Posted on Saturday, May 21st, 2011 at 4:17 pm
Author: GlobalComment Editor
Gc contributor: Emily Manuel
For those who have been living under a rock (or worse, been offline), the world is supposed to end today. More accurately, a group of fringe evangelical Christians in California led by Harold Camping have taken to the airwaves on their Family Radio Network to proclaim the imminent arrival of the Rapture on May 21st–the removal of faithful believers of Christ from the earth and the cataclysmic beginning of the destruction of the Earth.
As Christian beliefs go, the Rapture’s a pretty marginal doctrine restricted to evangelicals, accepted neither by the Catholic, Orthodox or mainline Protestant groups. Even for those evangelicals that do believe in the Rapture, the vast majority will think of Thessalonian 5:1-2 – “Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Most Christians know better to set dates for the return of Christ, though many have tried before. The failure of Jesus to show up for one such date set by the Millerite movement in the United States in 1844 was called “the Great Disappointment” for good reason. As the great holy text Battlestar Galactica once put it, “all of this has happened before, and will happen again.”
So this is not a widely accepted or particularly credible form of religious belief, it’s pretty safe to say most people do not believe the world is ending at 6pm tonight. What is more astonishing is the degree with which this apocalyptic story has been taken up by atheists, dominating the news for the past few weeks. Mother Jones reports that Channing’s PR person has fielded 400 interview requests in the past few weeks; bucket lists and music playlists to soundtrack the apocalypse have been posted, and as I write now, the trending topics on Twitter include #rapture #iftheworldendsonSaturday #Harold Camping and a nostalgic apocalyptic throwback in the form of #Y2K. Most of it is mocking, with a sense of incredulity that someone could honestly believe in the end of the world. So why all the fuss?
My theory is that jokes about the Rapture express a deeper anxiety about the decidedly apocalyptic times we live in. Natural disasters have been abundant in the last year – from the Iceland volcano to the Japanese tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis to large scale flooding in Australia, the U.S., the Philippines and Brazil. Images of the Guld oil spill from above looked like the earth itself had sustained a giant, bloody wound. Economic, social and political unrest have been widespread, with the continued economic depression, rising food prices worldwide, attacks on the social welfare state in many countries, revolutions and protest in others. It’s clear that there are looming crises in both global capitalism and the environment. When taken altogether, it’s hard not to get the feeling that the end of the world as we know it is nigh.
This is the steady undercurrent of fear that we live with at the moment. So it’s unsurprising that when a fringe group improbably declares the end of the world is at hand that people would not only make jokes about it, but use it as a means of expressing some of the often unacknowledged uncertainty about the sustainability of our current system of living. Religion has long been a receptacle for people’s fears, and the narrative of the Rapture taps into a deeply apocalyptic undercurrent in the American unconscious in particular that stretches from Puritan preachers like Cotton Mather to the evangelical pop culture kitsch of the Left Behind books through and the formulaic destruction of Hollywood disaster films. Making jokes is a way to control our fear, to both recall the worst case possibility and ward it away.
But there are more productive ways of dealing with the end than bleak hashtag jokes and I-Tunes playlists. The literary theorist Fredric Jameson has said that it’s easier for our society to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and there’s a certain truth in that. But the instability in capital, the result class war against the many in the name of “austerity,” and the disastrous pursuing of profitable environmentally destructive policies are not natural or inevitable. They have not been written in the fates, or in the Book of Revelations; they are political, the result of political decisions and methods of organising society. And so too must the real response be–not merely dreading the end, but organising collectively to prevent it, finding new methods of social organisation that put human ends first before the abstract and increasingly irrelevant needs of capital.
It would be the end of the world as we know it in a certain sense, but we would feel fine, after all.
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