Apocalypse and Peace: Social Discord and a Shared Vision

“I’ve never been more pessimistic about where this country is, than I am right now.”
-David Brooks, NYT Columnist and PBS NewsHour Contributor, 9/25/2020

In most apocalyptic literature there is a point in time before the catastrophic “End” where the absurdities and corruptions within the system have been revealed to the faithful, who alone are able to fully recognize them. Their hope is for the vindication of their cause, which usually entails some sort of suffering, before they can enter into a future golden era of peace and prosperity. As a scholar of apocalyptic theology, I am not surprised to see apocalyptic ideologies shaping the way Americans view the issues before us.

Interpretations of events and ideologies fuel each other. Actual events become the hooks on which apocalyptic expectations are hung. Historian Bernard McGinn describes apocalyptic sentiment as a type of “preunderstanding.” It isn’t caused by events, the basic framework of the mentality is universal, ingrained in the human psyche, albeit manifesting itself with cultural variation. Even though apocalypticism is often nurtured in religious belief systems, it is a way of understanding time and history that is not essentially religious. While there is no necessary causal relationship between apocalyptic thinking and specific events, apocalypticism is heightened by events. Apocalyptic thinking flourishes in times of crisis, and so it is no wonder that it has been brought to a boil in 2020. How has 2020 provided the catalyst for apocalyptic thinking? Let us count the ways: a global pandemic that has killed over 1 million worldwide and more than 200,000 in the United States and has infected the President; videos of police brutality with racial bias on full display leading to protests and violence; massive unemployment and economic harm; the necessary mandate to wear face masks has obscured friendly smiles and altered the normal way of relating to others; oh, yes, there have also been hurricanes, wildfires spreading in areas rarely touched in previous years and creating toxic air in many ways never before experienced.

On top of all this, the social and political atmosphere is divisive with a momentous election weeks away obscuring or distorting thing that we, collectively in the past, have considered shared facts and corporate values. For example, it is no longer a given that there will be a free and peaceful transition of power from one administration to another, and behavioral ground rules for traditions like political debates have been trampled. The withering of mutual regard and democratic norms have given rise to conspiracy theories that all too conveniently justify the holder’s views while vilifying people who support other perspectives, leading to “us versus them” thinking. There is no doubt that 2020 has been a year of trauma and extremes. Not only is COVID-19 leaving many of its victims with continuing health problems, our cumulative mental health condition has suffered as people live in a world of virus super spreaders, school closures, social distancing, and the uncertainties of self-serving political policies, supply chain disruptions, and the human tendency toward hoarding and panic.

As extreme as they are, the events of 2020 are generally not viewed as simple one-off happenings, they are tied to larger narratives — narratives that provide a sense of ultimate meaning. These questions of ultimate meaning and narrative formation are given shape through apocalyptic frameworks. Importantly, the meaning-making function of apocalyptic thinking persists even if a person is not religious. For example, do you view the recent wildfires to be portents of future climate catastrophes? That is an apocalyptic idea. Do you see liberal, deep-state conspiracies like QAnon as pulling strings in political events? That is an apocalyptic idea. Do you attach ultimate significance to the political fates of one politician over the other, one party over the other, one movement over the other? Please note, prognostications about the impacts of climate change and QAnon conspiracy theories are in no way equivalencies. None the less, both function as a type of apocalyptic thinking and demonstrate how prevalent apocalypticism is in the public dialogue on important issues.

The word “apocalypse” literally means “to unveil,” and refers to a revealing of a future world when all things –social, political, economic, religious– are in their rightful place. In its broadest sense, apocalyptic thinking describes a form of knowledge in which some are given insights into the true meaning of world events and the future those events are leading toward. That knowledge is not obvious to everyone, but it is to those who have it. In many cases, apocalyptic literature portrays those who have this understanding, revelation, or awakening as being pitted against forces of evil. It is a fundamentally oppositional mentality. To say something originates from apocalyptic thinking is not to say that it is necessarily untrue, supernatural, or fictitious. Neither is it only related to impending doom from a cataclysms like giant asteroids or nuclear holocaust. Apocalyptic mental frameworks are not even necessarily bad or dangerous. Apocalyptic frameworks can provide a cause with an important sense of urgency, it can also provide a useful handle on one’s place in very complex and alienating social, economic, and political systems. It can also become a justification for simplistic thinking and hatred. Essentially, apocalyptic thinking is a way people form the narratives that shape their values and persevere in their convictions despite opposition from more dominant cultural forces.

Apocalyptic thinking, of course, is nothing new. It’s a strand of thought that reaches back to antiquity. I suggest it is a normative and recurrent way groups of people have defined themselves in complex social milieus through history. While most often associated with religion, apocalyptic thinking is not bound by religion. Wherever existential concerns are raised, there the apocalyptic will be found. In the divisiveness and social anomie of the current American climate, a form of civic apocalypticism dominates the public discourse. Even though the apocalyptic lens can be used to evaluate the prominent voices in the contemporary public discourse, I want to be careful not to suggest that all voices in the arena are equal or that they all have legitimate claims to truth. What I want to suggest, instead, is that understanding the frameworks that support the divisive rhetoric can help in pushing through the divisiveness to develop an empathetic awareness that supports compassionate action, a mentality that I call “prophetic non-attachment.” “Prophetic non-attachment” refers to the capacity of certain social reformers throughout history to identify the operative systems of alienation in their day (e.g. human enslavement, religious oppression, abuses of power), but to not identify the people who benefit from those systems as irredeemable and subhuman.

Unfortunately, the current state of affairs in the American cultural battles is only set to become more divisive and heated, at least in the short term. Because apocalyptic thought concerns a type of knowledge that, by definition, is absolutely non-negotiable and totally obvious to those who have it, and, by contrast, abhorrent and false to those who don’t, there is a built-in impermeability to the issues at hand: it is either/or, there can be no compromise. And, in some cases, such as where we are talking about life and death issues such as those experienced by people of color, this is just. The sheer number of tensions in the contemporary situation, along a seemingly monolithic fault line, means that a large number of issues are all lumped together to form comprehensive us-versus-them dichotomies.

But is this divisive path inevitable? Is the current trajectory of internecine strife baked into the apocalyptic framework? No. In my study of apocalyptic movements, a lot depends on which vision of a future golden era is held by adherents. If apocalypticism concerns the unveiling of a future golden age that is distinct from the current corrupt and dehumanizing state of affairs, what adherents believe that future world will look like shapes the methods and rhetoric used while awaiting its arrival or working for its inauguration. In some cases, apocalyptic frameworks have supported a future vision of universal love, peace towards the earth and all people, and justice for the oppressed. In other cases the vision is predominately one of vanquishing one’s foes, reigning over enemies, and claiming power over others. In the former vision, adherents may be committed to a life of peace and liberation in this life that will be fully realized in the next life. In the latter vision, vanquishing one’s enemies characterizes the modality through which the future golden era will arrive. In the rhetoric of the current debates, a persistent theme from all sides is one of vanquishing one’s opponents and the ideal future is one in which the policies and values held by either group win the day, one’s opponents are pushed back into obscurity and, so it goes, society can finally progress toward its preordained destiny. In other words, as I survey the rhetorical landscape, I see an apocalyptic horizon replete with catastrophizing as justification to violence and enmity, where everything depends on the defeat of one’s opponents and the ultimate vindication of one’s socio-political views.

Underlying this latter golden vision is the defeat and suppression of one’s enemies, and this is why the apocalyptic rhetoric of the current situation points toward more strife, not less. The divides in American culture are populated by real people who will still be our neighbors, family members, friends, and co-workers when November 4th arrives. Neither the divisions, nor the people who hold them, are going away. In fact, because of the nature of apocalyptic rhetoric, neither side can walk away. The current of vanquishing one’s enemies is a retributive impulse, while the popularization of conspiracy theories means there will always be an explanation to discredit outcomes that are unfavorable. Coupling together a popular desire for retribution, in some degree, with a de-legitimization of opponents, creates a perfect recipe for post-election violence by the most radical and extreme adherents of the apocalyptic mentality.

This is not a rosy picture. The apocalyptic framework cannot be unwound quickly; in all likelihood the divisions of the present situation will play themselves out over the course of a generation. But, enfolded within the framework is also a clue to a more productive civic conversation and a more compassionate society, because retribution is not an essential element of apocalypticism. If we let go of the retributive elements of the future golden-era vision, if we let go of the need to vanquish, and, instead, we craft an inclusive civic vision that seeks first to understand the condition of others, then the future can be cooperative despite difference. This is the vision that many spiritual mystics through history have discovered in the midst of turbulent situations. The mystical experience — which is often not exclusively one of ecstatic visions or esotericism — draws one to an awareness of the fundamental human unity. Instead of “othering” people, it “others” anti-humanity itself. In its fullest expression it is not a type of spirituality that can exist without compassionate action, nor is it necessarily associated with traditional religious institutions alone. It can and does thrive where, as the Buddhists put it, loving-kindness is encouraged, or, as the Christians put it, where one loves their neighbor as them self. Not only is this spirituality a balm to our current cultural strife, it points to a way of living that is, as the Quakers say, “centered.” Only in relinquishing the desire for power over others can one be free to love and free to be fully human-in-community-with-others, and thus to reject the countervailing narrative of vanquishing one’s enemies that inevitably leads to the fracturing of community.

People generally want to do better and to be better, to find the right path toward a more equitable future. As cliché as it sounds, it is in letting go of the delusions of certainty and gaining power that a just vision for the future is crafted, but letting go does not mean trying less hard. In this moment, I can echo David Brooks’ words above. In the short-term, our social fabric is frayed and prospects for reconciliation are bleak. The healing of our national soul will not happen overnight, and it will only come as the vision of an American future is less partisan and less dependent on vanquishing one’s so-called enemies. It will require unilateral attempts at kindness, empathy, and understanding. The apocalyptic lens clarifies what it is that people want most, be it power, a world without fear, an equitable future, the vindication of tradition, or some combination of these and more. The apocalyptic lens also makes it apparent that human beings can be deceived into thinking that the pursuit of their values is best accomplished in opposition to other people. I suggest, instead, that acknowledging our vision of the future is an incredibly spiritual thing to do when done in shared recognition of others and their right to a vision of their own. Listening to others with sometimes painful and definitely risky openness creates new possibilities for a civic discourse and a future that builds productively on the values that are too frequently shrouded under oppressive layers of contempt, fear, prejudice, and revenge seeking. There are no lessons from 2020 except that we are, in fact, dependent on each other. Exacerbating irreconcilable fissures in our social fabric is an indulgence we cannot afford.

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Jon R. Kershner

Jon R. Kershner

I am a theologian, father, husband and baseball lover. I like to think about living intentionally and well. about.me/JonRKershner