Righting America

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Advent, Apocalyptic, and the Blind Teachers of the Blind | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. And his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has just been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). 

Engraving of "The Rapure" by Jan Luyken
“The Rapture” by Jan Luyken (1795). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“For it is God who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of times.”
(Wisdom of Solomon 7:17 – 18)

Self-delusion creates a form of blindness. Tennessee Williams puts the consequences of self-delusion on the lips of Tom Wingfield, narrator in “The Glass Menagerie”: 

That quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy. (Quoted by Robert McElvaine in The Great Depression). 

The issue of failing eyes, blind eyes, or not seeing what is in front of the face was part of the curriculum of Jesus. “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). 

In our day, there are blind preachers/teachers “guiding” the blind. These preachers/teachers, engrossed in how the world began and how the world will end, have confused beginnings with endings. For example, Ken Ham has built a Creation Museum and an Ark in Kentucky, two metaphorical monstrosities dedicated to “pressing fingers down on the fiery Braille alphabet” of a false apocalyptic vision. 

Tim LaHaye claims that Jesus is coming soon to rapture the believers and destroy the earth. Beginning and ending. 

David Barton and Robert Jeffress insist that America was born as a Christian nation. This is another of the “in the beginning” stories that is not based on actual history. 

A soprano from the choir burst out, “What does Advent have to do with Apocalypse? Why do you have to frighten us with these awful texts in this season of joy?” She’s a fantastic singer, but she had been impacted by people who read their Bibles wrongly and mixed beginnings and endings. She had never read the Left Behind fictional books. She had never taken a course in the rapture. But the teaching was in the air of American religion, and she had breathed in some of its noxious particles. I tried to help her: “Apocalyptic readings are used in Advent because they are about the beginning not the ending. Advent is the beginning, not the ending. Advent is about the new that’s always just around the bend.” 

The most dangerous readings are those that insist that Jesus teaches that he is coming back to end the world. Passages that use complex symbolic, metaphorical language are twisted into literal meanings that distort the truth and make Jesus look bad. For example, William V. Trollinger, Jr. points out

Well, when it comes to Matthew 25: 31-46, they say that Jesus’ words do not apply to us today. Instead, these words apply to the seven-year Tribulation at the end of history. Instead of a text that holds nations accountable for how they treat fellow human beings, the words are twisted to saying that we are to care for the people who have converted after the Rapture. Those who turn away the refugees will be cast into everlasting judgment.

The blind preachers who insist on a apocalyptic trope of demolition and destruction do a disservice to the reality of God’s gentle, persuading work. Far removed from this fearful raging, the Wisdom of Solomon offers us a different vision of God’s creating power through wisdom: 

There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits
that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. (7:22 – 23). 

N. T. Wright says that the New Testament has a vision that the creator God, the God who makes all things new, will remake heaven and earth entirely, affirming the goodness of the old Creation but overcoming its mortality and corruptibility. 

In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas said that creation should not be conceived as an event with a before and after, but, rather, creation is ongoing (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, 36). In keeping with Aquinas, Rowan Williams offers what he deems “the real Christian doctrine of creation that is going on in this moment.” This vision of creation goes far beyond the first three chapters of Genesis and offers us splendid views that far surpass the dull literalism of Ken Ham’s account. These visions are most prominent in the “Wisdom Books” of the Bible: Job, Proverbs, Psalms, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach. In the seventh chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, God’s wisdom is a gentle, peaceful, intelligent, persuading presence, always permeating the universe and looking for co-creators in human beings. This is the beginning that Advent envisions with the use of apocalyptic symbols. 

The vision of Advent is a here and now vision unsettling the status quo and putting the political system on notice for its death-dealing ways.  Mary, eyes wide open to God’s coming kingdom, centered Advent in human need and human reality: 

God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. The Lord has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud (that’s a big crowd) in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. That’s economics. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.  

No political leader can sleep easy at night knowing that “Jesus will bring down the powerful from their thrones.” No rich person can be at peace having heard that God sends the rich away empty. Mary’s vision in Luke 1 is the same vision that Jesus offers in Luke 21: “the son of man coming on the clouds.” Rapture lovers protest here by quoting Paul: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God.  The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1Thessalonians 4:16-17). But as N. T. Wright says, 

Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing, and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.

The clearest eyes that ever existed, the eyes of Jesus, give us a view that counteracts the blind preachers/teachers confused about beginnings and endings. The view of Jesus is found in his first sermon, his vision in Luke 4. I have always been partial to Dr. Otis Moss III’s interpretation of this sermon: 

“Good news to the poor.” I believe that’s economics. “Release to the captives”– that must be political. “To recover the sight of the blind” – that’s educational. “To let the oppressed go free” – that’s liberation theology. 

So at the top of the text is theology. In between is economics, politics, and education. In between it’s all about social public policy. And then at the bottom, it’s theology – Jubilee. All that human need frames the here and now season of Advent. 

Matthew 25, read in the context of Advent, holds the nations accountable for how they treat the “least of these.” “All the nations will be gathered before him.” Jesus brings the vision of the Hebrew prophets to the table and preaches that nations will be responsible for how the poor are treated, how the hungry are fed, how the thirsty are given drink, how the prisoners are treated, how the homeless and naked are treated, how the sick were treated. 

In Democracy Matters Cornel West claims, “The Jewish invention of the prophetic commitment to justice for all peoples” is written large in all of Jesus’ teachings. This prophetic message “is one of the great moral moments in human history.” Then West adds, 

Prophetic witness consists of human acts of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery. Prophetic witness calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery. The prophetic message calls out to us to take part in transforming communities into flourishing places of well-being. It speaks to all peoples and nations to be just and righteous. (16-17)

Advent and its apocalyptic rhetoric walk hand in hand to announce the beginning of the “birth pangs” rather than the end. This is here and now, not some illusory apocalyptic future, but the hard work of creating a new earth. Advent and apocalyptic are one and the same.