Thursday, May 26, 2011

Longing for the End of the World

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, for most of May Christianity has been in the news. Or rather, a tiny splinter of Christianity has. The leader of a tiny religious organization predicted the Rapture on May 21, and there was lots of news coverage.

It was all actually very standard: a strange fringe belief held by a small minority of Christians dominated the news, mainstream Christians were left out of the discussion entirely, there was a lot of joking and teasing about the strangeness of the strange belief (I'll admit to doing some), and then there was the inevitable complaint that the teasing amounted to persecuting of Christians. To this I say: no one likes being teased but, hey, it's not the end of the world.

The belief in the Rapture, which holds that a tiny minority of God's favorites will be taken directly to Heaven before the difficulties of the End Times (presumably so they don't have to suffer for their faith or do anything to help other people during a time of terrible suffering) is a new idea that's emerged over the past century or so. It was entirely unknown to any Christians for eighteen or nineteen centuries and is still completely foreign to the beliefs of most Christian groups. And yes, the people who espouse this belief all claim to derive it directly from the Bible, in a plain-and-open reading which somehow no one else (including St. Jerome) was smart enough to see for nearly two thousand years. I guess the rest of us must not be reading the text, um, directly enough.

If I seem grouchy, it's not so much the belief in the Rapture that's annoying me but the habit that many small, divisive and extremist groups have of referring to themselves simply as "Christian" as though they were the main body of believers rather than a very, very small sub-group with thirty parishioners in Wichita. When you're that small and special, you need a special name. At least the Branch Davidians admitted they were a branch, and not the whole tree. On the other hand, the fringe preacher in Minnesota who denounced Barack Obama as an unbeliever while giving the legislature's daily prayer had built up to his attack by talking about universal Christianity that went beyond denominations. One minute he's talking about not being divided up into Lutherans and Calivinists and "Wesleyans," and then, BAM! he's throwing the President of the United States out of the universal body of Christianity. It's an old move by now, and I'm tired of it.

My branch of Christianity isn't expecting or predicting the end of the world, let alone trying to hurry it along. And the truth is, I'm not hoping for it. It's a flawed and problematic world, full of suffering, but it's God's world too and I like it. I'm more than happy to let God set the schedule for Armageddon, and I'm in no rush.

But I understand why some of my fellow-Christians feel differently. One of the tough things for American Christians in the 21st century is that we have a very marginal place in Christianity's grand narrative. We're much, much too late to have been there at the beginning, or any of the beginnings. We're not the founders, or the forerunners; that part of the story is taken. And we don't play the role of the persecuted martyrs, who became heroes and heroines by suffering for their faith. Some of us actually stoop to making up imaginary affronts, trying to share some of those martyrs' glory. But really, we have it incredibly soft in this country. We're not going to have to face the lions, ever. None of us are famous and glorious Christians.

Longing for the end of the world, waiting impatiently for it to arrive, is longing for a better, more prominent role in the Christian story. If you can't be there at the beginning, you can be there at the end. A big part in the last chapter is like having a big part in the first. Some Americans hope for the world to end so that Jesus will save them, not simply from their sins, but from their ordinariness. It's not enough to be an ordinary Christian, somewhere in the long middle of a millennia-long history. Some people want, need, a special role in the main story.

I understand exactly how they feel; the people waiting for the world to end are wrestling with one of the subtlest and most daunting challenges of Christianity itself: the excruciating humility it takes to accept God's love. The beautiful thing about Christianity is that God loves you, whatever your flaws. What's appalling about that is what makes you special is your membership in the human race, your identity as God's child. God doesn't love you because you're smart or pretty or funny, because you can jump especially high or are extra good at carrying a tune. God loves you because God loves you, and loves every one else for the same reason. That is very hard to take.

So we see a lot of people who profess themselves Christians, loudly, but who are driven by a need to be more than merely God's beloved. They need to be God's special beloved, the favorites, loved and chosen above others. You see this need expressed in many different ways: in the longing for the End Times, and opportunity it holds to take center stage; in the insistent declarations of persecution and tribulation by people who get religious holidays off with pay; in the Washington "Family" and its obsession with divine "anointment" of leaders; and by the belief in a very selective company of the saved (something that does come from traditional mainstream Calvinism), while the vast majority of the human race is damned. The Rapture belief combines the first and last of these; only a tiny minority get Raptured, while the rest are left behind for punishment by a God who only loves a few very special children.

In short, they believe in Nightclub Heaven, with a guest list and a velvet rope. I believe in festival-seating heaven. It's an old split among Christianity.

If I ever go to Heaven, that will be terrific. Eternal life with God is more than enough. I don't need VIP seating. I'll gratefully take standing room, the 600-millionth-odd saved soul from the left. And I hope everyone else gets in, too. I don't need God to love me more than other people. How can you love your fellow human beings without wanting what is best for them?

I'm all too competitive and ambitious in my daily secular life; I spend approximately forty percent of my working hours trying to distinguish myself from others and further my personal career. But I don't see the life of faith as a continuation of those secular values. Christianity is not about pride. And jockeying to be the brightest light in heaven, Christian tradition tells us, is a very, very bad idea.

In the end, the division between big-tent-heaven Christians like myself and VIP Room Christians is a question of how we imagine God. For me, believing in God and salvation cannot be separated from believing in that God's unique talent for wooing us to the right path. You gotta have faith in the shepherd. And a shepherd this good doesn't lose much of the flock.

Nor do I have any interest in serving a God who wants to elevate me and cast down most of the rest of the human race for punishment. That plan is not worthy of the God I was raised to believe in, and it doesn't much resemble the teachings in the Gospel.

I'm not so different from the people longing for the Rapture. I also hear whispers in my heart, too often, telling me that I am better than other people, or that I should be rewarded and those people should be punished. I've heard that. But I also know one thing: that ain't Jesus talking.

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