1 Thess 5:2
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” – Chicken Little
Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, which scholars date to the early 50’s CE making it probably the oldest document in the New Testament, largely to send greetings and encouragement, but also to assuage a fear that had arisen in the church. The New Testament provides ample evidence that the early church eagerly anticipated the imminent return of Christ, the Parousia. The Thessalonian church had gotten the idea that the Parousia had already taken place, and that, therefore, they had somehow been “left behind.” In his letter to them, Paul echoed Jesus’ teaching that the Parousia would come unexpected, suddenly, “like a thief in the night” (cf. Lk 12:39) and that even he did not know when the event would occur (Mk 13:23). Paul advised the Thessalonians to keep living and working in the everyday way in the everyday world, but to do so with the awareness that Jesus’ return could be tomorrow – or in more than 2,000 years.
History teaches that human beings have a penchant for millennial anxiety. Even in Jesus’ childhood, Simon of Peraea (d. circa 4 BCE) and Anthronges (d. circa 3 CE) had proclaimed themselves the Messiah, led minor uprisings against Rome, and paid the Roman price for rebellion. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, and after Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the Jewish Wars (66-74 CE) and the rebellion led by Simon bar Kochba (d. 135 CE) expressed the appetite of the Jews of the time for an apocalyptic end to Roman occupation. Since then, the world has witnessed the frenzy the surrounded the teaching of Joachim of Firenze concerning the dawning of the “Age of the Spirit” which he predicted by 1260 CE, the Münsterite experiment (1534-35), and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) in China, led by Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclaimed younger brother of Jesus Christ, a rebellion that left 20 million dead in its aftermath. The first of my teaching career, my students questioned the wisdom of scheduling an exam on the date that Edgar Whisenart (89 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988) had identified as the Parousia. Incidentally, when life continued as usual, Whisenart revised his math and published a new book (On Borrowed Time) shifting the prediction to the next year. One website (whose accuracy I do not guarantee), lists forty-six end-of-the-world predictions up to 1920 (www.religiouistolerance.org/end_wrl2.htm).
One characteristic unites all of these claims. They were wrong.
The same human propensity to imagine impending cataclysm in the religious sphere surfaces in the secular religion of politics. I write this, sitting in my “writing spot” on the front porch, where I can view the fall colors and hear the birds calling, on the Tuesday morning one week before the 2016 US election. This campaign has certainly been unusual. Partisan fervor runs high, although, unlike many elections before it, passions are mostly negative. Rather than convictions that their candidate represents a bright hope for the country, fears of the cataclysm that electing the opponent would mean for the country supply much, probably most, of the energy ruffling the electorate. To a degree, this negativity is not unique to this year’s campaign. Historians point to the nastiness of even our earliest politics. The opposition compared G.W. Bush to Hitler (http://archive.democrats.com/preview.cfm?term=Bush%20Hitler%20Comparison); only days after his election to office, Rush Limbaugh predicted an Obama Depression (see www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2008/11/06/obama_recession_in_full_swing). LBJ did not convert the US to socialism; Nixon did not institute a police state; Clinton did not increase the deficit; G.W. Bush did not privatize social security. Like predictions of the Second Coming, none of these dire warnings came to fruition.
A little understanding of the theology, of history, and of civics can dampen the fury and fear manifest daily on the cable news channels, on bumper stickers, and on yard signs. In the current situation, civics promises great comfort. When he wins or she wins, the next president, like all presidents before, will look down the National mall to see the US Congress, up on a hill, with 535 strong-willed legislators. When she wins or he wins, the next four years will likely bring fireworks that may way yield to a measure of gridlock. Presidents campaign as though they were running for emperor, but the Constitution ensures that, in fact, presidents execute only what congresses legislate. Both, in turn, work under the scrutiny of the adjudicators of constitutionality.
Rudimentary elementary school civics, I know. It seems to me that this year, however, the American public needs to remember what they (should have) learned in elementary school.
The sky is not falling.