27 February 2017

The Seductions of Premillennialism

I quite agree with this paragraph from Scott Lemieux (and I enjoyed his post title's allusion to a good Casey Affleck movie):

People for whom it’s never not 1996 notwithstanding, the Democratic Party is clearly moving to the left, as it should be. What the priorities of this coalition should be when it gets the chance to govern and how to get it in a position to govern remain pressing questions with plenty of room for disputation. But the DNC race will barely merit a footnote when this history is written, and distorting the players to try to transform it into a desperate Last Battle for the Very Soul of the Democratic Party is deeply strange.

Strange, yes, but also something we should recognize and be able to name.  It's premillennial thinking, and I must credit Rev. Patrick Cheng for formally introducing it to me at Episcopal Divinity School.

Many of the earliest Christians were really into it.  They took certain cryptic Gospel passages (Matthew 10:21-23* is a good example) to mean that persecutions and other terrors were going to keep piling up and life was going to get worse and worse until finally Jesus the Christ would return in glory, and reward those who never betrayed the faith.

Eventually (certainly by the time of Augustine of Hippo), institutional Christianity rejected this view of the future.  Something called postmillennialism was invented, positing a society that would continuously improve in holiness and justice until, finally, Christ could come back and people could accept him as True Lord.  (This may remind you of certain "free-market" thinkers.)  Yet premillennial movements came back over and over again at times of social and economic crisis, notably during the first throes of the Reformation.

It is, I hope, clear to most people who think about it carefully that today's atheists and agnostics are influenced by culturally bound ways of thinking that date from long before they were born.  Furthermore, I think quite a few non-religious leftist writers of today are jumping on the premillennial bandwagon with a zeal that rivals the 16th-century Anabaptists.  The frenzied search for traitors to the true faith found in the tweets of an Emmett Rensin ("it would be better, I think, if X just confessed") is not really a secular kind of rhetoric.

I know the seductive power of premillennial thinking because I have been gripped by it myself.  In November 2010, when the "Republican wave" happened and a certain Walker became governor of Wisconsin, I was sure that it was the first of many persecutions and tribulations for the progressive-left faithful, and that those would only worsen until somebody like Bernie Sanders came along (more or less).  And, with Act 10 etc., there was plenty of evidence to confirm this thinking!  And, yes, Wisconsin's roads and public universities are even now crumbling and ripe for the consuming fire!!

But as a 35-year-old now, I just find premillennialism exhausting.  Not every political loss has to mean a step further toward the Day of Wrath.  Tom Perez, though he was neither my first nor second choice for DNC chair, really doesn't seem to be a dark prince of Clintonism or Satan's anointed champion for the harrowing of True Progressives.  To me, he's a somewhat nerdy Latino administrator from Buffalo who has a really tough job ahead of him.


*"Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.  When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes." (NRSV)

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