Two recent stories brought the simile to mind. The first one was the whole media circus surrounding Harold Camping and May 21. By now you undoubtedly know the story, and if by some chance you don’t, I envy you.
Two things stood out amidst the coverage and the coverage of the coverage. The first is kind of personal: Camping and his network, Family Radio, were repeatedly referred as to “obscure” by both those covering the story and those critical of the coverage. Obviously, the people using that word didn’t grow up in the New York area, at least not when I did.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, “Family Radio” and “Christian radio” were synonymous. A staple of the network’s programming was a call-in show, one of the few on the air at the time, where the Truly Reformed Camping would argue with his non-Reformed, often Pentecostal, and equally often African-American and Latino listeners.
My late mother was taken aback by Camping’s dour persona: She would say things like “Roberto, a Camping le falta gozo.” (“Camping lacks joy.”) That didn’t keep her from listening: Decades later, when she visited me here in Virginia, she would invariably ask “¿Roberto, me puedes poner Family Radio?” (“Can you turn on Family Radio?”)
There’s plenty to criticize about the coverage, especially what the New Republic called its smugness and cruelty. And, yes, Camping’s following is small. But calling Camping “obscure” is not only factually questionable, it doesn’t help us to understand what is going on.
What’s going on is this: while Camping’s prediction for the 21st didn’t come to pass, the events of that day did fulfill an ancient prophecy, the one from the Book of Pythia. That one says, “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”
The “this,” in this case, is millennialism. In 1844, the followers of William Miller anxiously awaited the Second Coming. Miller himself had predicted that it would occur “sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 22, 1844.” When the latter day came and went, one of Miller’s followers, Samuel Snow, armed with calculations based on Miller’s methodology, fixed the exact date for October 22, 1844.
Unlike recent events, this really was a big deal: Miller had as many as a million followers and, as Daniel Walker Howe documents in What Hath God Wrought, antebellum America was a place that took the Millennium seriously. In anticipation of October 22,
many Millerites declined to plant their fields in 1844, believing that the world would end before winter arrived. Of those who had planted in the spring, many left their crops to rot at harvest time, acknowledging before God that soon neither the righteous nor the damned would require earthly sustenance. Cattle and other farm animals were slaughtered to feed the hungry. Believers settled their worldly debts and gave the remainder of their money and property away, often to help their poorer brethren pay their bills. . . . In the final days before the expected end-time, families abandoned their homes and moved into churches, fields, and other communal places of worship to await judgment among the devout.
When October 22 also came and went, the response to the “Great Disappointment” was varied. Some people lost their faith altogether; others kept their Christian faith but lost faith in Miller and his followers; and still others came up with explanations for why Christ hadn’t visibly returned on October 22, the most popular being that his return had been a “spiritual one” and that “October 22 marked the day that Christ had assumed his place in the holiest compartment of the heavens, from whence he would begin judging conditions on earth in preparation for his return.” This explanation gave rise, among other things, to Seventh Day Adventism.
If some of the explanations sound familiar, that’s because we are already hearing similar explanations from Camping’s followers. But the similarity ends there: Nineteenth-century millennialism was a very different kind of beast than its contemporary counterpart.
The clearest difference can be seen in the response to the expectation of Christ’s imminent return: Taking the Millennium seriously meant making the world a place fit for Christ’s return. Much of the meliorist impulse in American Christianity, and by extension in American culture, originated in these expectations and the sense of urgency they created.
For these folks, abolishing slavery, founding schools, feeding the poor, reforming prisons, and a host of other causes that later came to be associated with progressivism was a way of, in Howe’s words, “remaking the world” and “bringing it into conformity with God’s will.” Charles Finney “told his congregation that if evangelicals applied themselves fully to the works of mission and reform they could bring about the millennium within three years.”
However odd this may sound, it’s a kind of “win-win.” Even if the millennium didn’t come about, you were still living in a better world.
They don’t make pebbles like they used to.
The other big story with what you might call a “chiliasm ghost” was the reaction to president Obama’s speech in which he declared that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.” As Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out in the Atlantic, there was nothing in Obama’s speech that couldn’t have been said by George W. Bush or any of his predecessors.
Still, it’s easy to understand why Prime Minister Netanyahu rejected the idea: He has never really bought into the “two state” solution and, as opposition leader Tzipi Livni rightly pointed out, his response was also dictated by the demands of his governing coalition partners.
What’s, sadly, equally easy to understand is why so many American Christians joined Netanyahu -- actually, one-upped him -- in his criticism of the president’s statement and, in effect, staked out a more maximalist position than the majority of Israelis, not to mention American Jews.
It’s not the whole Genesis 12 -- “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” -- thing: Presumably the aforementioned Israelis and American Jews bless Israel and, besides, you can bless people without agreeing to every territorial demand they make.
No, the reasons lie in dispensational premillennialism and the importance it attaches to the state of Israel. Just as Finney thought that the wholehearted commitment to reform and mission could bring about the millennium, people today believe that by creating the biggest Israel, both size and population-wise, we can somehow hasten the Second Coming.
It’s a remarkably ahistorical and idiosyncratic position. In more than nineteen centuries of Christian reflection on eschatology, the idea of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, much less one encompassing what Likud and other Israeli maximalists called the “Whole Land of Israel,” was never considered to be the sine qua non for the fulfillment of God’s ultimate purposes.
The Six Day War changed this for a significant number of American Christians. Prior to the war, American policy towards the Middle East was one of neutrality towards the principals in the Arab-Israeli conflict. France, not America, was Israel’s most reliable ally: The IDF flew Mirages, not Phantoms, when it achieved air superiority on June 6, and Israel’s nuclear program was made possible by a nuclear plant built by the French.
After the Six Day War, American policy tilted more towards Israel, mostly out of Cold War considerations. And the aforementioned Christians saw Israel’s victory, especially its capture of the Temple Mount, as portentous.
Not coincidentally, the years immediately following the Six Day War were the golden age of what I’ll politely call “speculative eschatology.” New William Millers appeared among us, differing from the original in one important respect: Miller admitted that he had been wrong while they proceeded (and continue to proceed) as if they hadn’t been consistently wrong in all their predictions. (“Russia is a Gog,” anyone?).
If all that had come out of this was bad theology and even worse fiction, that would have been plenty. Unfortunately, the impact went beyond the publishing realm into the political one. As Gershom Gorenberg put it, Israel “through no choice of its own” was cast “in a starring role in a Christian Endtime drama.”
To make sure the show goes off as planned, the new Millerites are trying to shape to shape American foreign policy and when that doesn’t work, bypass it altogether and take sides in Israel’s famously contentious politics.
More than twenty years ago, a septuagenarian gentleman of my acquaintance wrote a book called Kingdoms in Conflict. In it, he tells the story about zealots plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, an act that would set the region on fire and have catastrophic repercussions around the world. The American president knows this but is torn because his beliefs see this as hastening the second coming of Christ.
The gentleman and his co-author used the story as a springboard to discuss the relationship between “power, politics and the pulpit.” For me, it’s a fanciful -- albeit not nearly as fanciful as the theology being described -- reminder of where millenarianism can lead: If you’re really fortunate, you wind up with a better world; if you’re merely fortunate, you wind up with disappointed people with egg on their faces; and if you’re not fortunate at all, then let’s just say Amazon might need to re-classify Kingdoms in Conflict.*
We really need better pebbles.