It’s the end of the world! Or at least, it certainly feels like it. When thinking about the apocalypse, it’s tempting to think of it in terms of director Adam McKay’s 2021 film, Don’t Look Up: One catastrophic event that sees our world come to its fiery conclusion. The apocalypse, for many people, revolves around the world coming to an end and Jesus returning to judge those who the King James Bible calls “the quick and the dead.” Maybe others simply think of the world ceasing to exist. For most people, there isn’t anything constructive about the apocalypse.
I’ve always read Jesus as the most apocalyptic person in the history of the world. You can’t get more apocalyptic than pronouncing “woe” to people, something Jesus says often, especially in the book of Matthew. In Matthew 18:6–7 Jesus casts woe to those who present “stumbling blocks” to “little ones.” Lately, I’ve been saying “woe to the world” quite a bit as our leaders seem nonplussed by kids being shot to death while at school.
Contrary to popular understanding, Jesus’ apocalypticism is not all doom and gloom. Jesus wasn’t merely preaching about the destruction of the world; he was making an urgent plea for humanity to break away from the current order of things before we destroy ourselves. I think the only reason I remain a Christian is because Jesus raged against the world’s obsession with death-making systems and structures.
“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31). There are many rulers of the world that need to be driven out: gun nut politicians who treat the Second Amendment as though it is biblical and billionaires who have gained the world but lost their souls.
When Jesus pronounced judgment on this world, he did so because he was desperately trying to convince us to put the kibosh on systems of death and embrace the fullness of life (John 10:10). Religion scholar David W. Congdon writes in The God Who Saves that Jesus understands “the kingdom as an imminent apocalypse (cf. Matthew 10:23), which does not become one worldly reign among others but rather brings the world as such to an end.”
For those who have lost loved ones due to COVID-19, racist violence, or gun violence, Jesus’ apocalyptic hope that “the world as such” comes to an end is, perhaps, relatable. Here in the United States, we are expected to numb ourselves to the death-for-profit economy that’s been established; we are expected to go on with business as usual, never once pausing to cry out in judgment, “Woe to the world.”
Globally, over 6 million people have died from COVID-19. The United States has accounted for over 1 million of those deaths. From the very start of the pandemic, it was obvious that work would take priority above everything else. Vulnerable populations — poor people, low-wage workers, Black and brown people — were ostensibly treated as disposable even though the jobs that they held were deemed “essential.” Even for those of us who were able to work from home, we were expected to keep working as if death didn’t circumscribe our lives. We were encouraged to find a “work-life balance” even while we felt the world was coming to an end. When you work in the face of so much death, knowing that the 10 richest men in the world are financially benefiting from, while also contributing to, COVID-19 fatalities, the “work-life balance” starts to feel more like a “work-death balance.”
Whether it’s the gun enthusiasts or the billionaire class, it’s clear that they expect the economy to continue benefiting them even if they’re directly contributing to the annihilation of humanity and the planet. They want us to get comfortable with people dying due to COVID-19 vaccine patents. They want us to get comfortable with mass shootings. They want us to be comfortable with kids who die. The rulers of the world want us to be comfortable with death.
I was recently speaking with jazz musician and pastor-theologian Julian Reid about healthy and unhealthy perspectives on death. Reid told me that the United States is inculcated in a culture of death and denial: On the one hand, people dying from lack of health care or because of gun violence is accepted as the price of having a “free” society. On the other hand, this country’s cynicism toward death creates an environment where we are discouraged from thinking about the human cost of our “freedom,” the frailty of our human condition, and the ways in which work’s continuous demands on our lives prevent us from resting and reflecting on the systems of death that need to come to an end.
Either the stumbling block of being comfortable with death is smashed to smithereens or the rulers of this world will continue killing us and our planet. But beyond simply moving from “comfortable” to “disturbed” by death, we also need to take actionable steps to demand an end to systems and structures that allow people to profit from death.
Specifically, when it comes to gun violence, what if the majority of us who believe there should be a total ban on assault-style weapons like AR-15s decided to participate in a general strike — refusing to shop or watch TV or go to work — until the Senate passes gun laws and eliminates the filibuster, which allows monied interests to prevent gun control as well as other popular, end-of-the-world preventing legislation. Why a strike? It is well documented when people don’t shop, spend money on entertainment, or go to work because they are reeling from a crisis, power brokers begin to sweat. Their economy of death is predicated on our participation. Why not make the intentional, collective decision to stop participating and begin imagining a death-defying economy?
(Side note: I believe assault-style weapons should be banned not only for civilian use but also for police and military use. I learned about this sort of “reform” from police abolitionist Mariame Kaba who might refer to this as a “non-reformist reform.”)
Instead of remaining in the purgatory of our work-death balance, we must make demands that create a path for unjust systems and structures to end. This would go beyond the popular refrain of “thoughts and prayers,” showing the GOP and billionaires that we are tired of their death-dealing ways and we’re confident that collective unity is more powerful than their blood-soaked coffers.
I’ll be the first to say that this is a modest proposal that does not directly address other death-dealing stumbling blocks such as the fossil fuel industry, insurance companies, U.S. banks, and on and on the list goes. But all these deadly institutions are propped up by the same “logic” that lawmakers use to rebuff gun legislation: Death is good for business. If we can stand up to the logic of this woeful world in the context of guns, then we can stand up to that logic as it pertains to everything else. We can’t go on like this. Thankfully, we don’t have to. The end is nigh and we should welcome it.