Aside from the profound irony of a US spokesperson accusing another country of not being capable of good-faith negotiations, Nikki Haley’s recent comparison of Iran to the scorpion in the frog-and-scorpion fable is the latest example of overt racism being used to channel public support in favour of a war of aggression.
Full of righteous fervour for God and country (Ms. Haley is a Sikh who converted to Christianity, and a first generation immigrant from India), she appears to believe that Iran is evil, and that it is America’s responsibility to punish it regardless of 1) the consequences for Iranian civilian populations or 2) the hypocrisy of the US accusing Iran of supporting terrorism when US use of terrorists as proxies in the Middle East is a long-standing matter of record (there’s something about this rhetorical judo of accusing your opponent of what you are most guilty that seems to have massive appeal for a certain type of smug jackass).
But the bottom line remains for Ms. Haley that America is good, and any country that crosses her is evil. We can recognise in this tribal identification a vestigial genetic survival mechanism which, for Haley, transcends any consideration of racism, morality, or good taste. In our modern, enlightened times we can also recognise the danger inherent in this atavistic ‘survival mechanism’ which is why we label it ‘fanaticism’. But when we look closely at recent American history we realise that Haley’s fanaticism fits in perfectly with a curious Biblical interpretation conflating patriotism and religion whose principle tenet is an ultimate battle between good and evil, in the form of Gog and Magog:
While the Bible was a source of morality for Jimmy Carter, for Ronald Reagan it was a source of prophecy. Israel’s redemption was a critical element of God’s divine plan as Reagan understood it, and this was intimately tied with his belief in Armageddon. In 1971, as governor of California, he spoke at a banquet:
“Biblical scholars have been saying for generations that Gog must be Russia. What other powerful nation is to the north of Israel? None. But it didn’t seem to make sense before the Russian Revolution when Russia was Christian. Now it does, now that Russia has become communistic and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God. Now it fits the description of Gog perfectly… Everything is falling into place. It can’t be long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God’s people. That must mean they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons.” (Jeremy Salt, The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands)
Reagan’s reference to the Old Testament book of Ezekiel is significant since this book represents a Biblical foundation for American Christians’ unquestioning support for Israel.
In 1984, worry over President Reagan’s frequent suggestions that the end of the world may be coming soon caused a group of about 100 Christian and Jewish religious leaders to sign a statement of concern saying that Armageddon theology is a false reading of the Bible and that belief in it diminishes concern about the possibility of nuclear war. (NYT, Oct 21, 1984).
While Reagan agonised over the geopolitical manifestations of Biblical events and characters, his successor, George Bush Sr, decided to take matters in his own hands by assuming the nickname ‘Magog’ himself in his Skull and Bones boy’s club. But it was his evangelical son, Bush Jr, who took things to the next level and actually waged war on a country based on this Armageddon theology. In 2003 when he was trying to sell the Iraq invasion to French President, Jacques Chirac; Bush told Chirac that when he looked at the Middle East, he saw “Gog and Magog at work” and the Biblical prophecies unfolding. This was his overriding argument for the invasion, and it was thankfully not enough to convince Chirac.
This is pretty hair-raising stuff if you don’t necessarily believe that the Bible provides a roadmap for the future that man is able to unerringly interpret. But worse yet, it’s only a partial picture of what the Bible has to say about Gog and Magog’s adventures. What about their appearance in the book of Revelation in the New Testament?
In many ways Ezekiel provides the foundational material for Revelation (see Sverre Bøe, Gog and Magog: Ezekiel 38-39 as Pre-text for Revelation 19,17-21 and 20,7-10). But rather than present Gog as the earthly personification of Israel’s enemies, Revelation portrays Gog and Magog as both being deceived by Satan into warring against each other:
“Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall come forth to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down out of heaven, and devoured them”
In fact, for American Christians who follow Armageddon theology, Revelation presents several serious challenges to the idea of a final battle between good and evil where Americans are the good guys. Its author, John of Patmos, was a Jew who followed Jesus and was forced into exile by the war the Roman empire waged against the Jews. John began writing Revelation barely 20 years after the Romans had desecrated and burned the Great Temple and left the inner city of Jerusalem in ruins. So when Revelation is analysed, one should not be surprised at the pronounced anti-empire message running throughout it.
After providing advice to each of the seven early Christian churches, Revelation describes a future time where massive numbers of the faithful are being persecuted and killed because of their belief in God. The prayers of these faithful mount until God finally decides to react in one of the wildest and most bizarre flights of revenge fantasy known to literature. At one point, the one responsible for the martyrdoms – the whore Babylon, a city which represents for John the Roman empire and its culture – is consumed by fire. (see Elaine Pagels – Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation)
So if you’re a modern believer in Armageddon theology, like Ronald Reagan, trying to determine who are the good and bad guys today that Revelation was referring to, you may not like what you find. The good guys are the ones who have been the most persecuted and killed because of their faith in God. If we look around the world today, the people who most closely correspond to them are not the ones American Christians might have thought. And when we try to identify the corrupt empire responsible for all the persecution and killing, the most likely suspect might give today’s Christians reason for pause…
For those of us who regard Revelation as any other story, but with profound religious and historical resonance; this New Testament book teaches that resistance to earthly authority becomes our duty when it infringes on individuals’ beliefs. But for Americans like Reagan, Bush père et fils, and now Nikki Haley, who use appeals to to their country’s intrinsic ‘goodness’ to justify its actions around the world, interpreting Revelation in a modern context cannot be acceptable. These are the kinds of people who will use Ezekiel to explain unquestioning alliance with the state of Israel, but will tell us that it’s impossible to know what Revelation is really referring to.
Fanatics come in all shapes and sizes. But the ones responsible for American foreign policy today might do us all a favour by giving Revelation a critical read and asking themselves where they and their country fit in.
Steve Cooper is an American expat in France. He’s recently completed Ant Hell, an illustrated retelling of Revelation. Videos of the story are being posted online.