Praying for the Apocalypse
The Gilead Baptist Church, outside Detroit, is on a four-lane highway called South Telegraph Road. The drive down South Telegraph Road to the church, a warehouse-like structure surrounded by black asphalt parking lots, is a depressing gantlet of boxy, cut-rate motels with names like Melody Lane and Best Value Inn. The highway is flanked by a flat-roofed Walgreens, a Blockbuster, discount liquor stores, a Taco Bell, a McDonald’s, a Bob’s Big Boy, Sunoco and Citgo gas stations, a Ford dealership, Nails USA, The Dollar Palace, Pro Quick Lube and U-Haul. The tawdry display of cheap consumer goods, emblazoned with neon, lines both sides of the road, a dirty brown strip in the middle. It is a sad reminder that something has gone terribly wrong with America, with its inhuman disregard for beauty and balance, its obsession with speed and utilitarianism, its crass commercialism and its oversized SUVs and trucks and greasy junk food. It is part of our numbing assault against community and connectedness.
Ten or fifteen minutes of negotiating the traffic down South Telegraph Road makes the bizarre attraction of the End Times — the obliteration of this world of alienation, noise and distortion — comprehensible. The manufacturing jobs in the Detroit auto plants nearby are largely gone, outsourced to nations with cheaper labor. The paint is flaking off the cramped two-story houses that lie in ugly grid patterns off the highway. The plagues of alcoholism, divorce, drug abuse, poverty and domestic violence make the internal life here as depressing as the external one. And those gathering today in this church wait for the final, welcome relief of the purgative of violence, the vast, bloody cleansing that will lift them up into the heavens and leave the world they despise — the one that was devastated by corporatism — to be racked by plagues and flood and fire until it and all those whom they blame for the debacle of their lives are consumed and destroyed by God. It is a theology of despair. And for many, it can’t happen soon enough.
The guru of the End Times movement is a small, elderly, gnome-like man with dyed coal-black hair, a battery-powered earpiece and a pedantic, cold demeanor. He is Timothy LaHaye, a Southern Baptist minister and the co-author, along with Jerry Jenkins, of the “Left Behind” series of Christian apocalyptic thrillers that provide the graphic details of raw mayhem and cruelty that God will unleash on all nonbelievers when Christ returns and raptures Christians into heaven. The novels are the best-selling books in America, with over 62 million in print. They have been made into movies, as well as a graphic video game in which teenagers can blow away nonbelievers and the army of the Antichrist on the streets of New York City.
The global nightmare that leads to the end of history is a visceral and disturbing expression of what believers feel about themselves and our world. The horror of apocalyptic violence — the final aesthetic of the movement — at once terrifies and thrills followers. It feeds dark fantasies of revenge and empowerment. This theology of despair is empowered by widespread poverty, violent crime, incurable diseases, global warming, war in the Middle East and the threat of nuclear calamity. All these events presage the longed-for obliteration of the Earth and the glorious moment of Christ’s return. But until then believers are told they must battle Satan. And Satan comes in many guises. In churches across the United States believers are being girded for a holy war, one as self-destructive as that preached by radical Islam.
“We are at war with the religion of Islam,” Gary Frazier, another popular leader, tells the crowd in the church outside Detroit, “and it is not a handful of radical Islamists who are taking over the religion and hijacking it. The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, today if you read the Koran, and any person who reads their Koran, the holy book of the Muslims, and believes what the book says, over a hundred times it calls for the putting to death of any person that does not embrace the teachings of Mohammed.
“Can you explain to me how in the West that we would understand a person who would strap dynamite upon themselves and blow themselves up along with innocent men and women and children with the promise that they would have 70 brown-haired, I mean blond-haired, blue-eyed virgins for their unlimited sexual pleasure in this place called Paradise? And the parents of that person then throw a party celebrating the destruction of their child. You want to tell me you understand that kind of mentality? Because I don’t believe that. There’s no one in the Western world that can comprehend that kind of mind-set, but, ladies and gentlemen, that is the mind-set of the religion of Islam around the world.
“Islam,” Frazier says dramatically, “is a satanic religion.”
He warns of Muslim “sleeper cells” in America waiting to carry out new terrorist attacks.
“You may have a Muslim doctor, and he may be a wonderful person,” he says. “He may love his family, but you know what’ll happen? One day, they will come to him — I’m just using this as an illustration — they will come to him and they’ll say, ‘We have a mission for you, and you will either do as you’re told,’ [or,] and they’ll whip out the pictures, ‘Here are your three children. We’ll send their heads to you in a box.’ Now, the difference is, is that if somebody told you that, you’d call the FBI or Homeland Security or somebody like that. They’re not going to do that. Do you know why? Because they know the Muslim will do just what they say, and when it comes right down to where the rubber meets the road, boys and girls, they’re going to save the lives of their own children before they’ll save your own. And you most likely would probably do the same thing yourselves.”
He pauses and slowly scans the crowd, which sits silently, expectantly awaiting his next sentence.
“I thank God for our men and women who are fighting over there because if they weren’t fighting there, we’d be fighting right here in the streets of America. I’m convinced of that,” he says, and the sanctuary erupts in loud applause.
America, the crowd is told, is being ruled by evil, clandestine organizations that hide behind the veneer of liberal, democratic groups. These clandestine forces seek to destroy Christians. They spread their demonic, secular humanist ideology through front groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, the Trilateral Commission and “the major TV networks, high-profile newspapers and newsmagazines,” the U.S. State Department, major foundations (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford), the United Nations, “the left wing of the Democratic Party” and Harvard, Yale “and 2,000 other colleges and universities.” All of these groups have joined forces, LaHaye has warned, to “turn America into an amoral, humanist country, ripe for merger into a one-world socialist state.”
The radical Christian right has no religious legitimacy. It is a mass political movement. It is interchangeable, in many ways, with other traditional political movements ranging from fascism to communism to the ethnic nationalist parties in the former Yugoslavia. It shares with these movements an inability to cope with ambiguity, doubt and uncertainty. It also embraces a world of miracles and signs and makes war on rational, reality-based thought. It condemns self-criticism and debate as apostasy. It places a premium on action. It dismisses those who do not bow down before its god — and the leaders who claim to speak for God — as heretics and traitors. This movement shares with corporatists, who are busy cannibalizing our society for profit, the belief that there are a chosen few who know the truth and therefore have the right to impose it. The citizen, the individual, no longer has any legitimacy in this new world. All legitimacy is assumed by groups, whether they are corporate groups herding us over the cliff of globalization or religious groups that give popular vent to corporate-generated despair through faith in the Christian utopia. In this paradigm — corporate and religious — we become disempowered, afraid, passive and easily manipulated.
Apocalyptic visions like this one have, throughout history, cowed populations and inspired genocidal killers. They have enticed societies into collective suicide. These visions nourished the butchers who led the Inquisition, the Crusades and the conquistadors who swept through the Americas converting and then exterminating the native population. These visions sustained the SS guards at Auschwitz, the Stalinists who consigned tens of thousands of Ukrainian families to starvation and death, the torturers in the clandestine prisons in Argentina during the Dirty War and the Serbian thugs with heavy machine guns and wraparound sunglasses who stood over the bodies of those they had slain in the smoking ruins of Bosnian villages. Those who promise to purify the world through violence, to relieve the anxiety of moral pollution and despair, appeal to our noblest sentiments, our highest virtues, our capacity for self-sacrifice and our utopian visions of a cleansed world. It is this coupling of fantastic hope and profound despair, along with visions of peace and light and absolute terror, of selflessness and murder, which frees the consciences of those who call for and carry out the eradication of those they have banished from moral consideration. When leaders of this movement, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, sanction, as they do, pre-emptive nuclear strikes against our enemies, and therefore the enemies of God, they fuel the passions of terrorists in love with the same apocalyptic nightmares. They march us to our own doom cheered by the delusion that once the dogs of war, even nuclear war, are unleashed, hundreds of millions will die, but because Christians have been blessed and chosen by God they alone will arise in triumph from the ash heap.
In this new world, where those who seek to do us harm will soon have in their hands cruder versions of the apocalyptic weapons we possess, dirty bombs or chemical or biological agents, the vision of those among us who welcome catastrophic warfare, indeed seek to hasten it, who fervently await the apocalypse and the end of time, who believe they will be lifted up into the sky by a returning Christ, forces us all to kneel before the god of death. The prayers these “Christians” near Detroit — and tens of millions across the nation — utter for deliverance and apocalyptic glory only hasten our flight from reality and ensure our self-annihilation.
Chris Hedges, who graduated from seminary at Harvard Divinity School and was a foreign correspondent for nearly two decades for The New York Times, is the author of “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.”