Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown
We are all familiar with the cartoon characters holding the sign “The End is Near.” Unfortunately, we are living in a time when this theology is not just a laughing matter. There are two distinct areas where thinking of “end times” intersects with our lives both as liberal religious people who care for the planet, and as citizens of a nation that is affected by the religious views of others.
Politics and religion are best kept separate, as the founders of this nation tried to do with the separation of church and state. But we are living in a time when it is impossible to speak on a Sunday morning of “End Times” without reference to its current effects or at least my current perceived effects, on the political climate of our country.
Bill Moyers said the following in a speech last month at Union Theological Seminary in New York City:
“We’re talking about a powerful religious constituency that claims the right to tell us what’s on God’s mind and to decide the laws of the land according to their interpretation of biblical revelation and to enforce those laws on the nation as a whole. For the Bible is not just the foundational text of their faith; it has become the foundational text for a political movement…” (9/11 and the Sport of God”)
Moyer’s speech should be read by all of us. I believe that we need to be reminded that “end times” is an important theology among fundamental Christians and that it is affecting the outcomes of political, economic and social situations that face our nation today. While it seems a distant prospect, the threat of serious degradation of the support system for human life on the planet is another related issue to the end times thinking.
Each century has had a number of apocalyptic thinkers and writers, and they are prominent most often when political, economic or social upheaval is in the air. These prophets of doom speak of the immanent coming of the end, the end times, the second coming of Christ. Similar views of divine punishment are found in the religion of Jews, Moslems and even Hindus.
Perhaps you remember Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book published in 1970,The Late Great Planet Earth, where he predicted the end of the world in about 1984.The Cold War was going on at the time he was writing and the former Soviet Union and the US were in a cold war détente situation and of course the hippie counter culture movement motivated his prophecy.This book is still in print.Check out his website.
We all remember the last months of 1999, when millennial fever was the rage, Y2K, UFO cults, and many prophets predicting the end of everything on December 31, 1999. As it turned out, the New Year came in with a whimper. Very little happened.
Those who write of the end times today are interpreting the New Testament book of Revelation and parts of Daniel and Ezekiel from the Old Testament. This theology emerged in the 19th century as a result of the writing of William Miller, who predicted the second coming to happen in 1843, much to his first great disappointment, and then recalculated for 1844, setting himself and his followers up for the second great disappointment.
Another key figure was John Nelson Darby. I remember hearing sermons in my Evangelical United Brethern church in Akron, Ohio as a teenager. Rev. Steese interpreted Revelation in terms of the current events of that time, the 1950’s. The bear was the USSR, the former soviet union. Israel was the focus, as it is today. He talked of the entire world being against Israel. He spoke of the earth covored with the blood of millions. These days the final war will be between Israel and the Arab world. I still can remember him, this gentle man, speaking of these terrible things that God would visit upon the earth.
Fundamentalist Christian groups believe that current events are fulfilling the final dispensation of biblical prophecy. End times theology is also called dispensa(y)’tionalism, which is the doctrine of breaking sacred time into different periods. This “end times” dispensation or period includes several parts; first, the second coming of Christ, and the rapture, or the taking up from the planet of the blessed dead and the living believers. This will happen when there is a one world government, interpreted by some as the United Nations, ruled by the anti-Christ. A 7 year period of tribulation will follow, when extreme suffering will befall those left on earth.
The climax of this period is when Christ intervenes at the Battle of Armageddon, defeating the Anti-Christ, who some fundamentalists believe is already living in the form of Osama Bin Laden. Christ will then establish a 1000 year millennial kingdom on earth, centered in Jerusalem. During this time, the Jews will come to realize that Jesus was in fact the Messiah they were expecting and will be converted. At the end of this stage, all who are not believers will be doomed to eternal punishment and I assume humanity will disappear from the planet.
Millions of people and probably some in this room this morning, have read the books of the “Left Behind” series, a fictional portrayal of the theology of “end times.” They are well written and they have a huge following of people who may be fundamentalists or may just like a good read. Tim LaHaye is the idea man and Jerry B. Jenkins does the writing. Over 60 million copies of the books have been sold and shared with other readers. Sales of these books and related items have generated enough profits for the writers to have an influence on political activities in our country, and that’s fine, it’s their money.
But I want to point out some connections that you may not be aware of. Michelle Goldberg writes that he was formerly chairman of Jack Kemp’s presidential campaign, a member of the original board of directors of The Moral Majority, and an organizer for something called Council for National Policy, which ABCNews.com has called “the most powerful conservative organization in America you’ve never heard of” … surely it’s significant that the most popular fiction in the country creates a gripping narrative that pits American Christians (and this is not all Christians, American Fundamentalist Christians) against a conspiracy of Satan-worshipping, abortion-promoting, gun-controlling globalists — all of it revolving around the sovereignty of Israel.”
There is a lot of evidence-and I really am concerned about saying this stuff out loud this morning because I do not want to offend any of you, but there is a lot of evidence that many powerful leaders in our current congress and administration share the religious views of the “end times” theology or at least their support base, their constituency shares these beliefs and they feel that they must honor the views of their constituencies. I had some names in here and I’m going to leave them out but many in Congress are either fundamentalist Christians or have that power base that encourages them to vote in support of positions that are favorable to this Fundamentalist theology. I believe the political complexities of the Middle East are affected by the intersection of these beliefs and decisions made regarding our foreign policy. There may also be a disregard for protecting the environment connected with end times thinking. And I believe its alright for me to mention James Watt of the Reagan era was quoted widely as saying there was no need to keep the ancient trees because we wouldn’t be around to enjoy them.
Many private organizations are working to return Diaspora Jews to Israel, in order to hasten the fulfillment of end time prophecy. The Christian Friends of Israeli Communities raises millions to help Jews move from around the world to Israel. There is even a group whose website I read that is led by an orthodox rabbi, who works hand in hand with fundamental Christians to raise money for this purpose. His office here in the United States is staffed by Christian Fundamentalists and his office in Israel is staffed by Jewish. It’s a tricky thing to look at – to try to figure out whether he is doing this to try to help Jews get back and is taking advantage of the situation with the end times beliefs of these Christians who are helping him or what.
We can no longer consider “end times” theology as just another example of fringe madness, something like UFO cults. It is thoroughly mainstream today, and plays a large role in fundamentalist Christians’ views of foreign affairs policies towards the middle east and towards terrorism. End-times teachings are popular on “The 700 Club” and on many of the 1,300 Christian radio stations that are part of the National Religious Broadcasters association.
End times supporters or believers are compelled to share their beliefs with all those who are not fundamentalist Christians, using a fear of the end to evangelize. One of the things that really bothers me about this movement is that they have lost the essential message of Jesus. They have lost the message of love thy neighbor as thyself. It’s important that you keep that in mind. That the people who are promoting this kind of salvation have in my view have lost the message of love that Jesus brought to the world. It’s safe to say that most of us in this room will still be here after the Rapture, but also Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and almost everyone who is a Catholic will be here after the Rapture.
The second compelling responsibility of “end times” believers is to do whatever is possible politically to hasten the day of the Rapture. To assure that conditions exist that will fulfill the prophecy as they see it. To assure that the Palestinians do not achieve nationhood. To assure that the land of Israel includes all that was in God’s covenant with them in the Old Testament.
The Rev. Michael Schuler wrote in a sermon last year:
Unfortunately, today’s apocalyptic literature “pushes all the right buttons” in the human psyche, as one of Tim LaHaye’s reviewers recently observed, and this has enhanced its stature significantly. For those whose lives lack meaning, purpose, moral clarity and/or excitement, these narratives deliver not only entertainment but psychological satisfaction. ….Now, entertainment is one thing, (Schuler goes on to say) but when end-time fantasy becomes part of serious religious and moral discourse – when people begin to read the “signs” of the apocalypse into their own daily experience, and when its assumptions begin to inform public policy – we ought to get nervous.”
Schuler quotes Joan Didion: “People who play powerful roles in our government (now hold) an absolutely literal interpretation of the Bible, and for many literalists, the most compelling and politically suggestive book of the Bible is Revelation….The problem is compounded by Americans’ growing tendency to confuse fiction with fact. More than a few readers regard the Left Behind books not as the imaginative exercises they really are, but as legitimate sources of divine revelation. Kelly Sanders of Minneapolis, waits anxiously for the next installment in the LaHaye series because, he says, these books have helped him “make sense” of recent events in the Middle East.” (Schuler, “In the End is the Beginning”)
Schuler goes on to report on many aspects of our current administration such as the rejection of multi-national approaches to conflict management and deep disdain for the United Nations, (and I think the United Nations does have problems, but this is Schuler’s words) disdain for the World Court, the Kyoto Protocols and other global initiatives. One of his conclusions is that if we are expecting an apocalypse of Biblical dimensions (and current natural disasters of this past year have fueled this kind of thinking.) If we are expecting this kind of apocalypse, then “we ignore the planet’s dire social, economic and environmental problems.” Schuler
I believe it is keenly important that we consider how “end times” thinking and its possible effect on our administration’s decisions which to date have disregarded the environment, how this increases the threat of serious degradation of the support system for human life on this planet.
UCLA’s Professor Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the widely acclaimed Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, which I am reading, wrote recently:
“Few people realize that (in most cases) great civilizations have collapsed because of the depletion of environmental resources on which they depended….Indeed, a society’s demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power.” Schuler
So it appears that even without the second coming of Christ or the rapture, we could be on a path of destruction by our own hands. How do we face the dangers that we have created for ourselves.
We live in a world full of contradictions and paradox. Our technological success has possibly brought us to the edge of extinction, like the 50,000 or so species becoming extinct each year of our lives. This sixth great extinction period in which we live has been caused by human activity. So my question is could we humans also be affected?
Martin Luther wrote that if he knew the world was coming to an end tomorrow, he would go out and plant a tree. When we consider the web of all existence of which we are a part, we often go out and plant something. We can’t all plant a tree, but we can plant ideas. We can work to impress those around us with the importance of doing the work we can to honor our affirmation in our seventh principle to support for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. This involves beginning in our own lives, with the consideration of our buying habits, our respect for the limited amount of the planet’s natural resources, and our work to make the most out of everything by participating in recycling. I know there is a nascent movement in this church to begin a Green Sanctuary program. I encourage the people who have started that and others to get this program going. What we do can make a difference.
Another very important thing we can do is to work to elect thoughtful people to local, state and national offices; people who share our hopes of world community, who want to extend civil rights to all people, who will not attempt to legislate morality. This is not a matter of party affiliation, this is a matter of encouraging the people that we know who will share our values. Get them to run and then support them.
We are called by our faith in humanity and our love for each other to do what we can to affirm and promote respect for the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part. I believe it matters what we do. I believe each of us have gifts that we can use to choose to bless the world. My closing words are from the catalog of our UU Seminary in Berkeley, California, Starr King School:
In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty
there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
stand and lead
with grace and power.
There must be those who
and do not avoid seeing
what must be seen
There must be those whose
grief troubles the water
while their voices sing
There must be those
rises with lovely energy
There must be those who
are restless for
respectful and loving
companionship among human beings,
whose presence invites people
to be themselves without fear.
There must be those
with the congregation
draw water from
and walk the simple path
of love for neighbor.
There must be communities of people
who seek to do justice
and walk humbly with God.
who call on the strength of
and bless life.
There must be
religious witness. (Starr King School catalog 97-98)