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“We are lived by forces we scarcely understand,” wrote W.H. Auden. What forces live us now as America again torques toward war?
George W. Bush is certainly the plaything of such forces as the geopolitics of oil but it seems that he is susceptible to other even darker archetypal concerns. Let me be blunt. The man is delusional and the shape of his delusion is specifically apocalyptic in belief and intent. That Bush would attack so many vital systems on so many fronts from foreign policy to the environment may seem confusing from the point of view of realpolitik but becomes transparent in terms of the apocalyptic worldview to which he subscribes. All systems are supposed to go down so the Messiah can come and Bush, seemingly, has taken on the role of the one who brings this to pass.
The Reverend Billy Graham taught Bush to live in anticipation of the Second Coming but it was his friendship with Dr. Tony Evans that shaped Bush’s political understanding of how to deport himself in an apocalyptic era. Dr. Evans, the pastor of a large Dallas church and a founder of the Promise Keepers movement taught Bush about “how the world should be seen from a divine viewpoint,” according to Dr. Martin Hawkins, Evans assistant pastor.
S.R. Shearer of Antipas Ministries writes, “Most of the leaders of the Promise Keepers embrace a doctrine of ‘end time’ (eschatology), known as ‘dominionim.’ Dominionism pictures the seizure of earthly (temporal) power by the ‘people of God’ as the only means through which the world can be rescued…. It is the eschatology that Bush has imbibed; an eschatology through which he has gradually (and easily) come to see himself as an agent of God who has been called by him to ‘restore the earth to God’s control’, a ‘chosen vessel’, so to speak, to bring in the Restoration of All Thingss.” Shearer calls this delusion, “Messianic leadership”– that is to say usurping the role usually ascribed to the Messiah.
In Bush at War Bob Woodward writes, “Most presidents have high hopes. Some have grandiose visions of what they will achieve, and he was firmly in that camp.”
“To answer these attacks and rid the world of evil,” says Bush. And again, “We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of this great nation.” Grandiose visions. Woodward comments, “The president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of Gods Master Plan.”
In dominionism we can see the theological source of Bush’s monomania. Not to be distracted by the fact that he lost the popular election by a half a million votes, that the Joint Chief of Staff at the Pentagon were so concerned about his plans to invade Iraq that they leaked their unanimous objection, that he has systematically alienated much of the world, that roughly seventy percent of Americans remain unconvinced of the imminent threat of Saddam Hussein and the same percentage object to war if there will be significant American casualties–none of this is in the least relevant. He believes his mandate toward action is from God.
As humans we live within stories. Some stories, like apocalypse are thousands of years old. The scriptured text that informs Bush understanding of and enactment of the End of Days (Revelations 19) depicts Christ returning as the Heavenly Avenger. Revelations is the only New Testament book that justifies violence of any kind, and this it takes to the limit: Christ himself the agent of mass murder.
“I saw heaven open and there before me was a white horse who is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war…He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood and his name is the word of God…Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the Nations. And I saw an angel standing in the sun who cried in a low voice to all the birds flying in midair–come gather together for the great supper of God, so you may eat the flesh of kings, generals and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great.”
Such is “the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Truth, carnage, and the ecstasy of vultures. In a ruined world the Messiah slays the antichrist and creates “a new heaven and a new earth.” The dead are judged, the Christians saved and the rest damned to eternal torment. The New Jerusalem is established and the Lord rules it “with an iron scepter.”
It is not inconceivable that Bush is literally and determinedly drawn, consciously and unconsciously, toward the enactment of such a scenario, as he believes, for God’s sake. Indeed the stark relentlessness of his policy in the Middle East suggests as much.
It dishonors the profundity of the Christian tradition if one doesn’t note that Revelations has always been a rogue text. Because of its association with the Montanist heresy (which like contemporary fundamentalists took it to be literal rather than allegorical) it was with great reluctance that it was made scripture three centuries after the death of Christ. Traditionally attributed to St. John, most Biblical scholars now recognize its literary style and its theology has little in common with John’s gospel or his epistles and was likely written after his death. Martin Luther found the vindictive God of Revelations incompatible with the gospels and relegated it to the appendix of his German translation of the New Testament instead of the body of scripture. All the Protestant reformers except Calvin regarded apocalyptic millenialism to be heresy.
But Revelations is also a rogue text because it is unmoored from its origins, which are far from Christian. It is a late variant on a story that was pervasive in the ancient world: the defeat of the wild and the uncivilized by a superior order upon which a New World would be established. Two thousand years before Revelations depicted Christ slaying the antichrist and laying out the New Jerusalem, Marduk slayed Tiamat and founded Babylon.
This pagan myth recycled as a suspiciously unchristian Biblical test found new credence in the 19th century when John Darby virtually revived the Montanist heresy of investing it with a passionate literalism. Given to visions (he saw the British as one of the ten tribes of Israel) Darby left the priesthood of the Church of Ireland and preached Revelations as both prophecy and imminent history. In this he inaugurated a lineage in which Bush’s mentors, the Reverend Billy Graham and Dr. Tony Evans are recent heirs. Revelations is much beloved by Muslim fundamentalists and like their Christian compatriots they also thrill to redemption through apocalypse. Jewish fundamentalists of course do not believe in Revelations but have nonetheless made common cause with the Christian Right. “It’s a very tragic situation in which Christian fundamentalists, certain groups of them that focus on Armageddon and the Rapture and the role of a war between Muslims and Jews in bringing about the Second Coming, are involved in a folie a deux with extremist Jews,” said Ian Lustick, the author of For the Land and the Lord: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition (and yes it is a single tradition) is being led by its fringe into the abyss and the rest of us with it.
The world has been readied for the fire but the critical element is the Bush Administration. Never in the history of Christendom has there been a moment when this rogue element has carried anything like the credibility and political power that it carries now.
MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL is the author of Dreaming the End of the World (Spring 1994) and, (with Augustine Kandemwa) Gathering in the Names (Spring Journal books, 2002). The companion to this essay, The Looking Glass War, is posted at http://www.gatheringin.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.