Monday, December 7, 2015

Reflecting on the Bible's Apocalyptic Literature in Light of the Paris Terror Attacks

The following homily was delivered by Roman Catholic Womanpriest Monique Venne at Compassion of Christ Catholic Community on November 15, 2015, the Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time.


Paris. Before Friday, November 13, this word conjured up images of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the cathedral of Notre-Dame, good wine, sidewalk cafes. Now the name of Paris has joined the list of major Western cities attacked by terrorism. Another horrific attack on civilians enjoying the simple pleasures of life has occurred, with some witnesses describing the carnage as "apocalyptic." It certainly seems like the end of the world for many people in France - their old sense of security and place in the world has been severely shaken and may not recover. The lives of those wounded and the families and friends of those killed will never be the same. Meanwhile, French xenophobes are already claiming that their warnings about welcoming refugees from the Middle East have been realized, as they respond to hate with hate. For many of us in the United States, it has stirred the memories of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attacks: how helpless we felt, how senseless the attacks seemed, how bewildered we were that civilians were targeted by people who were enraged by our government's policies.

In her book, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong does a masterful job of tracing the history of religious fundamentalism in the three Abrahamic faiths. Although fundamentalism is expressed differently in each religion, Armstrong is able to list the commonalities that underlie it. First is the loss of God in the modern world. As the Enlightenment spread in Europe and America, it undermined belief in God and replaced it with belief in progress, individualism, technology, and rationality, discarding mythology and ritual. This was a huge leap from the thousands of centuries in which people believed that God was an intimate part in the way people lived, and who understood the myths of religion as descriptors of why life was the way it was. This has led to a sense that life has lost meaning and value, which engenders fear. And fear leads to anger. For fundamentalists, their anger is with the modern world which has rejected God. They look back to a so-called "Golden Age" when things seemed to be balance and want to recreate it. They see the rest of the world in dualistic terms: the modern world is evil while they alone are the good and faithful ones who will be rewarded by God. They have adopted an apocalyptic viewpoint.

And that brings us to today's readings. The first reading and the gospel are taken from the apocalyptic literature in the Bible. This was a popular genre in Jewish and Christian circles from about 200 BCE to 150 CE. During this time, Greek and Roman cultures saw Jewish culture as backward and worked to eradicate it. Heartsick Jews believed that God had to intervene and drive out the blasphemers. The Essenes, a branch of Judaism during Jesus' time, believed that the end was near and wrote the now famous Dead Sea scrolls to tell their disciples how the end would come about. Others, like the Zealots, believed that violent revolt was necessary, and that God would fight on the side of the Jews. A common belief was that there was so much injustice that only God could rectify it.

Apocalyptic literature was developed to give believers hope during times of persecution. Its purpose was to help people resist the dominant culture during times of religious suppression. It answered the questions about why the faithful were suffering and where God was in their suffering. It encouraged them to persevere, knowing that they will be vindicated when the last day arrives. But it has a dualistic approach, which can be fatal if this literature is read as literally true rather than symbolically true.

And so we come back to fundamentalism. Just like the Zealots, some fundamentalists believe that violence is the only solution to rectifying the wrongs of the modern world. But we have to remember that violent fundamentalism is not restricted to some Muslims. A Jewish fundamentalist assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, because he signed the Oslo accords which were supposed to begin the process of establishing a Palestinian state. A Christian fundamentalist, Timothy McVeigh, bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City because the US government upholds a secular worldview. But it is the Islamic State that has our attention now, first because of their brutality in beheading those they consider enemies and heretics, and now because they have taken their campaign of terror outside Syria and Iraq. We in the Western world are appalled by the attacks in Paris, which represents one of the centers of Western culture and was the home of several Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, whose ideas permeate the founding documents of the United States.

But we in the West have not been faultless, as we like to think. We have to remember that people in the developing world feel that the West has demanded that they accept modernity and its values, including the separation of church and state. They are being forced to change ancient ways of thought in the space of a generation or two, while it took the Western world 400 to 500 years to develop modern society. Although most are doing their best to adapt, some are resisting and some of those have turned to violence. We rightly condemn Islamic State and other terroristic organizations for not following the basic religious truth of compassion towards all. But we must use our own religious values of empathy and tolerance to address the fears, anxieties, and needs of those who feel threatened by Western culture, which seems devoid of God. The message of apocalyptic literature is that God is for us despite the outward signs. However, we must reject the dualistic notion that God is against those who are persecuting us. God is for all of us.

I'd like to leave you with these questions. Where do you find hope when you are suffering? What do you feel when you think about fundamentalism? How do you build a bridge to those who think differently than you do?

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