David S. Katz, Richard H. Popkin. Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium. New York: Hill & Wang, 1999. xxv + 303 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8090-6885-2.
Reviewed by Paul Richard Blum (Peter Pazmany University Budapest (Hungary))
Published on H-Ideas (February, 2000)
Trust in God and Keep Your Powder Dry
This book tells the intellectual pre-history of the Waco and Oklahoma City massacres and the ideologies surrounding them in the United States. On April 19, 1993, at least seventy-four members of the "Branch Davidians", including their leader, David Koresh, were killed in a raid at their camp near Waco, Texas, after the breakdown of negotiations with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the FBI, over stockpiling of weapons at the Davidian camp. Two years later to the day, Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people. While the Branch Davidians were a millenarian sect, McVeigh is supposed by the authors to have been nurtured by the ideology of "Christian Identity" which they connect with the militia movement and trace back to the ideology of "British Israelism". Katz and Popkin argue that one cannot understand these two events without disclosing the historical roots of the worldview which caused them.
The ideology of Christian Identity is closely connected with the American Nazi and the National Alliance inasmuch as it defends the superiority of white Christians and their commitment to save the world. Implicit or explicit racism is combined with the firm belief that a final battle between the powers of Hell and the people of God (Armageddon) is near. >From this perspective, former President Ronald Reagan's naming the Soviet Union the Evil Empire was not just a metaphor, but the expression of the influence of his advisors who believed in a special role for the United States in the final stage of history. The present historical situation was diagnosed as partial fulfillment of biblical prophecies. The Davidians, a variant of the Seventh Day Adventists, who consider their life a preparation for the not too distant Second Coming of Christ ("advent"), shared the same view. Their special feature was that they were convinced they would be spared the final tribulations through a rapture. As a result, they accepted the siege by national armed forces as just one more fulfillment of biblical words.
Katz and Popkin relate millenarianism, elitism, and reading the Bible as an account of the present state of affairs to radical versions of the Protestant Reform in Europe. Any reformers believing in the end of the world and final salvation of the elect had to decide whether the Jewish people would be included or excluded. Either they would be converted to Christianity or hopelessly lost. One theory was that the legitimate heirs of the Christian revelation were the lost Ten Tribes of Israel. This was the basis of the Mormons and of a movement in England in the seventeenth century, the "British Israelites," who believed the real offspring of the people of Jesus were the Anglo-Saxon race. By some groups, such as Aryan Nation, this racism was extended to the Celtic, Scandinavian and Teutonic races, which commonly are summarized as "Caucasian" (p. 192). Others, including Napoleon (pp. 134-137), assigned a key role to the harmony of Christians and Jews for the establishment of a reign of peace.
However, the key was the approach taken to interpretation of Holy Scripture. The authors of a series named The Fundamentals (1910-1915) defended literal reading of the Bible against sophisticated theological interpretations; and from these pamphlets stems the label "fundamentalism". Among others Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who spent some time in England and held that "the Word unites man to the Lord and opens heaven" (p. 123), developed a system of "correspondences" between the Old and the New Testament as well as the Bible and present and future life. While his religious writings sound mystical, he was preceded by the scientist Isaac Newton, who managed to coordinate biblical chronology with the help of his astronomy, thus giving all further calculations of the exact date of the end of the world a scientific patina. The German Calvinist encyclopedist Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638) also purported to relate biblical calculations of time periods to the present times. The Fifth Monarchy Men in England tried to speed up the coming of the Fifth Kingdom, that of Heaven, by grasping the divine plan and actively fostering it according to "the principle of trusting in God and keeping your powder dry" (p. 75). It appears to the authors that this group put in practice what the Rosicrucian mystics had told as "a wonderful story" (p. 60). On the Catholic side the multilingual Bible edited by Francisco Ximnes Cisneros (1437-1517) introduced Hebrew knowledge into scripture scholarship, including Cabala, which was since the days of Giovanni Pico and Johannes Reuchlin much appreciated among Christians for its numerical and spiritual speculations.
The first recorded cases of direct political action inspired by scripture reading were the Peasants' Wars and the Anabaptism of Thomas Muentzer in the early sixteenth century. They called for a social revolution on the basis of scripture. Christopher Columbus, too, related his travels to the promised "new heaven and new earth" of the Apocalypse (p. 17). In this time Girolamo Savonarola stirred up the Florentines with apocalyptic and millenarian sermons. Most of these movements and individuals were inspired by Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1132-1202) who proposed a universal system of history in which, not least by numerical calculations, the present time would take its precise place in the general eschatology or theory of the end of the world.
In this summary the theological and philosophical depth of some theories cannot be pondered, as they in themselves deserve. But there is also no need to do so because the whole of the Messianic Revolution gives the impression of a continuous flattening of the theoretical efforts over time. From that point of view a clear distinction of the theological issues involved is not needed, as, for instance, distinguishing millenarianism (the expectation of the coming of the thousand years before the end of the times), messianism (the reign of Christ after his Second Coming), theocracy (the secular government according to divine commandments), spirituality (the orientation of individual life in the light of Christian revelation), and various reformed theologies. The twentieth century movements actually do not seem to differ from one another by subtle reasoning but rather according to very earthly goals expressed in religious--specifically millenarian--language.
>From this point of view, Messianic Revolution gives an outline of a very important and large research project to be executed on many different fields. The foremost problem, in my view, is that of political theology: what was the aim of a theologian like Joachim of Fiore in comparison to scholastic theologians who were much more cautious in prophesizing and applying biblical texts to political reality? Why--among the Florentine intellectuals--did only Savonarola play the role of a revolutionary while so many others, notably, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico, treated the same sources of inspiration only on a speculative level? Was Columbus really a millenarist? Or, perhaps, did he simply propose a new crusade against the Moslems in Jerusalem, making use of millenarist arguments, after his role as the Viceroy of the "newly discovered islands" had failed?
Most of the early modern theories on the end of the times and the Christian government are connected--as the authors duly note--with Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and, generally, with the spirit of unity between religion and philosophy, human and divine affairs, philosophy of nature and of morals. So the question--what happened, especially in the Calvinist branches of Protestantism, to effect Christianity to take on an aspect of theocracy (and sometimes tyranny)--becomes vitally important? The examples presented in this book suggest that at certain turns in history prophecy was tailored to the reader's expectations. Truth ceases to be transcendent and converges with the historical moment, and the quest for truth passes from contemplation to observation and from there to action. This is the essence of the "radical reformation". At certain points individuals, e.g., Savonarola, Joseph Smith of the Mormons, Swedenborg, Richard Brothers, and finally David Koresh, were no longer content with what Katz and Popkin call "biblical fishing" (p. 78), but declared themselves to be prophets. David Katz and Richard Popkin have explored the history of the "radical reformation" and dared to ask an intriguing question about a crucial event in the 1990's. As a result, they have widened and deepened our understanding of contemporary movements like Christian Identity and raised a myriad of further historical questions.
. For an extensive study of religious fundamentalism, see: Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds.), The Fundamentalism Project. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991 sqq.
. For an account of this strain, see Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann, Philosophia perennis: Historische Umrisse abendlaendischer Spiritualitaet in Antike, Mittelalter und Frueher Neuzeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1998. [English edition in preparation]
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