Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Fantasies of Some American Christians about "Good" Violence as Precursor of Second Coming: Theological Root Not to Overlook in Gun-Control Debate

Because of our historical amnesia and religious illiteracy — both of them aided and abetted by our media — many Americans know little about powerful strands in American Christian thought, especially among white evangelicals, that feed our national fantasies about guns and violence. When Western Christianity made its fateful turn with Constantine, conflating church and state in many troubling ways and resulting in the church's blessing of state violence, it turned decisively away from the pacifist theology of such early Christian thinkers as Tertullian, who taught (On Idolatry) that wearing the belt of a soldier was incompatible with following Jesus, who had instructed his followers that those who take the sword will die by the sword. 

From Constantine forward, there have always been strands of Christianity — often prominent and dominant ones — that have given full leeway to Christians to use violence against perceived enemies. Karen Armstrong's history of Christians' interaction with the Muslim world provides damning information about this, as do histories of the pogroms practiced by Christians for centuries. The mass murder of Jews (and Gypsies and Slavs and homosexuals and political dissidents and the mentally and physically defective) by the Nazi state, as Christians in much of Europe, to a great extent, remained totally silent about this mass murder: this, too, is rooted in the dark history of Christian violence, and of complicit Christian silence in the face of state violence.

But there's a uniquely American twist to this story that has strong bearing on the thinking and behavior of many Americans today — in particular, on the thinking of those American Christians who are ardent disciples of the man now occupying the White House. As American Christianity began to cope with the double threats of the historical-critical method of reading scripture and the Darwinian theory of evolution at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, a considerable proportion of American Christians, particularly in the white evangelical world, began to adopt a reading of the Jewish and Christian scriptures that was outright apocalpytic, that accented apocalpytic themes and stories about blood and battles and enemies and triumphant believers. In response to these and other major intellectual and cultural shifts in the latter half of the 19th century and first part of the 20th century, many Americans began to speak of "worldly" culture as demonic, diabolical, inimical to Christian faith and values.

In the fundamentalist iteration of evangelicalism that began to thrive during this period of reaction to the historical-critical way of reading the bible and to the theory of evolution, it became widely accepted by many American Christians that the end of the world was certainly at hand — and that the world's end should be welcomed and even hastened by Christians, as they helped to usher in the second coming of Christ. Again, these are not new ideas: this apocalpytic fantasy has recurred over and over throughout Christian history.

The American evangelical twist on this old theme of thought among some Christians, however, has been to promote a noteworthy fascination with fantasies about violence, about good violence, as the portal to the end of time and the second coming of Christ. Via the fundamentalist movement that swept white evangelical communities in the early 20th century, and laid a foundation for the Religious Right and the Moral Majority in the latter part of this century, American Christianity has incorporated into its belief system a taste for violence, a penchant for violence, a sick interest in blood and gore.

Because Christ. Because Second Coming. Because the world is headed to hell in a handbasket.

These notions born out of the fundamentalist reaction in white evangelicalism at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries are only stronger now. Now, they have been conflated with toxic ideas about the God-given hegemony of straight white males, about their "right" to dominate others — especially women, people of color, and queer folks — and to use violence if necessary to achieve this goal. These fantasies about "good" violence have been massaged quite deliberately by governmental leaders in the thrall of the NRA, who assure that, when acts of mass murder take place in the U.S. as a result of the country's lack of gun controls, not only will many Christians not stand against this violence: they will bless and defend it and bend over backwards to find ways to pretend that the obvious is not obvious to them. That the problem is not guns and the ease with which they can be bought in America, but "evil" and "secularism" and "mental illness" . . . .

The version of Christianity that emerges from these strands of thought, which placed in the White House the man now occupying it and is determined to keep that man there, is — it's not exaggerated to say this — a demonic distortion of the Christian gospels and the person of Jesus Christ. It overtly blesses violence. It publicly jubilates in guns and widespread gun ownership. It lusts for some apocalpytic event in which the righteous will finally have divine permission to exterminate those who have been denominated as the unrighteous.

Because Christ. Because Second Coming. Because the world is headed to hell in a handbasket.

And this dangerously distorted version of Christianity has increasing influence not only among white evangelicals in the U.S., but among their fellow travelers, including many white Catholics. This dangerously distorted, violence-infatuated and violence-blessing distortion of Christianity is particularly attractive to the "pro-life" white Christians who are responsible for the nation's current president.

Go figure.

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