Apocalyptic Story Time in the Midst of the Plague

President Trump has recently been repeating that there are much worse things that might result from social isolation, in the attempt to halt the coronavirus, and the implication is that this ultimate worst thing is the failure of the economy. R. R. Reno, in First Things, has chimed in with a full-bore theological support of Trump, explaining that we need to recognize that the sacrifice of a small percentage of the population may be necessary to save the system as a whole.[1] Like Trump, he never specifically names the ultimate catastrophe (perhaps it is too fearful and unimaginable to even utter), but he ridicules the “sentimentalism” which would attempt to save a small number of lives concluding, “The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of ‘saving lives.’”

The Eucharist, in Reno’s version, is on the side of hard free market choices, which he describes as a system of triage. Doing triage, or choosing who must be sacrificed, always “requires the hard moral labor” of rationing “healthcare by price, waiting times, and physician discretion.” The unspoken message, that the present economy requires human sacrifice, is articulated as, “Only an irresponsible sentimentalist imagines we can live in a world without triage.” Reno seems to recognize he is near to defining Eucharist (what he calls the “no to the reign of death”) in the same way Paul defines sin, so he clarifies, “We must never do evil that good might come.” But he hedges and qualifies his way back to embracing Paul’s formula for evil, as if it is the good: “But we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.” In other words, the zero-sum game of capitalism (the life of “finitude”) embraces the necessity of sacrificing the few for the many.

To not embrace this individualistic survival of the fittest obscenity is, in Reno’s estimate, to miss the imperative of the Gospel, which he rightly pinpoints as overcoming the fear of death. What he misses in the Gospel, is that the fear of death reigns through the lie that proposes death as the solution to life, so it need not be feared (the ultimate result of fear is believing this lie). Every good samurai, every devout religionist, every fervid nationalist, would follow the Satanic injunction to embrace death as the means to life. Reno has confused Satan and God, the Truth and the lie, evil and the good.

He demonstrates this through the unfortunate example of the Spanish flu epidemic. “Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death.” It was for this reason that this generation threw caution to the wind, “bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.” As a result of this robust refusal to be turned aside from work, worship, and play, between 20 to 50 million people lost their lives. Reno could be paraphrasing the serpent in the Garden in urging us to embrace death. “We must reject the specious moralism that places fear of death at the center of life,” and the way we do this is to embrace death.

Reno warns us not to believe what is most obviously true: “They abandoned the weak to the slaughter of the disease for no good reason.” No, he says, rather, “They insisted that man was made for life, not death.” The way one really lives is not to take precaution but to continually fuel life with the reality of death. Life, in this view, is structured by death. This is the impetus behind every form of violence, every justification for war, every turn to defying death through death. Death, war, and violence, are presumed to be made controllable through embracing them. As Sue Mansfield has put it, through active violence, death and destruction “are forced into an ordered gestalt that human consciousness can encompass because it is commensurate with human limits and meanings.”[2] Reno would turn the death of Christ into a fellowship of death, in which life is a limited commodity ordered by death (resurrection does not enter into it). Saving lives is not important in Reno’s religion, as life seems to have little intrinsic value.

The additional lie surrounding the Spanish flu epidemic, is that out of concern of appearing weak before their enemies during WW I, government officials suppressed reporting on the number of deaths and the seriousness of the disease. In other words, they were advocates of doing evil that good might abound; better to lose a few thousand citizens than to risk losing the war. Of course, fear of death looms behind this willing sacrifice of tens of thousands. Reno portrays this same unspeakable fear in advocating business as usual. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity for reevaluating life’s chief concerns, Reno seems to be recommending “family reunions,” “visiting the elderly,” and “serving the Eucharist,” all in death defying support of not turning from routine. A moment alone, a time of boredom, a period of reflection, may contain the chief fearful realization: the ordering principles of the American Way, of liberal democratic capitalistic society, are inadequate and subject to failure.

 Reno (perhaps, along with his magazine and its ideology, fleshed out in this political moment) is living proof that Eucharist, Gospel, or Jesus, might all be so twisted so as to serve the most profound evil. The structuring principle backing his ready willingness to secure the system at the expense of its people, concerns the guiding philosophy, not only of his right-wing Catholicism, but the undergirding thought of right-wing evangelicalism. Richard Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things, proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal “covenant” under God. The political and theological implications may be most simply expressed in his understanding that “when he died and stood face-to- face with his creator, he expected to do so as an American.” He holds that the American experience is a “sacred enterprise.” As Michael Novak (a fellow traveler) has described it, the market economy mirrors the will of the divine Trinity, meaning the spread of democratic capitalism is “the greatest story ever told.” Or as Attorney General William Barr would have it, “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” is under threat as secularism threatens the United States. Each would conflate the story of the United States with Christianity. Where the system of the United States is threatened so is the Christian moral system. Christ and Christianity are made to fit the American story and are understood in this context.[3]

In the Christian story, the recognition is that we are all in this together, and this is an all-inclusive “all,” without geographic (space) or historical (time) boundaries. It is not enough to add Christ to an already existing story or to imagine the community from which the story of the United States arises is the Christian community. In this sort of virtual reality, actually existing lives count for very little. By the same token, it is not enough to simply imagine that foregrounding the story of Christ with the story of creation, the story of Abraham, or the story of Israel, or the story of the Church, will adequately contextualize our understanding of Christ (as illustrated with Catholic/evangelical ideology). Christ is not added to or understood in the context of other stories, even the unfolding narrative of Scripture.

In the New Testament, time and space bend around the life, death and resurrection of Christ. As in Ephesians 2:6, God has already “raised us up with him.” His past resurrection accounts for a present experience which will be realized in the future. In I Corinthians Paul states, “our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” Christ was present with Israel in their exodus and wilderness journey. As Paul says a few verses later (detailed in Numbers 21 and Psalm 77), it was Christ that they had put to the test and the Corinthians should avoid doing the same. The incarnate Christ as the pre-existent Christ bends all of history around the incarnation. He “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) and “all things have been created through him and for him.” The same one that is “head of the body, the church” is the one that is in the beginning.” This narrative simultaneously focuses on the historical Christ as encompassing the beginning and end “so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:16-18).

The saving work of Christ does not abandon the physical, the historical world, as in Reno’s theology, nor does it abandon the many or the few for the benefit of the saved. Any version of the story which is not centered on the singular story of Christ (his life, death and resurrection as context) will, of necessity, produce the dead wood of the expendable darkness so as to provide the fuel for producing the light. As Chris Tilling depicts it, this sort of narrative time (“stretched over a sequential template”) “locks key truth claims about the whole into the beginning” so that the problem is determinative of the answer. The hero or heroine is constituted by an already determined task. The beginning, the particular historical context, a moment in time, preceding or separate from Christ, “by force of being first, contains key or axiomatic truths for the articulation of the whole.”[4] A beginning, history, or Fall, which is read as unfolding toward Christ will be determinative of the meaning of Christ, so that sin will be determinative of salvation and creation will contextualize and control incarnation.  Just as the beatific vision of Augustine, Calvin, and Aquinas, is dependent upon an eternal delight in witnessing the tortures of the damned, so too the poor unfortunates sacrificed in Reno’s Catholicism do not require sentimental consideration but are the necessary expendables of a faith, contextualized by this present moment.

It may turn out that love of neighbor, in these unsettling times, results in full realization of what it might mean that we are all in this together. This simple but apocalyptic realization may best be learned in the midst of this global pandemic, in which we realize GDP, money, the market economy, do not really count for much in the face of recognition that my good cannot be purchased at the expense of my neighbor. This common place assumption cannot be absorbed where the values of the of the market reign supreme.

It is time to find ourselves a different ordering principle, an alternative hermeneutic, a different story. As my friend Matt Welch has written, “This awful situation is also an opportunity for us to learn something deep & mysterious & wonderful & telling about the world God created for us: that the good of each individual human being is bound up with the good of every other human being. We each *need* the well-being of our neighbor for our own well-being. Our good depends upon the good of our neighbor. The human race is a family and God is our Father.”

As Tilling notes, where “the revelation of God is conditioned by something other than the reality of God in Jesus Christ, then that which conditions it has become the real lord.”  Due to “human sinfulness and rebellion, such constructed interpretative lords are prone to idolatry,” and as in all idolatry (every market economy) human sacrifice is the unfolding necessity.[5] Where the interpreter contextualizes herself in the revelation of God in Christ, and not in their time, their country, their narrative, the necessity of the moment is overridden by the power of resurrection and an entirely different “necessity” – love for the neighbor.

[1] R. R. Reno, “Say ‘No’ to Death’s Dominion,” First Things (3/23/20), https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/say-no-to-deaths-dominion?fbclid=IwAR05eb3RIgb_ZeApkHugwNH54vOt4SmwrT7KAfb3C990GI5ozXJCrpJglP8

[2] Sue Mansfield, The Gestalt of War, quoted from William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace (p. 23). Kindle Edition.

[3] I have written of all of this here – http://forgingploughshares.org/2020/01/09/have-the-dark-ages-returned/

[4] Christ Tilling, “Paul, Christ, and Narrative Time,” in Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science, Andrew Torrance and Thomas McCall, eds., (Zondervan, 2018) 162. Thank you Tim for putting me onto this.

[5] Ibid.

Have the Dark Ages Returned?

How is it that the United States is entering yet another war, a war which is arousing enthusiasm for Trump among his evangelical base? In the rhetoric of various evangelical leaders (as Franklin Graham has put it, Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion”), war seems to be part of a “necessary” clash of religions and civilizations? This seemingly medieval perception is, I would claim, precisely that – medieval in its theological/Roman Catholic roots. How is it that a medieval ideology has come to dominate evangelical religion and American politics?

The fusion of the Republican party with evangelical religion begun under Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Christian Coalition (with Pat Robertson designating Ralph Reed as its leader), the turn to partisan politics and the cry for cultural war begun by Newt Gingrich (a convert to Roman Catholicism), is the first phase in this two-part story. Gingrich’s name-calling, conspiracy theories, strategic obstructionism through government shut-downs, all in the name of bringing religion back into the public square, is certainly echoed in the Trump phenomenon.  But underlying the politics is the rise of a peculiar Catholic sensibility first expressed by George W. Bush.

Three days after the massive terrorist attacks of September 11, president Bush assured the nation that America’s duty was clear – not only to “answer these attacks” but also to “rid the world of evil.” Bush concluded his address by invoking St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:38-39) that nothing can divide us from the love of God. America set out on a holy war as Bush described it, “our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” The “mission” was not merely to bring justice to the men and the groups that had attacked the country but also to “defend freedom” in a world where “freedom is under attack.” This battle for freedom would be “civilizations fight,” led by the United States. In this struggle, both military and metaphysical, “the outcome is certain,” since “freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” In Bush’s picture we would win the fight against evil through violence, war, and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives. Bush began a crusade which would fuse state and church in the fight for Christian civilization and in his conception of this world struggle, it is precisely Catholic intellectuals to whom Bush would turn.

Damon Linker in his book, The Theocons, traces the key thinkers and shapers behind Bush doctrine and the fusion of right-wing politics and theology. Richard Neuhaus, founding editor of the right-wing Catholic journal First Things, proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal “covenant” under God. The political and theological implications may be most simply expressed in his understanding that “when he died and stood face-to- face with his creator, he expected to do so as an American.” He holds that the American experience is a “sacred enterprise.”

In Michael Novak’s view, Christianity, modern democracy, and modern capitalism arose from and continue to share “the same logic, the same moral principles, the same set of cultural values, institutions, and presuppositions. Markets don’t simply produce economic growth; they mirror the divine Trinity in the way they enable many diverse individuals to function as one in perfect harmony. For Novak, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding the market was quite simply the hand of God – and the rise and spread of democratic capitalism in the world is the “Greatest Story Ever Told.”

 William Kristol, the non-Catholic of the group, claims that modern conservatism should be based on a synthesis of religion, nationalism, and economic growth and that republicans should give up their resistance to the transformation of their party into an explicitly religious organization – all for the sake of banishing liberalism, the “enemy,” from American political life (all of this and the manner it came to shape Bush’s doctrine is set forth in Linker’s 2007 book).

Steve Bannon, perhaps the key thinker behind Donald Trump, believes the United States is a Christian nation, not just in the sense that an overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, but also in the sense that the country’s culture is Christian. This means our war with evil is a literal war against Islam: “We” in the West must affirm our Christian identity or we will be overrun by dangerous outsiders (Islamists) who will impose a different identity upon us. In a speech at the Vatican, he said, “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” During broadcasts of the Breitbart News Daily radio show, he alleged that “Islamist sympathizers had infiltrated the U.S. government and news media.” In his dark vision he planned, according to The Washington Post, to make a three-part movie in which radical Muslims take over the United States and remake it into the “Islamic States of America.” According to Newsday, an article published in La Civiltà Cattolica, a Vatican-vetted journal, singled out Bannon as a “supporter of apocalyptic geopolitics,” the logic of which is “no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism.”

Attorney General William Barr in a recent speech at Notre Dame, warned that Catholicism and other mainstream religions are the target of “organized destruction” by “secularists and their allies among progressives who have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia.” He insisted that “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” of the United States was under siege by “modern secularists” responsible for every sort of “social pathology,” including drug abuse, rising suicide rates and illegitimacy. The Guardian reports that C Colt Anderson, a Roman Catholic theologian has warned that Barr’s brand of radically conservative Catholicism is a “threat to American democracy.” He described the speech as a “dog whistle” to ultra-conservative Catholics. “The attorney general is taking positions that are essentially un-Democratic” because they demolish the wall between church and state, according to Anderson.[1]

As The Guardian notes, while the president enjoys the support of right-wing Christian evangelical leaders and their followers, he has also surrounded himself with conservative Roman Catholics like Barr and Patrick Cipollone, Trump’s White House counsel, both of whom served on the board of directors of a Washington-based organization staffed by priests from the secretive, ultra-orthodox Catholic sect Opus Dei. Ron Dreher is an example of why conservative Catholics are falling in line behind Trump: “As we religious conservatives think about how to vote in the election next fall, we should ponder the fact that under Donald Trump a man of William Barr’s convictions is heading up the Department of Justice. Thank God Bill Barr is there.”

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not Catholic but a devout evangelical, his open discussion of Christianity and foreign policy (particularly pro-Israel and anti-Islamic leanings) have raised questions about the extent to which evangelical beliefs are directly influencing recent decisions. The New York Times reports, his was the loudest voice in the administration pushing President Trump to kill Iran’s most important general, Qasem Soleimani.

Perhaps the new middle age has commenced, just as Steve Bannon would have it:

“And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if … the people in the Church do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church Militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

The line being drawn between this present moment and the Middle Ages is seen by alt right thinkers as a positive strategy. A variety of Catholic journals and thinkers would counter the cry of “Allahu akbar” with “Deus vult” (“God wills it”) as the call to war against the imagined Islamic enemy. [2] If ever there were a moment for the peace of the Gospel to receive a hearing and to make a difference this would seem to be that moment.

When “Christians” take up the sword to secure themselves and their people they have joined themselves to the power of death, linked to the power of Satan. This means that they have retreated from doing the work of God’s Kingdom, founded on the power of resurrection and not the power of death. As Christians faced with a profound Medieval form of Christianity we must turn firmly away from the means and method of empire. We are not seeking power and security through tight borders, strong military, or the defeat of Islam in war. The danger is that in aligning with the powers and methods of empire, Christians have joined forces with the counter-Kingdom of the antiChrist.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/oct/19/william-barr-attorney-general-catholic-conservative-speech

[2] For example, see the Imaginative Conservative, The American Conservative,