Monday, November 14, 2016

Subverting the Apocalyptic Imagination: Three Imperatives for Living in History

Our Scripture readings today match the mood of much of the country: apocalyptic!  While the election results are not exactly the end of the world, they do mark the end of an era.  We’ve never seen a nationalist populism of this kind dominate a once mainstream political party and achieve electoral college success.  This election season was marked by an unprecedented level of vulgarity, vitriol, deceit and pure hatred.  There is nearly universal uncertainty about the future and more than a little fear. 

Apocalyptic reflects this moment, not simply because of its association with convulsive transitions, but also because of the worldview with which it is associated.  At the heart of the apocalyptic imagination is a perception of reality marked by a series of binary oppositions:  a cosmic dualism between heaven and earth, a temporal dualism between this age and the age to come, which will begin with the destruction of this age, and a social dualism between good people and evil people.[i]  Apocalyptic is about polarization and its tension, a tension that can be overcome only by the utter annihilation of one of the poles:  heaven will displace earth when this evil age and its people are destroyed.

This is clearly expressed in the text from the prophet Malachi this morning:

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts . . .[ii]

Please note that this kind of thinking is not limited to images of that mean “Old Testament” god.  We find it also in the New Testament’s second letter to the Thessalonians:

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.[iii]

The apocalyptic imagination is one thread within the biblical traditions, but it is not the only or ultimate perspective.  Jesus offers a very different take on apocalyptic. While it is true that Jesus takes over the language of apocalyptic, he turns it to a very different purpose, subverting its meaning from within.   “Apocalyptic” literally means “revelation” or “unveiling.”  In his teaching and practice, Jesus collapses the polarities of the apocalyptic imagination to reveal what is really going on. 

This is most evident in Jesus’ practice of inclusive table fellowship, his healing of outcasts, and his parabolic reversals of insiders and outsiders.  The polarity between good and evil people is undone by the forgiving love of a God who makes the rain to fall on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  There is judgment and condemnation of evil, but in the service of a larger wholeness.

Similarly, the polarity between heaven and earth is undone by the prayer that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.  Heaven and earth are correlated dimensions of reality, overlapping if you will.  The kingdom of heaven is “at hand,” it is within and among you.  It is not the destruction of earth and flight to heaven for which we hope, but rather a new heaven and earth emerging from the transfiguration of present reality. 

Finally, the polarity between the present age and the age to come is elided by a sense of continuity between past, present, and future held in an eternal now.  The emphasis is less on a rupture between the present age and the age to come, than it is on the age to come invading the present age, so to speak, and subverting it from within: like leaven in the dough.  Justice rises to fill the whole, but only after it does can we eat the bread of reconciliation.  There is no reconciliation without justice.  There is no cheap grace in Jesus’ teaching or practice – it comes at the cost of any claim to privilege or self-sufficiency -  but that grace is available here and now as well as then and there.[iv] 

So when Jesus speaks of wars and uprisings and natural disasters, he is not evoking a cataclysmic end time, but rather the difficult reality of history and its very gradual, sometimes barely perceptible, leavening by God’s gracious work in and through us.  He is clear that the “end” will not follow immediately.  In fact, he warns us against those who claim the end is near.  He goes on to note that nation will be raised upon nation and kingdom upon kingdom (not nation against nation):  that is to say, nations will rise and fall, but that isn’t the end of the world.[v]  Empires, political parties, leaders come and go – don’t freak out about it.  Don’t be fascinated by those who manipulate the fear and uncertainty inherent in such moments of upheaval. 

Notice something else that is unusual about Jesus’ evocation of apocalyptic imagery:  the violence, which is real, is purely a human phenomenon.  It has nothing to do with divine vengeance.  Jesus assumes – even warns – his disciples that, rather than being triumphant beneficiaries of such violence, they will be its victims.  They will arrest you and persecute you.  You will be imprisoned and brought before kings and governors because of your loyalty to the way of Jesus.  You will be hated, betrayed by members of your own family. 

It is here that the apocalyptic imagination is turned on its head.  Jesus adopts the perspective of victims, from the underside of history.  What is unveiled or revealed is the innocence of history’s victims and the mendacity of our violent culture constructed of mutually exclusive binary opposites.  God is not the source of this violence, but rather the gracious energy of love that witnesses for justice no matter what the cost, for the sake of a reconciliation that lies ahead of us.  The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. 

When Jesus counsels us to love our enemies and to pray for them, he also instructs us to find creative, nonviolent ways to shift the balance of power in society in ways that protect the vulnerable.[vi]  Jesus is not na├»ve.  He knows there are enemies of the Gospel.   He knows history is a long slog.  But he also reveals a resource against the violent rulers of this and every age:  the power of God that flows through those willing to receive it and bear witness to it. 

This election is not the end of the world.  It is one more moment in the long evolution of human consciousness into the fullness of Christ consciousness.  In becoming human in Christ Jesus, God revealed the true meaning of history: the unfathomable love of God for all that She has created and redeemed.  Nothing can ultimately stand against the power of this love.  In bearing witness to this truth, Jesus outlines three imperatives for living in history.[vii]

“Watch, that you may not be lead astray.”  This is the contemplative imperative:  cultivate the capacity to pay attention.  Listen to the still small voice within.  Listen to the wisdom of the body and of the earth.  Embrace the discerning wisdom that comes from the practice of listening, allowing us to touch into the reality of God’s presence so as to shape our perception of reality.  Silent prayer is the taproot of wisdom to read the signs of the times.  Plenty of fools throughout history have claimed “I am he, only I can save you.”  Don’t believe it for a minute.

“Put it into your hearts not to prepare a defense ahead of time.”  This is the trust imperative. We will be called before the court of history to defend its victims.  Our first responsibility is to protect the vulnerable.  This inevitably gets us into trouble with those in power who exploit the vulnerable.  The question is not if we will need to testify, but how we will do it.  Jesus says, “Don’t worry about it.”  Don’t prepare ahead of time, anxious about getting it right.  It isn’t about being persuasive, or manipulating others, or even “winning” in the conventional sense.  It is about solidarity and truth-telling.

Finally, “In your patience, possess your souls.”  This is a more accurate rendering of the somewhat misleading translation, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”[viii] It isn’t a quid pro quo:  if you endure, you will be saved.  It is an instruction about how to conduct ourselves as witnesses for God in history:  with dignity, not frenzy; guarding your soul’s integrity, not selling it to the highest bidder.  It can be tempting, in the real struggle for justice in history, to sell our soul to the devil, to become the evil we resist.  Don’t lose your soul, not even to gain the world.  The world already belongs to God.  You don’t need to mirror evil.  This is the integrity imperative.

Pay attention.  Trust God.  Guard your soul.

In the days ahead, we must resist the cynical manipulation of the masses by the demagogue de jour.  That much is obvious.  We must also resist the temptation to retreat to tend our little garden, refusing the risks of engagement with public life.  We will be called to bear witness, says Jesus.  If not now, then when? 

There is also another temptation we must resist – the call to a premature “unity” that seeks a rush to reconciliation without justice in the name of a sincere, but misguided idea of love of our enemies.  Writing in Germany in the early 1940’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of the Confessing Church who cooperated with the German resistance to the Nazi regime, describes such misguided love in this way:

“It rests on evaluating human beings according to their dormant values – the health, reasonableness, and goodness deep beneath the surface . . . With forced tolerance, evil is reinterpreted as good, meanness is overlooked, and the reprehensible is excused.  For various reasons one shies away from a clear No, and finally agrees to everything.  One loves a self-made picture of human beings that has little similarity to reality, and one ends up despising the real human being whom God has loved and whose being God has taken on.”[ix]

We are entering into a dark period of our history.  The shadow side of the American psyche is in the ascendant, unleashing the racism and misogyny, the fear of the other, that always has been a part of our national life.  Those who have long been its victims are not surprised by the outcome of this election.  I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could paint a rosier picture, but only an honest appraisal of the situation can offer us a way forward.  Pay attention.  Trust God.  Guard your soul.  Let our “No” be loud and clear.  Anything less betrays contempt for the very people and earth that we claim to love in the name of Jesus.    

Our victory comes from God, and the Spirit is the source of the wisdom and power we need to respond to the vicissitudes of history.  We must follow Jesus in the subversion of the apocalyptic imagination.  This is our opportunity to testify.

[i] James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 124.
[ii] Malachi 4:1.
[iii] II Thessalonians 1:6-7.
[iv] Alison, p. 125-130.
[vi] Luke 6:27-36.
[vii] Luke 21: 7-19.
[viii] Davis, op cit. 
[ix] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2005), p. 87.