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
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
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
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
A crucial distinction is the ontological status of the person or
group or idea being confronted; in other words, in the definition
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.
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
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.