Suspect Millennium: Remembering Apocalypse
I was raised to suspect promises of millennium. Born the son of German immigrants who emigrated in 1950 from the ruins of post-war Germany to build a new life in Canada, I grew up hearing stories of the tragedy and chaos that comes from fanatical belief in utopia. My extended family learned the hard way to become doubters of epic schemes to build a global new Jerusalem, and to be skeptical of those who would depend on deus ex machina to save them from the shipwrecks of history.
Throughout it all, the book of Revelation guided them on their way, first as enthusiastic supporters of a Revelation-inspired Thousand Year Reich, and then as those broken under history’s wheel to give voice to trauma and loss, and a more humble path of this-worldly faith. From the reminiscences gathered from apocalypse past came a renewed sense of the gift of the present and the means to cross-examine millennialist schemes that promise a new world but leave behind a wasteland in realising it.
We would gather as a family after church on Sunday mornings for the family meal. The abundance of the table, the themes of the pastor’s sermon, pieties, and religious certainties (paraded as good works by the more certain congregants of our solemn Lutheran assembly) would become the prompt to rehearse the apocalypse of 1945. As Germans living in western Poland at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, my family was numbered among the 13 million ethnic Germans scattered across Eastern Europe from the Oder River to the Black Sea and beyond. As the military machinery of a fascist-inspired millennium rolled through their Polish villages in September 1939, they, like millions, met the German army with enthusiasm, wearing proudly the lapel insignia of the Nazi Party, caught up in promise that a pure and superior race would build a national socialist workers’ Paradise. By January 1945 their Hallelujahs (borrowing a phrase from Leonard Cohen) were all broken as now another army bringing another version of workers’ millennium marched westward. The Soviet soldiers of the Great Patriotic War were convinced by their personal experience of Nazi brutality as well as Stalinist propaganda that the ethnic Germans who were vanquished as the war progressed westward were depraved creatures fit for torture and liquidation. The Russian advance and the reports of its brutality resulted in the largest recorded migration of people in history, as some 8 million Germans fled for their lives leaving the rest behind to murder, rape, plunder, deportation, concentration and labour camps, and unspeakable horror.
Refusing to believe reports of the defeat and retreat of the German army, my family was completely unprepared when they were given twenty-four hours to evacuate their villages and join the chaotic stream of refugees westward. In the end, after surviving Soviet labour camps, disease, starvation, and a hair-raising defection from Russian-occupied Germany, they arrived in Canada with little more than the clothes on their back to create a new life for themselves. Along the way, the book of Revelation accompanied them. Joining their voices to the subaltern victims of Rev 6:10–11 crying for justice in history, and to John’s cross-examination of the imperial power masquerading as divinity, arrogant in its exercise of economic and military domination (13:1–18), the themes and apocalyptic tropes of the Apocalypse gave voice to a trauma that would otherwise have remained mute. They helped forge a courageous identity of faithful witness even as despair threatened to swallow them whole and leave them speechless from adversity.
The abundance of our Sunday morning feast and the semi-liturgical recitation of the traumatic events of January 1945 became the place of anamnesis — a making present through memory of loss, trauma, and tragedy — and, as a consequence, a profound sense of the present and one’s responsibility to it amidst the fragility, ambiguity, and paradox accompanying every life. As James Berger insightfully argues, post-apocalypse stories — narratives of historical trauma paradoxically told “after the end”— become “a crux or pivot that forces a retelling and revaluing of all events that lead up to it and all that follow.”1 Memory of apocalypse 1945 was a way of working through and meditating on that loss and the life that remained as a gift of survival.
More importantly, it became the occasion for cross-examining and maintaining suspicion of the victors’ version of millennium. Having fled one promise of millennium, my family arrived in Canada just in time to be embraced by another. Canada’s postwar, resource-based economy helped to fuel what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, centred around America’s Cold War foreign policy. Even as the United States practiced international brinkmanship, promoting and in some instances installing dictators to preserve or expand its military and economic hegemony, its Hollywood culture industry encouraged mass deception in a series of epic World War Two movies representing America as a righteous nation rising up to rid the world of Nazi evil and tyranny, encouraging illusions of Leave It to Beaver innocence at home and a divinely appointed role to create a world safe for democracy abroad.2 We were unbelievers. “The Germans are always the evil ones,” family members would comment either in German or with heavy accents. “But it is not only the Germans who are capable of doing evil in this world.” Remembering Apocalypse thus became the means of urging a hermeneutic of suspicion on an American worldview broadcast through Canada and beyond. In an essay written exactly during the time when we were gathering Sunday by Sunday to remember apocalypse, Robert Bellah, exploring the civil religion of John F. Kennedy and the hope inspired by America’s example for “a new civil religion of the world,” described the greatest challenge to American identity to find the means to use its supreme military power to spread its millennial vision of peace and democracy across the planet. To renounce what he called “the eschatological hope of American civil religion,” Bellah argued, would be “to deny the meaning of America itself.”3 But having lived through the wreckage of two versions of millennium, the promise of a third international one was deeply unnerving. The abundance of the Sunday feast and its accompanying recitations of remembered apocalypse invited not the spread but the renunciation of the millennial — even the kinder, gentler, more cooperative version invoked by Bellah —and its replacement with a less certain, more humble path in thanksgiving for the fragile possibility of a vulnerable present. If there were to be hallelujahs, they would have to be broken ones.
Losing My Religion
There were no broken Hallelujahs when President George W. Bush in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 presided over The Day of Prayer and Remembrance ceremony at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001. Foreshadowing the militancy that would unfold in the months and years to come, the Hymn of the Day was the Revelation-inspired “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the strident Hallelujahs of its refrain reinforcing President Bush’s promise to unleash American jihad upon the earth. “Just three days removed from these events,” President Bush observed, “Americans do not yet have the distance of history. But our responsibility to history is already clear: To answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”4
What has unfolded since is a carefully composed millennial script that repeatedly casts America in the role a righteous nation appointed by divine providence to bring freedom and democracy to the world, and to lead humankind toward a utopia of liberty and free-market prosperity. “Eventually, the call of liberty comes to every mind and every soul. And one day, freedom’s promise will reach every people and every nation,” a vatic President Bush promised the citizens of Slovakia during his European tour in February 2005.5 “The road of Providence is uneven and unpredictable,” he concluded, ending his February 2, 2005, State of the Union Address, “yet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom.”6 The night before, he offered a divine cosmological vision: “[W]e [Americans] have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom, and America will always be faithful to that cause.”7
Repeatedly in his speeches President Bush invites his American listeners to imagine themselves on their knees in prayer — righteous innocents in a to-the-death battle against the incarnation of evil. Accusing “the terrorists” as counterfeits of God he alleged in a speech to the Department of Defense shortly after September 11 that theirs “is the worst kind of violence, pure malice, while daring to claim the authority of God. We cannot fully understand the designs and power of evil. It is enough to know that evil, like goodness, exists. And in the terrorists, evil has found a willing servant.”8 In contrast to the pure religion of self-sacrificing Americans, “they celebrate death, making a mission of murder and a sacrament of suicide.”9 “The ideal of America,” he proclaimed on the first anniversary of 9/11, “is the hope of all mankind [sic]…. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.”10
The media often mistake this rhetoric as reflecting a pre-millennialist, dispensationalist Evangelical religion they allege President Bush professes. On this account, Bush is secretly steered by a Left Behind worldview in which he expects an imminent end of the world. So far, however, if Bush is a dispensationalist, he has kept his End-time sentiments to himself. A widely publicized behind-closed-doors meeting with Tim LaHaye and other pre-millennialist Fundamentalist leaders constituting the Council for National Policy in 1999, resulting in the Religious Right’s endorsement of Bush’s presidential candidacy, has fuelled the speculation that President Bush is a believer in Doomsday.11
In fact, the truth is far more dangerous than that. One of the paradoxes of the Bush administration’s allegiance with the Religious Right is that the President is closer to the international utopian vision of Woodrow Wilson than he is to the apocalyptic one of Tim LaHaye. And that vision is consistent with the post-millennialist utopian vision of American politics that has guided the nation for more than two hundred years.12 Here Revelation is read not for clues when history will be interrupted by the Second Coming rescuing true believers from the forces of Antichrist, but as a rallying cry for realizing God’s reign on earth through an extension of America’s civil and economic order to the world. This is what Robert Bellah speaks of when he invokes “the eschatological hope of American civil religion.”
Although pre-millennialists have traditionally been opposed to that vision as too optimistic and this-worldly, a powerful coalition of the millennial has emerged in American civil religion as a consequence of Bush’s War on Terrorism and his representation of the world caught up in a Manichean conflict of Good vs. Evil. In that struggle pre-millennialists can recognize and insert themselves, celebrating Evangelical America as the means of establishing an evangelism-friendly world order for the maximum harvest of souls before the inevitable downward spiral of history into Armageddon.13 A coalition of the millennial, it is also an allegiance of the Utopian, as both pre- and postmillennialists, guided by John’s vision of Paradise of Rev 20:1-21:5 envision a divinely appointed tear-free future, and the solidarity of like-minded commitment to virtue in the meantime.14
Overhearing apocalypse around the breakfast table of the German immigrants I grew up amongst taught me that those most to be feared are not those who look for utopia in the afterlife, but the ones who seek to arrange it in this one. There was little powerful enough to resist the temptations of millennial belief in the 1930s and ’40s. A grand epic narrative promising the realization of history according to a divinely prescribed blueprint was as seductive as it was tragic. And in the face of the anti-Communist version of the postwar period it was equally difficult to resist. Still, remembering over Sunday dinner the violence of megalomaniacal political millennialism offered a powerful incentive to cross-examination and ironical distance. Having survived the horror of the Soviet gulags, my father in particular was bitterly anti-Marxist. But even if not as emotionally reactive, he was no believer in the capitalist version of the New Jerusalem coming out of Washington, either. The fragility and expendability of life had taught him to be less a believer in the future and more a participant in the present. Retelling tales of apocalypse 1945 urged us to lose our civil religion or at least practice an agnostic one tempered by what Niebuhr called “the irony of history” — an unpredictability arising from historical contingency that made nonsense of all attempts to pave, let alone map, the road of an already theologically dubious notion of Divine Providence.
One suspects now, as then, the temptation is as great to throw oneself behind the wheel of an allegedly preordained history rather than risk being crushed under it. But it is a temptation important to resist even if powerful currents in popular North American Christianity believe themselves heaven- sent to baptize it. Ironically, it is from Revelation itself that one may discover an alternative, less epic, more open-ended means of embracing the future. The text that has been harvested for its millennialist sentiments, be they pre- or post-, frames its millennial visions precisely as an antidote and resistance to grand political schemes. As several historical studies of Revelation have shown, John addresses his visions to churches tempted to give up their Christian identity in favour of accommodation to the seductive political eschatology of the Pax Romana— a peace that is not unlike today’s global blueprint for world order, that promised a world of freedom from conflict and prosperity for its economic and social elites, even as it washed the empire with the sweat and blood of armies, and trampled over its impoverished and defenseless.15 John’s, it is important to remember, is a counter-millennium: his Revelation offers a vision of peace and prosperity juxtaposed against the military theology of Roman victory theology. Against an imperial Theology of Glory it erects the most strident Theology of the Cross encountered in the New Testament, that it is in suffering witness to and in solidarity with the crucified Jesus (Rev 7:13–17; 14:1–5), the Lamb of God slain since the foundation of the world (Rev13:8), that history finds new direction and purpose. This is the this-worldly religion we sought words to express as we rehearsed the fragility of life and the responsibilities of abundance around our Sunday feast. It is one the Church today is apt to forget, even as it flirts with a twenty-first century version of an ecclesial Babylonian Captivity. John’s message, however, is unaccommodating. To those entranced by Babylon and its promises of millennium offered through the threat of violence it has a single message: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest your share in her plagues” (Rev 18:4). John urged listeners entranced by Rome’s victory theology to lose their civil religion. Seduced by millennium, perhaps the most faithful thing we can do as Christians today is lose ours as well.
What Would Homer Do?
In a recent episode of The Simpsons entitled “Thank God, It’s Doomsday,” Matt Groening takes on the Bush-LaHaye coalition by parodying Left Behind for the civil-religious huxterism it is. Through a series of complicated mathematical equations no less absurd than the Doomsday they are calculated to predict, Homer accurately pinpoints the date of the Rapture. In the end, however, it is only Homer who is raptured, leaving Marge, the kids, and his friends behind. Homer, at first enchanted with heaven, soon begins to grow bored and then homesick for family and friends, so he hatches a plan to get him- self evicted from Paradise by becoming a public nuisance. In the end, God (of course an old giant bearded male in a white robe and sandals) calls Homer to account. Homer, however, stands his ground and makes a deal with the Almighty that he will desist if God reverses the whole Rapture business, returns Homer to earth, and put things back to the way they were. The last scene shows Homer surrounded by his friends in Moe’s Bar, taking the pose of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Homer playing Jesus to his semi-intoxicated friends/disciples. Matt Groening, as a recent account testifies, is the least patient with the Religious Right; for it he reserves his sharpest, least compromising parody.16 Here, though, he goes beyond critique toward thoughtful reconstruction. Homer surrounded by friends in a scene of eucharistia invites us to consider what version of abundance is worth living for — an embodied planetary one, or an incorporeal spiritual one. His satire urges a material religion, where Holy Communion incarnates itself around friends, beer, and the rejection of a heaven where anyone is left behind. In the world of The Simpsons the hallelujahs are fragile, belief is tenuous, and the emperor wears no clothing. Matt Groening’s is an invitation to courageous disbelief. Suspect millennium. The world is longing for such unbelief.
1. James Berger, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 21.
2. See for example, The Guns of Navarone (1961); The Longest Day (1962); The Battle of the Bulge (1965). For Hollywood and a culture of mass deception see Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 2000), 120–68. For a survey of twentieth century American intervention in Latin America, especially from 1950 onward, see Penny Lernoux, Cry of the People (New York: Penguin, 1982), 82-310.
3. Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96 (1967): 1–21, at 18.
4. In what follows I cite primarily from collected speeches of President Bush in We Will Prevail: President George W. Bush on War, Terrorism, and Freedom, ed., National Review (New York: Continuum, 2003), here, p. 6; www.whitehouse.gov/news/re- leases/2001/09/20010914-2.html [accessed May 16, 2005].
5. http://usinfo.state.gov/eur/Archive/2005/Feb/24-844826.html [accessed May 16, 2005].
8. Department of Defense Service of Remembrance, October 11, 2001; Prevail, 40.
9. Commemorating Pearl Harbor, December 7, 2001; ibid, 86.
10. September 11, 2002; ibid., 183.
11. Thus, for example, Robert Dreyfuss, “The Reverend Doomsday: According to Tim LaHaye the Apocalypse Is Now,” Rolling Stone 942/4 (Jan, 28, 2004), 35–38, and Paul Krugman, “Gotta Have Faith,” The New York Times, December 17, 2002; these views make their way into the more formal theological musings of Michael Northcott, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire (London: Tauris, 2004), 87–93.
12. For a classic account of the influence of Revelation in shaping American self-understanding from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, see Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); for Bush and Wilson see David M. Kennedy, “What ‘W’ Owes to ‘WW,’” Atlantic Monthly 295/2 (March 2005): 36–40.
13. See especially, Glenn W. Shuck, Marks of the Beast: The Left Behind Novels and the Struggle for Evangelical Identity (New York: New York University Press), 53–81.
14. For the moral utopianism of Left Behind see Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 175–87.
15. For an excellent account see Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 133–217.
16. Thus, Chris Turner, Planet Simpson (Toronto: Random House, 2004), 270–71.
Harry O. Maier is Professor of New Testament Studies at Vancouver School of Theology. His most recent book is Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002). He is hard at work on a companion volume that studies New Testament christologies against the backdrop of Roman imperial ideology.