History Is Repeating Itself

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Exactly 70 years and 1 month ago, St. Margaret Chase Smith—who was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress—became the first Senator to denounce McCarthyism on the floor of the Senate, at significant political cost to herself.

(Both Senator Smith and Senator McCarthy were Republicans; however Smith was a bit of a maverick who would e.g. cross the aisle to vote with the Democratic party on Civil Rights bills.  The political pressure against her position was so great that 5 of the 6 Republican Senators she got to sign her "declaration" quickly recanted their support for it, and in retaliation Smith herself was stripped of her membership in the Senate Investigations Subcommittee.  Yet a mere 4 years later, the Senate condemned McCarthy.  So fast do the winds of political discourse change.)

Below is the text of her speech denouncing both parties for their flawed interpretations of what America stands for.  I will make no further commentary here, except to note that:

1. When applying her words to fit the present day situation, one would probably do best to swap the words "Republican" and "Democrat" with each other, wherever they appear.  (But, alas, Russia is still Russia!)

2. The idea of Senate committees being the primary epicenter for the "character assassination" of Americans* may seem rather quaint in the era of social media, but that does not mean that Sen. Smith's warnings about the importance of free speech norms in society (extending beyond merely not criminalizing speech) are equally quaint.

[*Leaving aside exclude executive and judicial nominees, who are in the process of being appointed "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate".  However dysfunctional the Senate confirmation process may have become, the Senate surely has a legitimate role in vetting such individuals.]

3. Senatorial rules prohibit the direct criticism of other Senators in debates on the Senate floor; which is why this speech was formally addressed to the presiding officer of the Senate, without explicitly mentioning Sen. McCarthy.  Nevertheless, everyone knew who the targets of this speech were.

Without further ado, here it is:

For Release Upon Delivery
Statement of Senator Margaret Chase Smith
June 1, 1950

Mr. President:

I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition.  It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.  It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership in either the Legislative Branch or the Executive Branch of our Government.

That leadership is so lacking that serious and responsible proposals are being made that national advisory commissions be appointed to provide such critically needed leadership.

I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism.  I speak as briefly as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence.  I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart.

I speak as a Republican.  I speak as a woman.  I speak as a United States Senator.  I speak as an American.

The United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body in the world.  But recently that deliberative character has too often been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.

It is ironical that we Senators can in debate in the Senate directly or indirectly, by any form of words, impute to any American who is not a Senator any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming an American -- and without that non-Senator American having any legal redress against us -- yet if we say the same thing in the Senate about our colleagues we can be stopped on the grounds of being out of order.

It is strange that we can verbally attack anyone else without restraint and with full protection and yet we hold ourselves above the same type of criticism here on the Senate Floor.  Surely the United States Senate is big enough to take self-criticism and self-appraisal.  Surely we should be able to take the same kind of character attacks that we "dish out" to outsiders.

I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul-searching -- for us to weigh our consciences -- on the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America -- on the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges.

I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.  I think that it is high time that we remembered that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only of the freedom of speech but also of trial by jury instead of trial by accusation.

Whether it be a criminal prosecution in court or a character prosecution in the Senate, there is little practical distinction when the life of a person has been ruined.

Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism:

            The right to criticize;

            The right to hold unpopular beliefs;

            The right to protest;

            The right of independent thought.

The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs.  Who of us doesn’t?  Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own.  Otherwise thought control would have set in.

The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as "Communists" or "Fascists" by their opponents.  Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America.  It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.

The American people are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and guilty people whitewashed.  But there have been enough proved cases, such as the Amerasia case, the Hiss case, the Coplon case, the Gold case, to cause the nationwide distrust and strong suspicion that there may be something to the unproved, sensational accusations.

As a Republican, I say to my colleagues on this side of the aisle that the Republican Party faces a challenge today that is not unlike the challenge that it faced back in Lincoln’s day. The Republican Party so successfully met that challenge that it emerged from the Civil War as the champion of a united nation -- in addition to being a Party that unrelentingly fought loose spending and loose programs.

Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of "know nothing, suspect everything" attitudes.  Today we have a Democratic Administration that has developed a mania for loose spending and loose programs.  History is repeating itself -- and the Republican Party again has the opportunity to emerge as the champion of unity and prudence.

The record of the present Democratic Administration has provided us with sufficient campaign issues without the necessity of resorting to political smears.  America is rapidly losing its position as leader of the world simply because the Democratic Administration has pitifully failed to provide effective leadership.

The Democratic Administration has completely confused the American people by its daily contradictory grave warnings and optimistic assurances -- that show the people that our Democratic Administration has no idea of where it is going.

The Democratic Administration has greatly lost the confidence of the American people by its complacency to the threat of communism here at home and the leak of vital secrets to Russia though key officials of the Democratic Administration.  There are enough proved cases to make this point without diluting our criticism with unproved charges.

Surely these are sufficient reasons to make it clear to the American people that it is time for a change and that a Republican victory is necessary to the security of this country.  Surely it is clear that this nation will continue to suffer as long as it is governed by the present ineffective Democratic Administration.

Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.  The nation sorely needs a Republican victory.  But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny -- Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.

I doubt if the Republican Party could -- simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.  Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.

I don’t want to see the Republican Party win that way.  While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people.  Surely it would ultimately be suicide for the Republican Party and the two-party system that has protected our American liberties from the dictatorship of a one party system.

As members of the Minority Party, we do not have the primary authority to formulate the policy of our Government.  But we do have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, of clarifying issues, of allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens.

As a woman, I wonder how the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters feel about the way in which members of their families have been politically mangled in the Senate debate -- and I use the word "debate" advisedly.

As a United States Senator, I am not proud of the way in which the Senate has been made a publicity platform for irresponsible sensationalism.  I am not proud of the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle.  I am not proud of the obviously staged, undignified countercharges that have been attempted in retaliation from the other side of the aisle.

I don’t like the way the Senate has been made a rendezvous for vilification, for selfish political gain at the sacrifice of individual reputations and national unity.  I am not proud of the way we smear outsiders from the Floor of the Senate and hide behind the cloak of congressional immunity and still place ourselves beyond criticism on the Floor of the Senate.

As an American, I am shocked at the way Republicans and Democrats alike are playing directly into the Communist design of "confuse, divide, and conquer."  As an American, I don’t want a Democratic Administration “whitewash” or "cover-up" any more than I want a Republican smear or witch hunt.

As an American, I condemn a Republican "Fascist" just as much I condemn a Democratic "Communist."  I condemn a Democrat "Fascist" just as much as I condemn a Republican "Communist."  They are equally dangerous to you and me and to our country.  As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.

It is with these thoughts that I have drafted what I call a "Declaration of Conscience."  I am gratified that Senator Tobey, Senator Aiken, Senator Morse, Senator Ives, Senator Thye, and Senator Hendrickson have concurred in that declaration and have authorized me to announce their concurrence.

The declaration reads as follows:

1. We are Republicans. But we are Americans first. It is as Americans that we express our concern with the growing confusion that threatens the security and stability of our country. Democrats and Republicans alike have contributed to that confusion.

2. The Democratic administration has initially created the confusion by its lack of effective leadership, by its contradictory grave warnings and optimistic assurances, by its complacency to the threat of communism here at home, by its oversensitiveness to rightful criticism, by its petty bitterness against its critics.

3. Certain elements of the Republican Party have materially added to this confusion in the hopes of riding the Republican party to victory through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance. There are enough mistakes of the Democrats for Republicans to criticize constructively without resorting to political smears.

4. To this extent, Democrats and Republicans alike have unwittingly, but undeniably, played directly into the Communist design of “confuse, divide and conquer.”

5. It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom. It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques -- techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.

Posted in History, Politics | Leave a comment

The New York Times shouldn't be in the business of doxxing bloggers

Everyone who's familiar with internet culture knows that publishing the real-world identities of pseudonymous bloggers ("doxxing") is an indecent practice, which has no place in a civilized internet ecosystem.  This is one of the few remaining areas of moral consensus, shared among decent netizens on all sides of the political spectrum.

If we want to have a web culture which allows the most creative people to contribute to the global conversation, we need to promote norms in which people are able to blog under pseudonyms if they want to compartmentalize their internet and real-world identities.

One of my top favorite blogs to read is Slate Star Codex, by Scott Alexander, who is perhaps the most interesting social commenter of my generation, and one who has done more than almost anyone else to promote civil discourse between people with different political views.

Well you can't read it right now (at least, not without using the conveniently located time machine) because, for no particularly good reason that anyone can see, a New York Times editor decided that they wanted to use his real name in an article they were writing (even though the supposedly article was going to focus on his blog).  This is an incredibly out-of-touch move for anyone familiar with Internet culture.

Since Scott is a psychiatrist who helps mentally vulnerable patients, and since he has received death threats in the past, he has very good reasons not to want his blog to show up when people search for his real name.  Hence he's (hopefully temporarily if the New York Times changes course) taken his entire blog down in order to protect himself (you can see read his explanation here).

This makes me very sad.

Fortunately there's still time for the New York Times to change its course.  To help them change their mind, please do me a big favor and help out in one of the following ways:

•  You can sign the petition.  Every additional name helps get their attention.  If you are reading this post, and think that doxxing people is bad, then I'm talking to you.

•  If you have a NYT subscription, please consider cancelling it now, and telling them why you are doing so.  No respectable newspaper should be in the buisness of "doxxing for clicks".  Alternatively you could leave feedback informing them that you will cancel your subscription, if they go forward on this unethical decision.

•  You can also give your feedback to the editor responsible for making the decision.  You can find instructions for how to do so on Scott's takedown page.

Thanks!

Posted in Blog, Ethics | 2 Comments

Capturing Christianity discussion

A few years ago I wrote a series of blog posts (starting here) discussing the debate between Sean Carroll and St. William Lane Craig.

Well, last week I was invited to St Cameron Beruzzi's internet show Capturing Christianity, along with fellow guests Sts. Luke Barnes and Ronald Cram, to give further comments about the debate.

You can still watch it by following this link.  The whole thing is about 2 1/2 hours long.

Posted in Blog, Metaphysics, Reviews, Talks | 5 Comments

Addressing Police Brutality

Here is an excellent blog post St. Brandon Watson about how to fix the system that leads to police brutality.  My own reflections follow:

There is a long history of racist policing in the United States.  It is natural to assume that if the problem involves racism, the best solution must necessarily be to make a change that directly addresses racial issues.   However, often the solution to a problem can only be found by thinking more generally than the original problem.

A better solution (and one that might have a chance of success without immediately turning the issue into an intractable argument) is to make structural changes that increase everyone's rights and protections against arbitrary actions by police and others.

I'm sure that the majority of police officers are decent people who would not approve of going around murdering people, but the fact is if you give to some class of individuals what effectively amounts to the power of life-and-death over ordinary citizens, it only takes a small minority of abusive individuals to lead to serious problems.  That is why those who are entrusted with great power must also be held to a higher standard of responsibility.

Racism will indeed influence which communities and individuals are targeted by the police (although the extent to which specific aspects of the policing system are racially biased is a complicated sociological question without clear-cut answers).  But our goal here should not merely be to make it so that summary executions without trial are fairly distributed between different ethnic groups.  The goal should be to make it so that nobody in America believes themselves to have the legal power to execute unarmed and helpless captives without a trial (I'm not talking about how the police should respond to armed assailants, which is a different matter where judgment calls are unavoidable).

The only way to make that happen is to provide consequences for people who do such things.  And one way to try to implement that is by revisiting legal doctrines such as qualified immunity, which stack the deck in favor of government officials who violate people's rights.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Pandemic without Panic (a meditation for Holy Tuesday)

A couple of readers have asked for my take on the Pandemic.

1. First of all, practical matters: If you haven't already been told a hundred times already, you should try to avoid going to places with people in them, besides members of your own household (assuming none of them are sick yet!).  This is our way of protecting, not only ourselves, but elderly and sick people.

Some have questioned whether shutting down the economy will lead to even worse consequences than the disease itself.  Certainly, this is going to lead to suffering for many poor people and small business owners and workers.  But while nobody knows all of the effects of such decisions, in the short run suspending the inessential parts of the economy probably actually saves lives on net (even before taking into account stopping the disease!), what with less driving cars, and less pollution.

Maybe we can take this opportunity to remind ourselves that what we call the "economy" often reflects priorities that are not completely healthy and beneficial?  Just as an individual can benefit from a period of fasting from inessential luxuries, to learn what is more important, a whole society can benefit from a fast as well.

These days there are services in most places to order groceries online and have them delivered to your door.  If you can still find time slots available, that is much safer than going to the grocery store yourself.  (There is some chance of getting exposed to the virus from touching surfaces, e.g. food packaging, but people breathing droplets is thought to be the main way it spreads.  If you are concerned about viruses on surfaces you can wash the outer packaging in soapy water, as we have been doing.)

If you have frozen or imperishable food stored up, you can also eat that.

You can also order delivery from restaurants, if needed.  This is less ideal, but at least this way at most 1 person from outside breathes on you per meal.

If none of those strategies works for you, then you might still have to go to the store, but please do so as infrequently as you can (which means you should try to make each trip count, by buying enough food for say 2 weeks if possible).  Wear a mask if you can, or at least cloth over your face.

If you are in a vulnerable demographic, maybe you could get somebody else to go to the store for you?  If you are healthy, perhaps you could provide this service for someone who is not?

If you are living in a house with a sick person, of course make sure their needs are met, but do your best to try to minimize your exposure to their germs.  Infection is not just a yes/no thing—it turns out that the quantities of virus you are exposed to matter.  If you are exposed to only a small number, it takes the viruses longer to reproduce to dangerous numbers, giving your immune system more time to crack their code and build up antibodies.

2.  But what about the theological significance?  In each generation, there is a temptation for Christians to read too much into the disasters of that time as if they were some unique sign, rather than the way life is in general.

Is the Pandemic a sign of the End Times?  Should we expect Jesus to be coming back any moment now?  Well, it seems like the Black Death (which killed a lot more people) would have been an even stronger sign, and we know that Jesus didn't come back in the 1300's.  Even the Spanish Flu probably killed more people per capita than Covid-19 will.

Let's see what Jesus says, in the beginning of his discourse to his disciples about the End Times, which—going by the chronology of Holy Week in the Gospel of Mark—he probably preached on the Tuesday before he was crucified (so this blog post is 1 day late, sorry!).

From Matthew 24 [with the two words in brackets taken from the parallel passage in Luke 21]

While He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached Him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what is the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?”

Then Jesus replied to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you.  For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many: You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars.  See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be famines and earthquakes [and plagues] in various places.   All these events are the beginning of birth pains.  Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you.  You will be hated by all nations because of My name.”

Note the words I have highlighted here.  The words in red involve various types of human conflicts (often leading to bloodshed), the words in blue involve natural disasters (including plagues like Covid-19), and the words in black indicate what Jesus says about both of these categories: Don't panic, this is what happens in each generation, it is not any kind of indicator that you live in the last generation.  It is not the end, it is just the beginning.

Jesus does, however, refer to these signs (which manifest to different degrees in every generation of human history), as the "birth pains", so he doesn't entirely reject the idea of looking at them as some sort of "sign".

Actually, Covid-19 is a sign of the End Times, but only in a certain sense.  It is not the sort of sign that silly prognosticators are looking for, who—in defiance of Jesus' statement that not even angels, or the Son with respect to his human knows the day or hour, but only the Father—try to predict the time of the End.  Rather, it is a sign for the wise, for those who know how to interpret events.

Let's compare it to tooth decay.  When I was 28, I had to get my wisdom teeth removed; they had actually grown in perfectly fine, but they were decaying since I hadn't kept them as clean as I should have.  The dentist said they'd need to be removed or else crowned, and even that would only hold for another decade or so.  So I had them taken out—but that's another story.

Covid-19 is a sign of the mortality of the human existence as a whole, in exactly the same way that tooth decay is a sign of your own mortality.  A wise man will learn from such experiences the frailty of his mortal condition, and will recognize from it the inevitability of his eventual physical demise.  But, that does not mean that you'll be hit by a bus the moment you walk out of the doctor's office on painkiller, nor does it mean that you can use cavities as a sort of guidepost to predict the year and manner of your death.  True, an untreated tooth abscess might well be the thing that kills you, but most likely you'll be done in by something completely different.

3. As I said, many Christians have a temptation to interpret recent historical events as if they were a lucid story where we can read off the plot and say what the moral is.  (Scholars sometimes call this sort of tendency, Historicism.)  We can be sure that historical events fulfill God's will, but it is hubris to think, in the absence of specific revelation about the matter, that we can give a detailed explanation of how or why they do so.

Let us turn to the favorite book of the prognosticators: the Book of Revelation.  Near the beginning of the book, John has a vision of God in heaven, and in that vision he sees a strange sight:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.  And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?”  But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside itI wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.  (Rev. 5:1-4)

The scroll that is full of writing represents the hidden meaning of God's creation.  If there is a Creator, and if he created human beings for a purpose, then this hidden significance has to exist!  But it turns out that nobody is worthy—smart enough or good enough or holy enough—to penetrate the depths of this mystery.

As Ecclesiastes says: "He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end."  This mystery, represented here by the "seven seals", is a problem for those who try to defend God by constructing plausible theodicies.

True, any idiot can see that it is sometimes true that suffering builds character, that freedom requires the possibility of bad choices, and that great good can sometimes come out of terrible evil.  And if there is an afterlife, we cannot expect that our final fulfillment will come in this life, but rather we are being prepared for another (and unimaginable) state of existence.

But for precisely this reason, those who seek to come up with facile philosophical explanations of exactly why God allowed this war or that disease, in a way that is supposed to be more satisfying then repeating such obvious platitudes, are fooling themselves.  As Housman wrote:

"Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man."

Does that mean that there is no way to understand the purpose of Creation?  Not quite, since there is one who knows:

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.  The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.  And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb.  Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.    And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.” (v. 5:5-10)

The slain Lamb, of course, represents Jesus, and his sacrifice on the Cross.  At the Cross, and only at the Cross, God's hidden purpose for human suffering and agony become apparent.  Hence, only the risen Jesus is fully worthy to interpret the meaning of human history, and in particular whatever suffering the sick may be experiencing right now.

To the extent that we can have a glimmer of this now, as a person other than the Savior, it can only be to the extent that we meditate on the Cruciform love of God that was revealed there, and let it permeate our thoughts and character.  This is nothing more nor less nor other than the call to fully become a saint.  To become a saint is to have a satisfactory resolution to the Problem of Evil, in a particular life.  But the gate is open for that person only.  The next person to come along will not be able to grasp the explanation, unless they too are on the road to holiness.

As the Lamb begins to open the Seals one by one, John sees the famous "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"—but originally the term "Apocalypse" just meant the four Horsemen that appear in the Apocalypse of John, i.e. the Book of Revelation.  (Although, they were first seen by the Prophet Zechariah.)    The woes they bring are the same as the ones that Jesus described at the start of the Olivet discourse, and which have characterized every era of human history: conquest, war, famine, and pestilence.

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!”  I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

In the 20th century alone, about 100-200 million people were killed as a more or less direct consequence of government policy (e.g. genocide and deliberate starvation), not counting military deaths.  (This is based on old notes for a Sunday school class; I'm not going to try to find all my sources again.)

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

About 40 million people were killed in battle in the 20th century.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand.  Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages,and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

Famine was responsible for the deaths of about 70 million in the 20th century.

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.  They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.  (v. 6:1-7)

Death seems somewhat redundant with the effects of the previous Horsemen.  Indeed, Death seems to get pretty much everyone eventually.  Even if we only focus on the new element of infectious disease, this one is actually MUCH bigger than the other 3.  In the 20th century, around 200 million people were killed by smallpox alone, and that was just one of many deadly scourges.

Most of the deaths by plague in the 20th century came near the start.  As a result of vaccines and better medical care, death by infectious disease dropped in developed countries (e.g. the USA) to only about a 10% the rate it had before.  Even with the novel coronavirus running rampant, we live in very sheltered times compared to every other era in human history!

The 5th Seal is also something common through many eras:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.  They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers were killed just as they had been.

In the 20th century there were, depending on how you count, somewhere around 45 million Christian martyrs.

Only when we reach the 6th Seal to we seem to get imagery that corresponds to the actual End Times, and it seems to comes in a huge spectacle all at once:

I watched as he opened the sixth seal.  There was a great earthquake.  The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind.  The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.  They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

I expect that this provides us with a picture of the Second Coming which is at least as literal as the Book's depiction of the body of Jesus (a Lamb with 7 eyes and 7 horns).   Yes, Christ will return to Earth just as he has promised, but John's vision was not given to him to satisfy all of our curiosity about exactly how it will happen.

In my opinion it is more profitable to meditate on the deep irony inherent in the strange and paradoxical phrase "Wrath of the Lamb".  This is a rather astonishing juxtaposition.  A lamb is not an animal that most people would associate with apocalyptic rage and judgement.  What can this mean?

It means that when God arrives to forcibly overthrow all the powers of the world, he will do so with the same body that suffered on Earth as a meek, innocent victim of torture and execution.  A person who—although he was very far from being a physical or verbal doormat—told his disciples not to resist their persecutors, and who willingly forgave his tormenters.  That person, and nobody else, is going to finally end all violence and disease, and economic exploitation, and religious oppression.  Not by beating them in a fair fight on their own terms, but rather by the sheer power and glory and worthiness of his unveiled and crucified divinity.

This blog post will not attempt to interpret the strange Sabbath rest of the 7th Seal.  Nor will I attempt to give an interpretation of the Trumpets and Bowls which follow the Seals in the text (although this does not necessarily imply anything about their chronological order) except to note the obvious fact, that depending on how the future unfolds, the human race could easily face severe ecological devastation as a result of human sin and mismanagement of the Earth.

The main purpose of these visions and teachings is not to show us what we have to suffer—there has always been plenty of that on Earth, even without special Tribulations and Persecutions—but rather to show us who suffered along side us.

Those of us who persist in reading the Scriptures, or the events of our lives, with the goal of finding Jesus there, will not I think find them to be without meaning.

Posted in History, Theology | 9 Comments