Staring Down the Apocalypse

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Growing up in the early 1980s, I took for granted that Evangelicalism was God’s favorite child. Personal devotion. Sexual purity. A “heart” for sharing Jesus with others. These were the kinds of things we held dear as the focus of faith.

Among the other things that preoccupied some of my evangelical friends was eschatology—though, they wouldn’t have called it that. They called it the “end times”—as in, the end of the world. Back then we were living with the uncertainty posed by the Cold War. The thought of nuclear winter always lurked beneath the horizon of our consciousness. So the thought that Jesus might come again—and soon—offered some relief from the constant low-grade anxiety many people felt.

I remember one girl in high school who was convinced that she’d never see twenty-one. Jesus, she was certain, would show up any minute to deliver the devoted from the cesspool the world had become and recall them to glory. How could he not? The signs were all there: wars and rumors of wars; nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom; famines and earthquakes. It seemed perfectly obvious, and from the standpoint of anxious adolescents, perfectly necessary.

It felt like a wholesome form of escapism. I mean, it was about Jesus and heaven and smiting the foes of the faithful—all good stuff, right? How great to think of an avenging God coming with an army of angels to destroy the enemies of the committed?

Apocalypticism, a kind of eschatology concerned with the end of the world, is usually a cry for help from those who feel like they have no hope of digging themselves out of the hole they’re in (think Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John). Because people feel like they have no agency to change what’s wrong with the world, apocalypticism is a desperate desire for some power to come and vanquish foes and put things right. If you feel powerless to change your situation, the apocalypse sounds like relief, a vindication against adversaries you can’t defeat on your own.

The rich and powerful don’t cling to threads of an apocalyptic desire for deliverance. Because why would they? Deliverance from what? If you’re already safe, if you feel like you have some control over your situation, the apocalypse promises nothing for you but disruption and chaos—which is something to be feared, not embraced.

It’s the poor and powerless, the oppressed and afflicted who hang on to the faint strands of hope that apocalypticism promises—because they’ve exhausted confidence in their own ability to make meaningful change. Consequently, if change is to be had, it will have to come from somewhere outside themselves—from somewhere or something with the promise of strength to defeat the foes of those too beleaguered or helpless to do it themselves.

That’s why, I suspect, Donald Trump remains popular among two distinct sets of people: 1) those who long for a kind of savior, and 2) those who profit from people desperate for a savior. The first group sees people like me as the enemy, liberals and progressives who make fun of them and whom they believe (have been convinced?) are the source of their powerlessness and alienation from cultural respectability. The second group cynically plays on those resentments to rig the system that allows them to retain wealth and power. The first group deserves our empathy, the second group our contempt.

The second group consists of not only the president and those politicians who shamelessly enable him, but also the educated and the wealthy convinced they stand to profit by keeping in place a system that always seems to (miraculously!) make winners of them. (By the way, mad props to those who can simultaneously publicly convince the poor and the powerless that their socio-economic overlords represent the best hope of salvation, while privately sneering at the credulous dolts who actually think the wealthy and powerful actually spare a thought for them. It’s an awe-inspiring performance. Huzzah!)

If people like me—people who claim to believe the system ought to work best for those who need it most—are to be a part of the solution that restores agency to those who feel like the apocalyptic change that this president and his enablers represent is the only answer, we have to work to show them that we’re the ones on their side—that we’re not the enemy—which means we’re going to have to quit treating them as our enemies, worthy of our pity at best, or our disdain at worst.

I’ve worked long and hard to expose and shame the cynical weasels who play on the fears of the socio-economically marginalized (and I will continue to do that every chance I get; I’m a Christian after all). But I suspect that if there’s any chance to change the minds of those who are being used by greedy carnival barkers dressed in Brooks Brothers, it’s going to come by making clear that we don’t despise people who yearn for some external solution to their problems, that our concern for them isn’t some form of dutiful paternalism, but a genuine belief that the structures put in place to protect the vulnerable ought to actually, you know, protect the vulnerable.

Somehow liberals and progressives will have to check their own reflexive penchant for condescension toward those who feel like the world is so bad that only somebody like an ignorant loudmouthed bully and his henchmen are their only hope. We’ll have to show some cognitive empathy—that is, a form of empathy concerned not so much with feeling another’s feelings (affective empathy), but with trying to understand another’s feelings. And cognitive empathy takes intentionality.

But while we’re working to understand the things that drive the apocalyptic voters who support this president, we can’t forget that there are people who’ve felt powerless for substantially longer, who haven’t fallen prey to the fantasy that Donald Trump can solve their problems. People of color have suffered far, far longer and far more systematically in this culture, but don’t see in Donald Trump any kind of a savior. In fact, they see him and the people who make his presidency possible largely as racist xenophobes who offer only salvation to the very rich and the very white. So, I have to be careful in talking about this president as a savior among those who feel powerless, since a great many of those people aren’t inclined to see him that way at all. Indeed, we owe people of color perhaps an even greater commitment to cognitive empathy, because they’ve suffered for so long under our social systems. People of color ought to be our teachers about what it means to live in a world that seems built for somebody else.

Because frankly, with a president who seems bent on whipping up an actual apocalypse (complete with nuclear winter) we need to mend the drastic tears in our social fabric. If resistance is going to happen—a resistance that overthrows potential tyrants not presently in possession of all their faculties—we’re going to need more than just the liberals and progressives. We’re going to need everyone.

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