Supplement for New Internationalist Magazine

Article by Chip Berlet - September 2004

Interview: Brenda E. Brasher

Brenda E. Brasher is in the Department of Sociology, King's College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She is on the board of directors of the Center for Millennial Studies.

New Internationalist: Why should we know something about apocalyptic thinking?


Brasher: The basic idea behind apocalyptic thinking is that things are not what they appear to be, and that there is going to be a day of reckoning in the future.

At that point in time, things will be set right in a confrontation with cosmic significance. This can play out in a number of different ways.

There is some ambiguity in studying apocalypticism as a master frame; it can be problematic because it can appear in different forms, often destructive but sometimes constructive.

For example, apocalyptic themes have been drawn upon by people who are in distress…people faced with horrific conditions and who are trying to sustain themselves, provide dignity, and preserve a sense of community. An example would be the role of apocalyptic Christianity among African slaves brought to the United States. This is also true of the anti-slavery abolition movements and the Civil Rights movement.

In this beneficent form apocalyptic belief provides a moral framework that resists the effects of chaos and provides a means by which communities can survive and endure.

For better of worse apocalyptic is a process of reconciliation. But how are things resolved? Apocalypticism is potentially beneficent or potentially destructive.

A crucial distinction is the ontological status of the person or group or idea being confronted; in other words, in the definition of the status of the “Other” in the anticipated confrontation. If the “other” is constructed as wholly evil, then the ramifications are really horrendous.

In this form, apocalypticism leaves no room for ambiguity in the stories told about the “Other.” There is a real hardening of sides. We are good, they are evil. This is not a disagreement, but a struggle with evil incarnate, so there is no structure for a peaceful reconciliation.

People are cast in their roles as either enemy or friend and there is no such thing as middle ground. In the battle with evil, can you really say you are neutral?

If you take a local conflict over land, such as that between Israelis and Palestinians, and you put this global apocalyptic framework in place, then it makes the conflict far more difficult to resolve. Local conflicts become globalized and made part of an unfolding universal story with cosmic dimensions. And it brings in players that you may or may not want aligned with you. For instance the Israeli government sees benefits when it cooperates with conservative Christian evangelicals who believe in an apocalyptic role for Israel and the city of Jerusalem. But the downside is that as the conflict gets generalized into an apocalyptic framework with notions of good and evil and cosmic significance, it makes it harder to take a conflict over land and find a practical resolution.


New Internationalist: Most people on the political left would deny that apocalyptic thinking has anything to do with shaping their idea of a vast conspiracy, saying they are not even religious. How would you answer this?

Brasher: We have not looked at the role of apocalyptic belief systematically and critically like we have done with issues such as racism and sexism. We tend to look at apocalyptic and conspiracist belief and laugh it off and push it aside. Yet in many ways it is pervasive. I came back to visit the United States after the attacks on 9/11 and was amazed to see apocalyptic rhetoric being spun out by elected officials and people on the right and left.

Studying apocalypticism in 2004 must be what it was like to be looking at issues of gender in the early 1900s. The language is simply not there to have a serious discussion. There is no name for the parts of the phenomenon we are studying.

Scholars have not communicated the concepts in a meaningful way to the larger public. Even with all the attention to apocalyptic belief that happened around the year 2000, the ideas never gained currency in the general public, or even in most of academia. The tools are there but people are not picking up to use them.

When people start to get it I will start to relax.


New Internationalist: Why do you think this is true?

Brasher: It's very embarrassing to most people, especially scholars, to discuss the role of apocalyptic thinking throughout history. Observers often see it as just silly and stupid. The only time most people get aware of it is when they are steeped in it. Then it's not something to be studied as apocalyptic, it is reality, and time is running out. Most people don't see apocalyptic belief as a common framework at all. There is still denial among most historians that it has any relevance.

New Internationalist: What function is served by circulating public claims of a vast secret conspiracy--whether or not Jews are the target of the claim?


Brasher: There is something empowering in asserting you are “in the know” and what other people think is true is really a fraud. You suddenly become one of the inner circle and other people are foolish because they don't get it. You are suddenly at the center of the community when before you were at the margins. Suddenly you have great wisdom and the other people are just pawns in a game only you understand.


 

 

 

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