangelicals they are evangelicals only in America and only a small minority. While many evangelicals support incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq, this support has nothing at all do with ‘end times’ theology. Evangelical support of recent war is driven by a concern for peace making rather than peace keeping. You may disagree with their rationale and even their exegesis, but I’m not sure you have any grounds for claiming that evangelicals support war on the basis that “there will be wars and rumours of wars.”

You also comment that, “While the rational Christian, no matter how apocalyptic their mindset, can see that the phrase "end times" is sufficiently vague to allow for considerable liberty of interpretation, there are many Christians who are unwilling to take any action to save or preserve even a small portion of this world on the ground that this world is not going to last anyhow.”

It is unfair to say that evangelical Christians are “unwilling to take any action to save or preserve…” Many (if not most) of us recognize that we have been called to be stewards of this earth. However, we also believe that the temporal concerns of the Old Testament foreshadow the more spiritual ones of the New. We as ambassadors of Jesus Christ have a new mandate and new priorities. While we as individual believers must be careful not abuse this planet, we ought not to spend our time saving plants when that time could be spent advancing the kingdom of God. Indeed, there is a new earth coming and a new heaven. This one will pass away – the souls who inhabit it will not. Moreover, Christ has called us to seek FIRST the kingdom of God and his righteousness… which means that everything else is secondary.

Stephen said...

Scripture seems to make a distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission. Gratuitous abuse of the environment is a sin of commission. Adultery, murder and theft are sins of commission. We are not invited to prioritize which sins of commission are more or less important. We are simply commanded not to do any of them ever.

However, sins of omission are far more complicated. Here priorities are far more important. I have to decide, for example, whether I am going to spend my day off cleaning the beach, helping pick up garbage off the side of the highway, playing video games, studying Scripture, or sharing the gospel with an unbeliever. If the choice is between video games and cleaning highways there is no question as to the duty of the Christian. Yet, when the choice is between sharing the gospel and picking up garbage I know where my mandate lies - my task is rescue souls as though pulling them from the flames (Jude). A fire fighter who stops to pick up garbage on the way to a call is negligent and worse. In our society he/she would be charged. Paramedics on the way the scene of an accident do not have the luxury of pausing to clean up litter on the side of the highway.

The task of Christians is no less urgent. We deal not even with human lives - we are dealing with souls.

I feel this urgency even as one who believes in the Sovereignty of God in salvation (electing and effectually calling sinners to salvation) because I want Christ to receive His reward. It amazes me when Arminians feel it less urgently than I do... how can Arminian especially even think of bothering with environmental clean up with millions have never heard the gospel?

V and E said...

Stephen:

As always, thanks for the comments.

Let me answer you point by point.

1. It may well be that there are few Canadian evangelicals of the type I describe. However, in the case of the U.S. I do not think that my characterization is far amiss. I know too many who fit that profile. And you are forgetting the Christian Right.

2. Waging a war does not beget peace. Waging a war begets war, or it begets death. The only peace that war brings is the peace of the grave.

3. There is a level of comfort with the idea of war in American evangelical circles that I can only link to a) a fundamental disconnect with reality and b) a presumption that wars fulfill Christ's checklist - the items on which He must cross out before He comes again. I assume the former. The latter is borne out by conversations that both E. and I have had with evangelicals, and by threads on-line.

4. I do not feel that pursuing the Kingdom of God and caring for His Creation is an either-or proposition. While saving souls is definitely the greatest of goods, I know that it does not exclude you (for example) from other goods that you view as self-evident. You are married, with two children: your prioritization of God does not mean that you neglect your wife or starve your children - obviously not.

What I am saying is that the list of goods that we need to view as self-evident should and must include the preservation and cultivation of what portion of the world God has given us, in a manner which does honour to Him.

- V.

Stephen said...

Thanks V for your response.

I will answer your points in order:

1. I am familiar with the Christian right - however, I do not see a relationsip between end times theology and war. Certainly there is a connection between end times theology and the environment... but I have never [and I read the literature all the time] come across the view point that war should be fought because the end is imminent.

2. So why then did Jesus not call us "peacekeepers" and why did God [throughout the Old Testament] wage war so often on His enemies using men like Gideon and David? The God described in the Scriptures is certainly not as anti-war as you are.

3. I am not sure what you mean here.

4. You are right about my family - but Paul did mention the family in Corinthians as something that would necessarily occupy our time as believers. He did not mention the environment. Paul's thoughts were constantly fixed on eternal things - I don't think he was nearly as concerned about the temporal.

You said, "What I am saying is that the list of goods that we need to view as self-evident should and must include the preservation and cultivation of what portion of the world God has given us, in a manner which does honour to Him."

That's a statement I can agree with but I wonder how you feel Christians ought to put that into practice. I think, for example, that the Emergent Church is mistaken when it treats beach clean-up as a part of advancing God's kingdom. I think also that one of our previous ministers here at this church was mistaken for encouraging church members to spend their Saturdays cleaning up the highway. I would rather that time were spent in prayer or Bible study or evangelization or worship... are those things better than video games - yes. But it is always a matter of priorities.

les said...

Interesting discussion. There is a branch of Presbyterianism, or least many of its proponents seem to have come from that background known variously as Reconstructionism, Dominion Theology, or Kingdom Now that hold a post-millennial eschatology and like traditional Christians through the ages, hold no concept of the Rapture.

The pivotal part of their theology is that Christ cannot return until his Kingdom is established here on earth and by that they mean politically as well as spiritually. To some this is passive, ie., preaching the gospel until most people on earth are Christian and desire a Christian government. Others are less patient. It would not surprise me to find them in support of military excursions, particularly into Muslim turf. This is kind of the mirror image of some Muslims who see the end-game as the world-wide caliphate and are willing to use force to that end.

But as to the Christian right in America, I don't see them as the war-mongers so much as the cheer-leaders and willing accomplices. Some have been caught by the neo-cons in the trap of supporting their military adventures, their "forward-leaning" posture, because of a promise of a pro-life quid pro quo at home, which never seems to get the attention promised.
GW did give the Christian right Alito and Roberts on the Supreme Court and that bought him a lot of support for the ongoing Iraq war, because it moved the Court even closer to what has for a long time been the holy grail for the American pro-life movement, the reversal of Roe v Wade.

Even in his farewell speech tonight, GW was still talking the talk on the American mission to make the world safe for democracy.

One of the most honest appraisals of the reason for the Iraq war came from so-called Arch Conservative himself, Rush Limbaugh. The reason? The free flow of oil at market prices.

Oil is the life-blood of the American economy as it is today, so that I think many Christians, and I can't say I'm immune myself, have alternately been seduced by the standard of living here, and/or been frightened of the prospect of the effects of ultra high oil prices.
And I think their end-times scenarios, and perhaps the notion of being raptured out before the real bad times hit, perhaps gives them a further rationalization for support of war.

V and E said...

Steve: I will reply at length later.

Les:
You say: "But as to the Christian right in America, I don't see them as the war-mongers so much as the cheer-leaders and willing accomplices. Some have been caught by the neo-cons in the trap of supporting their military adventures, their "forward-leaning" posture, because of a promise of a pro-life quid pro quo at home, which never seems to get the attention promised."

The "evangelical support of reckless international belligerence" that I cite is, I believe, the same thing as being "cheer-leaders and willing accomplices".

If it weren't for the fact that they do cheer, and that they are willing accomplices, there would be much less support for Republican assaults on foreign sovereignty.

As for warmongering, it pertains to more than the person who precipitates or tries to precipitate a war ... it includes those who advocate it or otherwise endorse it.

Suggesting, as it seems Stephen does, that peacemaking is done with a loaded gun (or a thousand of them) is a classic example of warmongering.

You mention the trap of supporting the Republicans "for the pro-life quid pro quo at home, which never seems to get the attention promised". I am glad you mention this, as it touches on why turning abortion into a single issue is so dangerous. Even if you are not a warmonger yourself, you just never know with whom you may have gotten into bed.

- V.

les said...

I guess I didn't understand the extent of what you meant by warmongering. Usually in a democratic society and even in monarchies of past times, the leader or king made some attempt at justifying any war. I think there are large numbers of Christians who "drank the kool-aid", perhaps with a willing blindness, when GW sent Powell to the UN to make his case for Iraq. At the time I remember listening to the entire build up and at the end thinking, "that's it?"
I tend to subscribe to the Catholic "just war" teaching, and believe me, the invasion of Iraq came nowhere near meeting the standard.

Having said that, I think there is a case to be made for the use of force by a nation, just as there is for use of force by police within a nation, but foreign wars normally come as a result of a threat to someone's empire.

Classic case in point, the Viet Nam war was the result of France's intractability on Viet Nam's desire for independence. At the close of WWII, communism was not a foregone conclusion for Ho Chi Minh. He sought support from the U.S. but when America supported France he went to China.

Stephen said...

I think that if we take the God of the Old Testament Scriptures seriously we have no basis for subscribing to a pacifist worldview.

We may argue over what it means to call a war just and what qualifies as a just war; however, it seems impossible to argue from Scripture for pacifism.

Peacemaking "with a loaded gun" may sound strange in our current cultural climate - but historically and Biblically peacemaking has always involved some level of violence... even on the cross.