He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be.
—Revelation 1:7, NRSV from The Jewish Annotated New Testament
I think that most of us, regardless of political or religious affiliation, can agree that 2016 was an incredibly challenging year. For myself, this past year brought the great disappointment of a Trump presidency, and the shock of my cousin’s heroin overdose. So, going home for Christmas this year was difficult for several reasons. For one, I am frightened for the future of America. I have family members who voted for Trump, with whom I struggle to communicate without giving into outrage. Secondly, my family is still reeling from the sudden death of my cousin, Brad. And even though some members of my family feel victorious after this election season, no one is happy. Hope is scarce, and I am afraid. I am afraid that our country will crumble under this new administration and that people’s rights will be taken from them with impunity. And I am afraid that my family, if they continue to deny their past traumas and dysfunctions, will never recover from this loss.
As a biblical scholar I have been thinking critically about how we as academics should integrate the Bible and theology into our political lives. Given the chaos of this election cycle I have often thought of biblical apocalyptic literature, depicting the end of times. This election and the death of my cousin have at times made me feel as though the world is ending. This sentiment was expressed to me to a greater degree by my cousin Kasee, in response to the loss of her brother. On Christmas night, while taking to Kasee about the future of space travel, she blurted out that she hopes we won’t be here that long. I sat there slightly stunned by her outburst, but prompted her forward. She continued, stating that having faced Brad’s death she is no longer afraid of dying, and expressed a hope that Jesus would rapture us all before we ever land on Mars. The hopelessness in her apocalyptic worldview speaks to her despair over the tragic and unexpected death of her brother.
Having been raised together in Kentucky in the Christian Evangelical tradition I understand my cousin’s “end times” perspective. But as a student of biblical studies I also see the ridiculousness, and the quiet assent present in her statement. She no longer wants to fight, she wants the suffering that can come with human existence to be over and to rest in the presence of her God. I get it, sometimes I don’t want to fight either, but that’s not how the world works, that’s not how life works. We cannot afford the luxury of inaction at this time in our nation’s history or at this juncture in my family’s journey towards healing.
We cannot simply give up and let evil and darkness win in the hopes that God will save us. We have to act in the present, not idly lament and hope for a better future, randomly ushered in by a messianic figure. We do not live in the end times, there will not be a rapture. These are created concepts that help us to cope with the suffering of human existence. But, accepting these facts about biblical literature can be difficult precisely because these stories provide order and help us to make sense of the uncertainties of life. So, as politically and theologically engaged academics what do we do? How far can or should we push our students? Our fellow citizens? Our loved ones? Is my academic perspective “better” than my cousin’s theological perspective? Will “educating” her on apocalyptic literature ease the pain of her loss? Will it grant her any clarity? And if so, to what end?
In saying this, I realize my own privileged position as a college educated white woman living in the United States, perusing an advanced degree in the Hebrew Bible. However, I hope to use this knowledge in order to better understand and address the fear and despair I see within the spheres that I navigate: the religious right of my family and the liberal left of academia. As for the former, I think that claiming that we live in the end times allows for a forfeiture of responsibility for trying to make present life more meaningful, or for engaging globally to make the world a better place. As for the latter, we fear that our work lacks purpose and real world application, which can be paralyzing. We must give in to such self-defeating thoughts, but instead create new inroads and engage broader audiences. And while we may encounter resistance because we challenge people to think critically about their belief systems we also offer hope, compassion, and community to all whom we encounter.
On Christmas I listened to my cousin because she was in pain. And while I disagree with her worldview, I don’t know how to tell her this without threatening or shattering her theology. How do we as a society address such apocalyptic worldviews? How do we challenge complacency, both spiritual and political in a way that does not alienate the right or further demonize the left? I think that these questions are significant and should be part of our future political conversations because such worldviews inevitably affect the way society functions, allowing for a quiet acquiescence to the powers that be. I for one will not be silent and I will not give in to despair. Instead I will cling to hope, knowing that though life can be filled with disappointment, pain and sorrow, the core of humanity is good and is capable of change and action.