The Common Good
July-August 1998

Once a Millennium

by Bob Hulteen | July-August 1998

Within the Christian tradition, rarely is a concept more misunderstood than prophecy.
Unfortunately, this misinterpretation wreaks havoc on our society in the form of doomsday

Within the Christian tradition, rarely is a concept more misunderstood than prophecy. Unfortunately, this misinterpretation wreaks havoc on our society in the form of doomsday soothsayers, apocalyptic dreamers, and militant revolutionaries.

The crux of the misunderstanding is this: Prophecy is not the result of seeing into the future. Instead, prophecy is the faithful declaration of the implications of current actions on the future, with the hope of having an impact on both.

For instance, one need not be a rocket scientist to figure out that increasing economic inequities lead to social dissolution and fragmentation. So someone with the courage to say that wealth accumulation leads to the destruction of community, and that the result will be a future awash in violence, isn’t looking into a crystal ball. They’re simply sensitive to inevitabilities.

For many within the Christian tradition, the Bible has been starved into a mere blueprint of unavoidable dystopia. Interestingly, many advocates of this interpretation allow common cultural mythology to syncretize with this biblical view, creating a very simple yet dangerous theology. Several new books offer a tour of the Christian Identity and millennial movement landscape.

Baker Books has made available an interesting, though not exhaustive, contribution to its evangelical audience with Gregory S. Camp’s Selling Fear: Conspiracy Theories and End-times Paranoia (1997). A professor of history at Minot State University in North Dakota, Camp provides an introductory primer on the religious dimension of the conspiracy tendencies so popular in the American perspective.

From the Illuminati "threat" in Europe in the mid-18th century to the popularity of New Age philosophies today, Camp demonstrates the dangers of interweaving spiritual prophecy with political conspiracy. He demonstrates the understandable, though inaccurate, misinterpretations leading to such a conclusion, and he speaks to the self-righteousness that can turn into a justification for racial animosity and "final solutions," all in the name of God and prophecy fulfillment.

Camps’ editorial castoffs—such as a short lecture on current budget deficits and the national debt in the midst of his recounting of the perceived "Jewish threat" in the 1920s—are annoying if infrequent. These are most obvious during his revisionistic attack on Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whether one agrees with his perspective or not, such speculation does not help or support his argument. It’s fair to expect more of a historian than this.

Philip Lamy, author of Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy (Plenum Publishing Corp., 1996) captures the pathology inherent in these movements. He describes the ability of leaders to manipulate unhealthy individuals, and the circumstances that play to their gullibility.

The roots of these beliefs, however, can be established in the traditional beliefs in American culture and mainstream theology, Lamy believes. Distortion of the Bible and of foundational national documents offers a snapshot for the millennialists of how the "hordes" of minorities within this country are conspiring to overthrow traditional American culture and of what can be done to resist this trend. Often this rhetoric is only slightly different from that of some authorities, including members of Congress and religious leaders.

RICHARD ABANES OFFERS a more sympathetic portrayal in American Militias: Rebellion, Racism, & Religion (InterVarsity Press, 1996). Abanes is sympathetic not to the terrorists involved in violent and destructive acts. He does recognize, however, the similarities between conservative "patriots" who truly want to defend this country from perceived threats and those who are prone to violence. He is careful not to demonize the former while judging the latter. Abanes’ offering tempers the temptation not to distinguish between these camps.

Morris Dees, respected chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, with communications professor James Corcoran, offers a very readable modern history of the development of the hate groups and conspiracy theorists in Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat (HarperCollins Publishers, 1996). Concentrating on the antigovernment zeal of these "reformers," Dees dissects the militia movement and portrays the seriousness of the threat it poses.

Dees documents the short trip from much of radio talk show and lobbyist rhetoric to anti-government hysteria that leads to the bombing of federal buildings and gunfights with federal officers. Still, he offers a helpful and hopeful prescription for recapturing the terms of the dialogue in a way that does not accept an inevitable race war in America.

A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (Simon & Schuster, 1996), by Kenneth Stern, offers a similar interpretation, with perhaps more emphasis on the milieu that gives rise to people willing to "take on" their government. Stern documents the firepower of these people.

On the eve of the millennium, many hate groups are knee-deep in their own perverted interpretations of the book of Revelation. Anticipating Armageddon, these groups, unified under the Christian Identity movement label, spew a scenario of the necessary annihilation of all people not of European origin and "Christian" faith.

These books provide a helpful context for those who know little about conspiracy theory but want to understand the militia mindset. Our prophetic witness in the world can only be strengthened with information like this.

A review of Gregory S. Camp's Selling Fear: Conspiracy Theories and End-times Paranoia, Philip Lamy's Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy, Richard Abanes's American Militias: Rebellion, Racism, & Religion, Morris Dees's Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat, Kenneth Stern's A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate.

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