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Apocalyptic breeds Oklahoma City syndrome.

Most Americans were horrified by the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Even more startling was the discovery that the probable culprits were not "foreign terrorists" but middle-American, right-wing militants who harbor an apocalyptic worldview in which the federal government and the United Nations are representatives of an evil world empire bent on enslaving American citizens. Where did such ideas come from?

Apocalyptic thinking in the Christian tradition goes back to a form of Judaism of the second century B.C. to the first century A.D. that expressed the struggle of the Jewish people against their colonization by the Greek and then the Roman empires.

These empires were interpreted in the literature of Jewish militants as representatives of Satan who, with his demonic agents, was ruling over and oppressing the Jewish people. God would soon intervene in history to overthrow Satan's reign and create a new "heaven and earth" where evil would be abolished. Jewish apocalyptic was influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism in which world history is divided between a good and an evil God with their angelic and demonic armies.

Apocalyptic deeply influenced many parts of the New Testament, such as Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, First Thessalonians. It's most sustained expression is the Book of Revelation. New Testament scholars, such as Dominic Crossan, have argued that Jesus' own view of the kingdom of God was not apocylyptic but "sapiential" (wisdom) and expressed a vision of God's kindgom as present with us in daily life.

The vision of the kingdom in the Lord's Prayer is notably non-apocalyptic. The hope is for a time when God's will is done on earth, neighbors forgive each other's debts and ordinary needs are met (daily bread). The warning against not being led into temptation probably refers to apocalyptic temptations to claim power as the representatives of God's avenging angels, found among groups such as Zealots.

Neither rabbinic leaders nor the developing Christian church leadership favored apocalyptic, and warnings against claiming to know the "day and hour" appear in the New Testament. As the New Testament canon was being defined in the fourth to sixth centuries, Greek church leaders would have liked to drop the Book of Revelations, while the Latin church favored keeping it. But apocalyptic Christianity was marginalized in practice, to survive and rise again and again from among groups of disenfranchised Christians. The later Middle Ages saw a new flowering of apocalyptic as the wealth and corruption of the church hierarchy led militant reformers to identify it with the "whore of Babylon" of Revelation.

The Reformation was strongly shaped by an apocalyptic view of world history, particularly such marginal groups as the Baptists in the 17th century English Civil War. They saw themselves as the suffering saints victimized by the evil church and political empires of Rome or European kings, but soon to be delivered by an avenging God who would destroy the evil ones and install the saints as rulers over a renovated world.

American Protestantism, rooted in these traditions, has long had an apocalyptic underside that has continuously risen to the fore to interpret contemporary events.

The 1960s to the '80s saw a new flowering of popular American apocalyptic to interpret the Cold War as a struggle of righteous Christian America and messianic Israel against satanic communists and Arabs.

Apocalyptic is an extreme form of the prophetic patterns of denunciation of evildoing by the powerful and annunciation of coming redemption. It is a protest literature by which powerless people denounce great systems of oppressive power and imagine its overthrow and their own vindication. But apocalyptic absolutizes the prophetic patterns of denunciation and annunciation into a schema of world history divided between the forces of God and Satan, and claims to be able to read the meaning of contemporary events in the light of this scheme.

Apocalyptic loses the self-criticism of prophetic spirituality. Rather than calling the powerful to account within a community with which one identifies oneself, apocalyptic makes a total division between "us" and "them." One's own group is seen only as innocent victim, while the others are demonic aliens whose violent demise one anticipates with rejoicing. Apocalyptic feeds on resentment, the projection of evil on a hated "other" and dreams of vengeance against them.

Rather than calling for a conversion that creates reconciliation between opponents, apocalyptic imagines that by destroying the others, one is destroying "evil." The others lose a human face and become personifications of evil. Such a mentality can bomb a building, killing ordinary Americans, even infants, and imagine that it has thereby struck a blow against "evil."

I believe that apocalyptic of this type is flourishing in the American hinterland in the last decade of the 20th century for several reasons. It is most popular among rural and small-town white males suffering from status loss and economic turndown. It reflects a startling ignorance about the actual nature of our own economic and political system, as well as that of the rest of the world, among those whose education has given them few tools for understanding history, economics or other cultures.

Yet these Americans are part of an "information age" that inundates them with threatening images of events from the major cities of the United States and from the world with little framework for interpretation. It is this combination of ignorance of the historical context of larger realities, together with resentment against status and economic losses whose actual basis one cannot comprehend, that feeds into apocalyptic as a simple explanation for complex issues.

For those whose religious background already harbors traditions of apocalyptic, it is easy to imagine that this is the final scene of the conflict between the "good guys" and the agents of Satan, and even to make the weak and bumbling United Nations the imagined representative of the evil empire.

I believe the Christian churches, the main source of apocalyptic tradition, have a major responsibility to correct such thinking. They need to help people develop a better framework for understanding the actual roots of the injustices and gaps between powerful and powerless that do indeed exist in our society and in the world. But most of all, they need to nurture an authentic spirituality of Jesus that evokes compassion for fellow humans and calls for repentance that creates community rather than destroys it.
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Title Annotation:bombing in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Author:Ruether, Rosemary Radford
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 25, 1995
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