Islamic State (IS) has added Jordan and Egypt to the list of nations they want to draw into their rampage. The desire for an apocalypse is not unique to them. People kill in the name of Jesus. Others kill in the name of Allah. Two millennia ago, multiple legions of the Roman Empire were sucked into a series of Levantine wars that touches our geopolitics today. A small group of extremists, with apocalyptic writings in mind, incited an uprising in Jerusalem that resulted in the slaughter of over a million Jews, including the militants, but mostly civilians, and the enslavement of nearly 100,000 more of their kinsmen. During the next half-century the Empire demolished over 1,000 towns and villages and another 600,000 Jews would die. These figures do not account for enormous Roman casualties.
Religious radicals escalate warfare because they truly believe that cataclysm and disaster will produce a better world. When I was in college in the 1970s, I attended the showing of "The Late Great Planet Earth," based on Hal Lindsey's best-seller with the same name. The book was largely based on the Bible's books of Daniel and Revelation. Americans were afraid of the Soviet Union and were fixated with Lindsey's discovery of Communism in the Bible's apocalypses. An apocalypse uses symbolism, including strange hybrid creatures, numerical codes, along with clouds and smoke, with explanations provided by otherworldly agents including angels. While the meanings of these print-pictures would have been quite clear to their original audiences, the pictures are recondite to most readers today. I was inundated by Christian teachers who exploited people's fears and hopes by ungracefully interpreting these apocalypses in detail, imposing their interpretations on the present moment in history.
My only anchor to eschatological sanity was the small black church that I attended. The reverend had grown up in Jim Crow Arkansas, never having graduated high school and made plenty of hermeneutical mistakes, but I count myself blessed to have had a pastor and church who took the words of Jesus seriously, "No man knows the day or the hour," and, "The Son of Man will come at a time you do not expect." Hal Lindsey was joined by Chuck Smith and other leading Evangelical teachers who set dates for the Rapture, the event when all true Christians would be invisibly airlifted from Earth, leaving everyone else to suffer the intensifying horrors of a godless human race left to its own devices. The 1980s passed and we were all still here. There was one lasting, ominous side-effect to their unfortunate biblical scholarship: they based their dates on the 1948 formation of the state of Israel, and in so doing, produced a generation of Christian Zionists. For these Christians, the fate of Israel became America's most important foreign policy concern, because without Israel there could be no Battle of Armageddon. This apocalyptic war, depicted in the Book of Revelation, is scheduled to take place between Israel and her assailant, at one time most certainly Russia, but now perhaps Syria or Iran.
This persistent Christian Zionism opened the door for a new brand of Christian science fiction, the immensely popular "Left Behind" series, selling over 65 million copies along with $14,000,000 in box office revenue. More recently, the late Harold Camping attracted the nation's attention by predicting a May 21, 2011 Rapture. It may be impossible to quantify the damage done domestically, much less internationally, because of our yearning to find a better world.
When I was a young child I would occasionally hear my dear, devoutly Christian mother suggest after hearing bad news, "These are the last and evil days." This could have been in the aftermath of a neighborhood crime or a global catastrophe. I was psychologically impacted by that. While I was more hopeful than my mom, maybe because my African-American parents birthed me into a less threatening world, I still converted my mother's worldview into the over-shielding of my own children from the influences of "the world." We religious see the present as prelude to the good, but first we must pass through the bad. And the bad is always violent.
It's not that violence is inherently appealing to religious people. We have simply been led to expect no other pathway to glory. Apocalyptic scriptures share one feature: They were always composed in distressing times for the benefit of desperate people who occupied a particular moment in history. They suffered politically and economically. They were tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and only a dramatic rescue by God could help. If we can re-read these texts with that in mind, only then can we be peacemakers, noticing that, oddly, in none of our apocalyptic writings, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, do we see a call to arms.