What do gun control advocacy, the Mayan calendar, Harold Camping, campaigns against gay marriage, Communist sympathies among youth, and Westboro Baptist Church have in common?
If you said "I'd rather not be closely associated with any of them," well, you may have a point. But the thing that strikes me about them all is that they are all, in extremely different modes, expressions of something that seems to be an increasingly large element in the American psyche: preoccupation with, even an appetite for, apocalypse.
This is not a specifically religious phenomenon: it can be detected as much in concerns about the dwindling supply of fossil fuels and the long-term consequences of pollution as it can in sermons decrying the totalitarian implications of the HHS mandate. It takes on more obviously apocalyptic language in the mouths of believers, especially conservatives, but the mentality is the same: currents of fear, anger, and urgency, overlaid by an often fanatical assertion that if we don't do something now, our way of life -- perhaps the planet itself -- is doomed.
Feelings like this do not arise without reasons, but the reasons to which they attach themselves do not seem very reasonable. Take, for instance, the debate over gun control that has flared up again after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. I am not at all speaking to whether the proposals set for by President Obama and others are good ideas -- nor could I, since I have barely more than hearsay to go on. But does anyone really suppose that if we just made enough laws, bad things would stop happening? The sort of person who commits a mass shooting is not likely to care about having broken gun laws in the process. Conversely, human life and human death are infinitely more important than the right to bear arms, and there are more dignified ways of defending that right than using the brutal murder of two dozen people as a peg on which to hang one's pet political cause. Neither side seems prepared to regard this as a simple dispute between two views; both are claiming that their opponents' views will turn the nation into Nazi Germany. Because everybody knows that all wrong policies go directly to Hitler, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
Or take the dispute over gay marriage. Lots of advocates compare it to the civil rights conflicts of the sixties; which, speaking as a gay man, strikes me as being in rather poor taste, given the horrors endured by racial minorities in that decade and earlier (and since). Lesbians and gay men have suffered pretty ghastly things too, a fact of which the churches are not adequately cognizant or respectful; but the scale and depravity of the way those of African descent have been treated -- even aside from our maltreatment of other groups disadvantaged by race -- dwarfs the injustices of queer history. Meanwhile, on the other side of the nation, people explicitly declare our nation to be a new Sodom for legally sanctioning gay marriage, marked for collapse into barbarism and under Divine judgment. The idea that Christians might have to learn to live with gay marriage is abhorrent; better to sit outside the city under our gourd-bearing vine, waiting for Nineveh to be destroyed. But -- "Should I not spare Nineveh, that great city wherein there are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?"
To be frank, I do believe that America is echoing Sodom, but I don't believe it has anything to do with gay marriage. Scripture has this to say about the sin of Sodom:
"Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good." -- Ezekiel 16.49-50, emphasis mine.
That has been an accurate description of our nation for some years. We know it. In our heart of hearts, we know it. And we have the gall to suppose that God doesn't mind our incessant accumulation of possessions, our utter disregard for justice in trade, our desire to do as little work as possible -- but when people's sex lives are wrong (as, in every society, they always have been), God will start raining fire and brimstone. It's displaced guilt, it's scapegoating.
My point is not that the Christian stances on sexual mores are wrong: I accept those stances, and in fact accept the specifically Catholic version thereof, which is one of the more demanding varieties. My point is, rather, along the lines of what Charles Williams said in his history of the Holy Spirit's operation in the Church:
"It is at least arguable that the Christian Church will have to return to a pre-Constantine state before she can properly recover the ground she too quickly won. Her victories, among other disadvantages, produced in her children a great tendency to be aware of evil rather than sin, meaning by evil the wickedness done by others, by sin the wickedness done by oneself. The actuality of evil does not altogether excuse the hectic and hysterical attention paid to it; especially to those who appear to be deriving benefit from it; especially to benefits which the Christian spectator strongly disapproves or strongly desires. Even contrition for sin is apt to encourage a not quite charitable wish that other people should exhibit a similar contrition." -- The Descent of the Dove, pp. 86-87.
The only thing that can actually heal this nation is personal repentance. And person repentance must be carried out by persons, not institutions acting on our behalf, whether secular or spiritual; and repentance is an act of the will, not a decree of the law. Our avid expectation of an apocalypse is a displacement and externalization of the real need for the interior apocalypse, the interior revelation of the kingdom, the power, and the glory of God in Christ as applied to ourselves. Even the churches can't do this on our behalf; still less the state, nor would it if it could, for the corridors of power are inhospitable to humility. We each must choose to open our hearts to the supernatural power of that kingdom. We can't do it for anybody else. Again I quote Gandhi: "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."
Will that heal the nation, though? What can I possibly do?
The only thing you were ever able to do in the first place: reform yourself.
Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent
Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.