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Meeting the Millenium

Ted Daniels

Skeptical Briefs Volume 4.3, September 1994

I clock the millennium. Some years ago it occurred to me that as the calendrical millennium approached, it was increasingly likely that America was going to be awash in ideas of a final redemption and an end to the wicked order of this world. I set out to learn as much as I could about such ideas; I compiled a bibliography of social-science writing on the subject, and found that nobody had troubled to collect the actual prophecies themselves, in any form. So that’s a large part of what I do now; collect prophecies, and report on them.

The idea is not exclusively Christian, though the Book of Revelation is probably one of the most influential statements of millennialist ideas we have. But all that’s necessary to develop the notion of a final transformation of the world is the recognition that it isn’t perfect. Since anyone at all can see this, it follows that everyone can, and a great many people do, imagine its eventual change into something better, something perfect; in a word, into paradise.

Just about every culture has the idea that at the beginning the world was perfect; it is striking how similar visions of this Eden are, wherever they are found. The defining quality of paradise is simplicity. It is characterized everywhere by what it lacks. In paradise there is no illness, hence no doctors, no injustice, hence no conflict, courts, or lawyers. God governs, so there are no taxes. No one works; all the apparatus of wage slavery is also lacking. There is no economics in heaven, since there is plenty for all. There is no suffering, no deprivation, and no constraint. Gods and animals are like us, and we can talk to them. Heaven is a place where there are no categories. Paradise, if it’s to be had at all, is always to be restored.

Most of the time, for most people, the world as it is, is generally acceptable. We know how to get along inside the borders of common sense, and recognize that we have to accept what is and the rules that govern survival.

For some people all the time, this state of affairs is unacceptable. Nearly everybody becomes a millennialist, at least in potential, under certain special circumstances. Something happens to the rules. They stop making sense, and most of us can no longer make sense of our lives. Change is both pervasive and very rapid, and the structures of the everyday are overwhelmed, often all at once. For some years the paradigm for this situation was the colonial context, and colonial countries were where anthropologists went to study world-changers. There were always a few tiny “fringe” groups here in America as well, for America, in this as in so many ways, is a special case.

Many sources make plain their belief that American society and culture are in severe decline, as well as is the planetary infrastructure that support them. Many people are deeply concerned about their own and their country’s future. This perception is so commonplace that it hardly needs to be mentioned; it is also supported by census data.

A second condition that leads people to the millennium is an accepted belief in a final redemption of the world, or part of it. It may be argued that in America, or in Mainstream America at any rate, the people who “really count” don’t have these beliefs. It’s true that such ideas are certainly not part of liberal education, at least not in the sense that a supernatural intervention is foretold by practitioners of that discipline. (Religious education, of course, is another matter.)

But even in the most secular schools of American thought, ideas of world-redemption arise repeatedly, in various costumes, but still offering a millennial hope, for all that. For a long time it was fashionable to talk of America as having a “manifest destiny"; its role was to “make the world safe for democracy.” And America is not the only refuge for or victim of these fantasies. Marxism has found kinder homes elsewhere, but it promises a global salvation no less sure than Christianity’s. Nazism made the same offer.

America is a culture whose single deepest belief is that humans and their lives are perfectable, and America is also thought to be in decline. This primary cultural value is no longer routinely accessible. Bettering oneself is ever harder to do, and the likelihood of millennialist excitement grows. When this mix is confronted with a context in which a millennium actually is approaching, even though it’s no more than calendrical, the probability gets so close to certainty as not to matter.

When many people are, or think they are, afflicted in this way, they begin to seek some kind of redress, but they have to look outside the familiar structures, because by definition they have failed. It is in this context that the most successful prophets arise.

Still, there are certain factors that seem likely to prevent such movements from attracting large followings. Among them is the country’s cultural and social diversity. An intense and quasi nationalist outsider group (that is, a small one) is the best breeding ground for these ideas, which flourish in neo-Nazi and racist circles, among others. Ideas of threatened purity are often central to the millennium. This will probably be a limiting factor on the size and influence of these groups. Another is that they rarely attract those in socially elite positions-after all, why should the well off invite an end to their comfortable world? Nevertheless, such people do sometimes become active in these groups, and can be problematic in that position, since they may provide an entree to the establishment that might otherwise be wanting.

This situation is always potentially dangerous, primarily for the members of the group. First, governments in this country are almost by law profoundly ignorant of the meaning and power of religious ideas. Religion is explicitly, and properly, none of their ordinary business. Consequently, it is nearly incomprehensible to them that religious suicide like what may have happened at Waco could be a sane choice. But for believers in the millennium, death in defense of the cause is never a misfortune, but rather an opportunity; to live forever in paradise, the martyr’s reward.

Second, millenarists generally cast the government, the powers of this wicked world, as Antichrist and consequently can scarcely help but anticipate destruction. Confrontations with government are nearly inevitable, since by definition millennialists owe obedience to God, not to “Satan’s” earthly rule of law. They may sometimes provoke a confrontation, as the People’s Temple surely did with the murder of Congressman Ryan at Jonestown. Their suicide is religiously explicable as a sort of pre-emptive strike, to avoid falling into the hands of the Moloch state.

Third, movements like these attract and grow charismatic leaders, of which this century has already seen more than its share. These leaders are always unpredictable, and may have an excessive degree of power, since the devotion they demand is never less than total. Stalin and Hitler come to mind as prime examples of the type.

A good deal of the danger of bloody confrontations can be averted, however, if police agencies and other government officers can learn to take into account what millennialists believe-for their beliefs will determine their actions, as they do for everyone. What this means is that officers making arrests or serving warrants will be well advised to make a minimum show of force under the circumstances. David Koresh stood trial for murder in 1987; that warrant was served by telephone, according to my sources. Koresh came voluntarily, when he heard of the warrant.

The opposite tactic, used by both the BATF and the FBI at Waco, seems unnecessary on the face of it: Koresh wasn’t actively threatening anyone with his arsenal. What’s worse, it can only have fueled the Davidians’ fears of Armageddon. Seeing their prophecies fulfilled can only have incited them, and the FBI’s subsequent behavior in what they imagined to be a “hostage” situation alleviated nothing. (How they arrived at that conclusion about people who had gathered in a commune because they wanted to be there eludes me). I suppose the fact that they were in an enclosed space and didn’t want to come out persuaded the officers that they were dealing with a more or less routine hostage situation. If I were to give someone a script for the role of the Antichrist I would definitely have him play tapes of the screams of butchered rabbits to “demoralize” people in a siege. The actual effect of these tactics was certainly the opposite of that intended. They can only have strengthened the Davidians’ resolve to resist to the end.