The Apocalyptic Metaphor - Part 4

Millennial Expectation and the Year 2000

View the Y2K Millennial Pinball Chart   View the Y2K Millennial Pinball Memo

Since the millennium comes at the end of the Tribulations, its approach is constantly expected, and not necessarily tied to any specific date. Nonetheless, with the approach of the year 2000, the sightings of millennialist signs began a dramatic growth curve.

The apocalyptic starting gun for the race to the year 2000 was fired in 1970 by Hal Lindsey whose book The Late Great Planet Earth has sold over 19 million copies. Lindsey argued that the end times had arrived and that Christians should watch for the signs of the times. While not all fundamentalists agreed with his specific analysis of Biblical prophecy, a significant number agree that the end times have either begun or are imminent.

The mainstreaming of millennialism received a major boost when, in 1983, Ronald Reagan cited scriptural authority to demonize the Soviet Union as an evil empire. Sara Diamond wrote of the influence of apocalyptic thinking on the new Christian Right in her prescient 1989 book, Spiritual Warfare. In her study The Religious Right and Israel: The Politics of Armageddon, Ruth W. Mouly showed how certain sectors of the Christian right mobilized tremendous support for the State of Israel during the Reagan Administration, in part because they believed Jews had to return to Israel before the prophecies of Revelation could be fulfilled.

Lamy argues that millennialism has many sources, but generally can be tied to societal conflict and resistance to change. On the other hand, Fuller argues that apocalyptic fervor is complex, and part of a "literary and theological tradition," that is "transmitted through a variety of cultural institutions that are relatively immune" to certain "social or economic forces."

Fuller ties the millennialist viewpoint to the larger issues of demonization and scapegoating when he argues that:
 

==="Many efforts to name the Antichrist appear to be rooted in the psychological need to project one's "unacceptable" tendencies onto a demonic enemy. It is the Antichrist, not oneself, who must be held responsible for wayward desires. And with so many aspects of modern American life potentially luring individuals into nonbiblical thoughts or desire, it is no wonder that many people believe that the Antichrist has camouflaged himself to better work his conspiracies against the faithful."


As Pagels dryly observes, "Satan has, after all, made a kind of profession out of being the 'other'."

Landes argues that the rise of what he terms "apocalyptic scapegoating" in the current period of millennialist expectation needs to be taken seriously, especially the resurgence of antisemitism. Given the centuries old Christian charge of evil linked to magical or devious Jews, at least some form of demonic antisemitism is intrinsic to most conspiracist thinking in Western cultures, even when it is unconscious. Modern theocratic movements of Christian nationalism are implicitly antisemitic, and much of the worldview of the patriot and armed militia movements draws from historic antisemitic conspiracist theories. In the case of some current neonazi movements such as Christian Identity, antisemitism is both overt and pivotal to the worldview. Christian Identity is discussed as a movement later in this book, but here we note its roots in Millennialist British Israelism, which employed antisemitism typical of many Christians during the Victorian period. Identity, as it emerged later in the US, adopted the myth that Jews were the literal spawn of Satan and cast Jews in the role of agents of the Antichrist.

Visions of the Antichrist are common not only in the far Christian right, but in relatively mainstreamed sectors of the new Christian right. As Fuller observes:
 

==="Today, fundamentalist Christian writers see the Antichrist in such enemies as the Muslim world, feminism, rock music, and secular humanism. The threat of the Antichrist's imminent takeover of the world's economy has been traced to the formation of the European Economic Community, the Susan B. Anthony dollar...and the introduction of universal product codes."


While antisemitism is center stage in some Christian millennialist scenarios, the potential for misogynist interpretations should not be overlooked. In describing the symbolism in Revelation, one recent Catholic commentary cautions against negative stereotyping of women. This is a needed caution, because anti-feminist, misogynist and homophobic interpretations of Revelation are widespread. A brochure with an apocalyptic subtext from Texas Eagle Forum was titled: Christian Be Watchful: Hidden Dangers in the New Coalition of Feminism, Humanism, Socialism, Lesbianism. As Lee Quinby has noted, while it is difficult to predict the outcomes of millennial moments, the current manifestation is unlikely to be good for women. Homophobic themes are also flourishing among contemporary apocalyptic movements.

The rotund numerological significance of the year 2000 has spawned millennialist expectations outside Christianity, with predictions of apocalypse appearing in 1997 from within "Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim sects." Pagels points out that the apocalyptic paradigm has influence far outside the fundamentalist Christian community:
 

==="Many religious people who no longer believe in Satan, along with countless others who do not identify with any religious tradition, nevertheless are influenced by this cultural legacy whenever they perceive social and political conflict in terms of the forces of good contending against the forces of evil in the world."


Quinby warns that "Apocalypticism in each of its modes fuels discord, breeds anxiety or apathy, and sometimes causes panic," and that this process can occur at the individual, community, national, or international level. "What makes apocalypse so compelling," explains Quinby, "is its promise of future perfection, eternal happiness, and godlike understanding of life, but it is that very will to absolute power and knowledge that produces its compulsions of violence, hatred, and oppression."

There are three related and overlapping tendencies involved. The Christian fundamentalist view that we are in the apocalyptic millennial end times prophesied in Revelation; a more generic and often secularized apocalyptic world view that is reflected in diverse movements ranging from armed survivalism to disarming New Age devotees; and the reflective expectation, both religious and secular, generated by the approaching turn of the millennium.

Landes believes that millennial moments can have positive outcomes, and that apocalyptic fervor can also be directed away from scapegoating and toward constructive and self-reflective renewal projects. As early as 1996 concerned Christians, Jews, Muslims, and secularists began meeting under diverse auspices to discuss plans to challenge groups that are exploiting millennialist fervor to spread the poison of bigotry and scapegoating. History will measure their success.

The vision of a totalitarian apocalypse based on conspiracist scapegoating would be a depressing way to end this discussion, so we borrow a theme from Eli Sagan, who despite his awareness of the link between totalitarianism and scapegoating, suggests, "There is as much cause for hope as for despair." Sagan notes that in every society where "paranoid modes of defense" are acceptable despite transformations toward more humane democracy, there are still a sizable group of persons "who have succeeded in their political lives, and in good part in their personal lives, in truly overcoming the paranoid position. They are willing to live without the defenses of aggressive warfare, racism and anti-Semitism, and the extreme competitive atmosphere that pervades every aspect of our social life."

Scapegoats can be injured or killed by those people—no matter what their mental state—who act out their conspiratorial beliefs in a zealous manner. The failure of political and religious leaders to take strong public stands against groups and individuals that demagogically spread scapegoating conspiracist theories encourages this dangerous dynamic. Yet when President Clinton spoke out against the rhetoric of demonization following the Oklahoma City bombing, he was criticized by pundits across the political spectrum.

Many questions need more study. When does demonizing rhetoric by demagogues motivate action among followers who are not mentally ill? Why and when do seemingly sane followers of ideological leaders begin to act out their beliefs through violence? When and how does apocalyptic violence become a mass movement? How and when can it become state policy ?
Right–wing populist movements can cause serious damage to a society because they often popularize xenophobia, authoritarianism, scapegoating, and conspiracism. This can lure mainstream politicians to adopt these themes to attract voters, legitimize acts of discrimination (or even violence), and open the door for revolutionary right–wing populist movements, such as fascism, to recruit from the reformist populist movements.

According to Richard K. Fenn:

==="Fascist tendencies are most likely to flourish wherever vestiges of a traditional community, bound together by ties of race and kinship, persist in a society largely dominated by large–scale organizations, by an industrial class system, and by a complex division of labor. Under these conditions the traditional community itself becomes threatened; its members all the more readily dread and demonize the larger society."
Fenn argues that apocalyptic themes that lead to this tendency can be found in all three of the political tendencies examined in this study: the Christian Right, Patriot and armed militia movements, and the fascist right.
By understanding the apocalyptic and millennialist roots of the conspiracist narratives peddled by right–wing populist forces, we can better understand why their claims—that seem on the surface to be outlandish—nonetheless resonate in certain alienated sectors of our society.

Conclusions

The history of apocalyptic fervor and millennial expectation is written by those secure in their knowledge that all previous predictions of terminal cataclysm have turned out to be false. After all, if the end of time ever arrives, it will leave behind no historians or sociologists, thus making skepticism an appealing and safe alternative. While believers prepare for the spiritual tsunami that will wash away both sins and sinners, skeptics make the assumption that it is just another wave that will eventually collapse, seeping away through the infinite sands of time. Yet no matter what we believe, we are all destined to experience the effects of the apocalypse, because it invents itself in the maelstrom of the human mind, and no logical arguments can stop the storm.

Mere observation is morally insufficient. We need to do damage control in anticipation of the apocalypse. The challenge is to respect devout religious belief while focusing societal energy on a millennial period of introspection and renewal rather than a period of fear and mistrust. We ignore apocalyptic fears and millennial expectation at our own peril, and by ignoring the trends, we put others in peril as well. Given the already evident tendency toward apocalyptic scapegoating as we approach the year 2000, it is entirely predictable that more people will be targeted as evil agents of the Satanic Antichrist, traitorous minions of the globalist new world order, or simply sinners to be disciplined and kept in line in religious campaigns of coercive purity.

In times such as these, history passes a harsh judgment on silence. Instead of waiting to see who is next on the list, we must speak out against all forms of apocalyptic demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism, because they are toxic to democratic discourse.

-Chip Berlet

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