The Rule of the Righteous Ones
In his talk, Bill Moyers discussed the fundamentalist religious mania that informs American politics, and has done so for some time now. Given the scout's honor earnestness with which President George W. Bush declares his personal faith in public, and demonstrates it in political terms, it is perhaps no surprise that Bible Belt fundamentalism has been guiding White House political prerogatives since the first Reagan term. Believe it or not, the Texan politician often described as "the most powerful man in the world" says he was called to his mission by God. And believe it not, God has an agenda, a master plan that President Bush is intent on fulfilling. A plan that Bill Moyers finds deeply disturbing.
It may come as a suprise to some people that God's plan involves the full-scale destruction of the planet we inhabit. In some bizarre manner, He, the Creator God and Father of Jesus, wants to destroy the world in order to save humanity — or a select portion of it, anyway. But then it makes sense that the Supreme Being who created this world has the right to annihilate it, doesn't it? It does to some people. And not just a few, either. The promise of a planetary holocaust is actually cherished by millions of God-fearing Christians around the world, and strategically anticipated by the politicians who lead them. Those living in the USA who share George W. Bush's "faith" made "god-damned" sure he got reelected.
The promise of global annihilation is not new in American politics. Moyers recalls how James Watt, President Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior, "told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, 'after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.' " Watt was not the only member of the Reagan White House known to hold such extremist views. Reagan himself firmly believed that Armegeddon would happen in the Middle East. For at least 20 years now the political policies of the USA have been underwritten by a divine agenda.
We can only wonder, How far back does this complex run?
In metahistorical terms, the Armageddon scenario breaks down into a core belief system with narrative variations. Bush and Co. are operating on a recent variation described by Bill Moyers in a paraphrase he credits to British writer, George Monbiot : "Once Israel has occupied the rest of its 'biblical lands,' legions of the anti-Christ will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow."
Moyers adds sardonically: "I'm not making this up." Yes, Bill, we know that, but someone else certainly did. As far as historians can tell, the author of this script seems to have been an itinerant Evangelist named John Nelson Darby. Taking advantage of the ambiguous and contradictory material on Jesus in the NT, Darby came up with the idea that Jesus would return twice, once to summon the faithful to the Father, and again to reign over a celestial battle above Armageddon in the Middle East. Darby was himself inspired by an unnamed Scottish girl who had visions of the Second Coming around 1830, when she was in her teens.
Thus, a mere wisp of a Scottish lass originated the script that enshrines the beliefs held by the leading politicians of the American right today. Not to mention untold millions of ordinary American citizens and other Christians around the world, including a continually burgeoning number of "converts" in Africa, many of whom are impoverished Blacks dying of AIDS and terrorized by local wars. No wonder they passionately embrace the endtime story. Anything to escape the hell of their lives on earth.
Esteemed historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., author of fourteen books, observes that in the 19th century when the Darby narrative emerged, "all presidents of course professed belief in a heavenly father, though religion did not occupy a major presence in their lives." He also notes that in his youth, "Presidential Evangelicals were a disdained minority," and "born-again fundamentalists could be relied on to be anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic." All this began to change with Jimmy Carter, and now, Schlesinger explains, "the Protestant Right has formed an alliance with right-wing Catholics over abortion and with right-wing Jews over the Holy Land." ("Holy War" in Playboy, December 2004. Painting of Bush and Rumsfeld as Crusaders by John Thompson, with the article.)
The result is, fundamentalists now outnumber mainline Protestants—i.e., those who may tend to distance themselves from the endtime mythos. With this shift, the bizarre visions of a Scottish teenager have come to the forefront of religious imagination in the USA.
Schlesinger's careful analysis shows how religion and politics have become allies over the past forty years, but it does not explain the immense appeal of the Armageddon complex as such. I would propose two observations, one short focus and one long focus. First, in short focus, it is obvious that believing in the will of God to destroy the natural world is a fantastic way to rationalize the destruction of nature by consumption and pollution. Americans are known for contributing to environmental havoc at a level that far exceeds their numbers—I can't cite those figures here, but we have all seen them. How do you soothe your conscience about driving a SUV and consuming an inordinate share of the world's natural resources? Well, if the destruction you wreak is but a small contribution to a larger scheme in which God is going to set all things right...
Second, in long focus, there is deeper meaning in the fundamentalist coalition with Catholics and Jews, noted by Schlesinger. The religion of Roman Catholicism is not a religion at all—at least not in the sense that it provides genuine moral and spiritual guidance for the masses. Roman Catholicism is a political ideology in religious guise, and has been little more than that since the days of Constantine, the faux-convert Emperor who married the Empire to the One True Faith. Others before Bill Moyers have observed that Christianity provides religious cover for a fascist globalization scheme (convert, conquer, colonialize, consume), but this insight only goes halfway to the core of the madness to which Moyers is now alerting the world. The catholic ("universal") program of salvation institutionalized by Constantine predates him by about 500 years, so the Jewish-Catholic alliance has deeper, pre-Christian roots. Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, historians of religion now understand that the salvationist ideology championed by American neocons in geopolitical terms dates back to obscure cultic origins in Palestine. We are looking here into a deep, deep fissure in the human psyche.
The shocking revelation of the DSS exploded upon the world in 1991 after nearly fifty years of suppression and disinformation by the Ecole Biblique, the team of Catholic scholars and archeologists assigned to excavate the caves at Qumran and produce an "official view" on the Scrolls. Led by Father Roland de Vaux, and working with the full support of the Vatican, the Ecole Biblique attempted to keep the world ignorant about many things concerning the DSS, but especially one point, one crucial and sensational lesson of history: Christianity did not emerge from mainstream Jewish religion, but from a radical Jewish sect that was, in its own time and setting, hostile to the entire world, including the Jewish people themselves.
In short, the message of universal love attributed to Christianity and encoded into the political tactics of Roman Catholicism is the outgrowth of a genocidal cult complex, the belief system of the Zaddikim, "the Righteous Ones." This was an extremist splinter group whose policies of sectarian hatred speak from the Scrolls with clarion intensity and blood-chilling conviction. The mad hunger for a world-scale holocaust goes back to the Zaddikim. So violent and so vengeful were the beliefs held by this group that they had to retreat to the hills south of Jerusalem, both to escape the Roman authorities (that Qumran was a fortress and not a peaceful settlement of hippie-like "Essenes" was one of the archeological findings suppressed by de Vaux), as well as to avoid the wrath of devout mainstream Jews who perceived the sectarians (and rightly so) as a danger to the survival of the Jewish community under Roman occupation.
The organization of the Qumranic extremists was three-layered. The core group of ideologues, the Zaddikim, held some highly esoteric beliefs regarding how the world would end and the Righteous would be saved. Surrounding them was a mesoteric group, the Chassidim, the "Pious Ones," who knew less about the core ideology but served it by enforcing inhumane standards of purity on the cult members. Surrounding these two circles were the Zealots, a band of cutthroats like Judas Iscariot (literally, "Knifeman") and burly enforcers like Simon Peter (literally, "Rocky"). The Zealots were known assassins who killed their fellow Jews as readily as they did Romans. In fact, the practice of crucifixion began among the Jews in the early days of the Zaddikim movement, around 150 BCE. The militant wing of the Zaddikim were terrorists, comparable to Islamic groups like Hamas who today are fighting for liberation of Palestine from the Jews—just as the Zealots fought to liberate the same territory from Roman occupation, over 2000 years ago.
Among these terrorists was a special character, Jesus of Palestine, a man revered and protected by the Zealots because they regarded him as the national liberator, the Messiah who would be King of the Jews. Jesus was, in effect, the Yasar Arafat of the Jewish Liberation Front.
Contrary to the popular notion that Christianity (in all its forms) grew out of Jewish religion, studies by DSS scholars not controlled by the Vatican now show that the larval form of Christian-Catholic salvationism is uniquely found in Zaddikim ideology, not in the mainstream religion of the ancient Hebrews. The "Righteous Ones" were xenophobic extremists who endangered ordinary Jews and used Hebrew religion to mount a political end-game with Rome. Among the Zealots were genuine freedom-fighters who died at their own hands, Pagan-style, rather than surrender to the Romans at Masada. Such partisans were ignorant of the secret agenda of the inner circle. After 70 CE, the movement to overthrow Roman occupation did not survive, but the bizarre ideology of the Zaddikim did.
The Jewish messiah complex, including the belief that the ancient Hebrews were the Chosen People of the sole true Creator God, was never fulfilled in mainstream Jewish religion, and remains today an unrealized project. But the sectarian core myth survived, and mutated weirdly. During the Babylonian Captivity, around 600 BCE, some Hebrew religionists absorbed the Persion myth of Celestial Warfare in which Absolute Good is pitted against Absolute Evil into their theological corpus. Further developed by the visionary prophets such as Ezekiel and Daniel, this theme became the central fixation of the Zaddikim for whom the Messiah was both a national-racial liberator and a supernatural avenger. All this is written large and clear in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the millenial testament of the Zaddikim.
When the Zaddikim, Chasidim and Zealots were wiped out by the Romans, lest they destabilize the Empire, the Empire took on the Messianic complex like a virus caught by the conqueror from the conquered. In fact, Pagan intellectuals of the time referred to Christianity as an "incendiary virus" spreading over the Mediterranean world. The virulent endtime ideology, at first confined to the tiny sect of the Zaddikim, burst into pandemic proportions via the "catholic" message of universal love—which just happens to have a hate-driven holocaust scenario attached to it. How odd. Anyway, the combination of a religious message of love with the guarantee of fascist enforcement of God's Plan (a plan inherited from the ancient Hebrews, and originally intended for them alone, but now revised for the world at large) is a win-win situation. If you are on God's side.
All this takes us a long way from Schlesinger's well-honed observations, but the continuity is evident enough. The recent alliance of the Protestant Right with Catholics and Jews is an inevitable merge, historically speaking, for all three factions share a common taproot that traces back to the Zaddikim belief in divine retribution. With this infernal collusion driving world events, the prospects are terrifying. At least, Bill Moyers finds them so. To my knowledge, he is the first widely respected social commentator in the USA to state in public that fundamentalist endtime theology is too weird to be believed. "I can see in the look on your faces just how hard it is for the journalist to report a story like this with any credibility."
This is fine and frank. We see a respected journalist making himself vulnerable. But in a metahistorical perspective, Moyers has hardly begun to tackle the credibility issue here. The fact that endtime theology (or annihilation theology, as I propose to call it) is credible to many is a bare fact of our times. Any journalist might report it as such. The trick is, the report is credible, but what it reports about is not credible to those who do not embrace the messianic ideology of fundamentalism. What is most shocking to Moyers is that those who are in the category of non-believers, the infidels, now find themselves sidelined in history, disempowered socially and politically by those who do believe.
Considering the alarm signalled by Bill Moyers in his keynote
talk, it may really be time to look at religious beliefs with
a critical eye,
to see if they might be insane and inhumane. Of course, it is
dangerous to propose the critique of beliefs, as we do in this
site, because it
seems to violate the general principle of tolerance for all faiths.
But what happens when you tolerate a belief system that is itself
intolerant? The genocidal ideology of the Dead Sea Scrolls exemplifies
intolerance coupled with endtime fanaticism. Scary stuff, this.
But the insanity did not die with the Zaddikim. The formula that
the Roman Empire became incorporated into it. More lately, it
has been incorporated into global imperialism and enshrined
it with their
lives, believing that
it represents a message of universal love delivered by the Son
of God, Jesus Christ, who was sent to earth by the Father God.
The message of
love and tolerance is like a sugar coating on the genocidal pill.
Now that's really scary.
Fulfilling the Plan
Present-day Crusaders for messianic Christianity are guided by a recent script, the Rapture scenario paraphrased by Monbiot, which itself is but a variation of the far older core complex, the Zaddikim ideology of the endtime. This being so, it is not unreasonable to suppose that George W. Bush and those around him could make decisions with a calculated view of hastening the end, making things get worse so that God's plan will be fulfilled, and the sooner the better. "I welcome faith to help solve the nation's deepest problems, " George W. has stated. (Cited by Schlesinger.) When questioned about Iraq by Bob Woodward, one of the journalists who exposed Watergate, Bush responded in a way that left the reporter with the impression that "the president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's master plan."
Bush told Woodward that before invading Iraq he did not seek counsel from his mortal father, who had fought Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War of 1991, but he appealed to "a higher father." Schlesinger comments:
President Bush, a direct descendent of the Zaddikim, the Righteous Ones,
has the God-given right to make it play out this way. Or so he believes.
What the Zaddikim wanted 2000 years ago in Palestine—the destruction of the entire world so that the Righteous can be rescued—could happen on a global scale today because of beliefs held by millions of people, beliefs they are unwilling or unable to question, and which they will not tolerate having put in question by anyone. Bill Moyers is shocked by the way these beliefs are encoded in the endtime narrative as an historical drama, including the Rapture (the last-minute rescue of the believers), and the wholesale destruction of the natural world. At the conclusion of his acceptance speech, he poignantly asks:"What has happened to our moral imagination?"
Good question, this. Metahistory tries to answer that question from many angles. One of the savviest responses I know comes from Theodore Roszak. Writing in Where the Wasteland Ends on the "pathological extremism" of Judeo-Christian beliefs, Roszak says:
For Christians, this inherited prejudice in favor of historicity became the very foundation of their soteriology [i.e., their belief in divine salvation. JLL]... Christianity alone could claim historical validity for its gospel. It alone taught the Word become flesh—at one time, in one place, in one human personality... Christ belonged to history and his rivals were mere myths.
Clearly, there occured with the advent of Christianity a deep shift in consciousness which severely damaged the mythopoeic powers [of humankind]. ( p. 133-4. Italics added.)
How, we may ask, can the recent "Scottish version" of the millennial annihilation theology of the Zaddikim hold such power over human imagination? Roszak's metacritique goes to the heart of the dilemma: the historical myth so loved by President Bush can command great appeal because something behind that story, something that produced it in the first place, damaged human imagination at the core. Due to this damage, we submit to the endtime narrative and cannot counter it with a different story. We are imaginatively disempowered, as if something alien to the human spirit has intruded upon our species' Dreaming, stunting our capacity to imagine our place on Earth and in the cosmos at large. If there is any way to correct the course of history, if there is to be a healing of the story-telling faculty upon which we as a species depend to delineate our path, it must be made at the core where the damage is located.
How, then, do we locate the core of moral imagination?
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.