Part Two: Your will be done…
We finally broke free of the worst of the lunch traffic rush around Oklahoma City the first time I heard Can’t Buy me Love on oldies radio. It was June, 1996. My family was driving home from a wedding in a crippled old Ford Thunderbird we had bought off a guy from church for a hundred and fifty bucks the week before we had set out for Oklahoma. By the time we hit Tulsa the Ford was farting clouds of black smoke across the interstate. The pistons melted, fused to the engine block, and the whole motor locked up and died a few miles from the Missouri border. We left the Thunderbird on the side of the freeway near a town called Vinita. My stepdad, Craigar, traded my Grandparents’ video camera with an old couple who owned the motel we stayed in that night and we hit the road the next day in an dust brown ’83 Caprice with a cassette deck and a bad oil leak. We didn’t make it far into Missouri before the billows of smoke engulfed us again. While we waited in the broiling heat outside a quick-lube in Joplin the mechanic explained the problem. “You’ve got oil all over the engine,” he said. Real helpful guy. So we set off like the Israelites under a pillar of smoke that wasn’t leading us anywhere. That night, broke down on a dark offramp outside of Marshfield, Craigar and Mom huddled in prayer over the hood of the Caprice. Frustrated and desperate by this time, stinking with the heat of the summer freeway and caramelized engine grease, Craigar asked God to show them a sign if we were going to be home the next day. At that moment he looked up and saw a shooting star tear across the night sky.
It was the sign he had asked for, but that old Chevy had a will of its own. We didn’t make it out till five days later, by which time we were all delirious, dressed in Craigar’s hockey jerseys and cursing the State of Missouri.
Today the people of Joplin are having a worse time figuring out what God is telling them, trying to read the divine will in the tea leaves of splintered houses and shattered lives. I have a friend who tells me, based almost entirely on innuendo, that the government has a weather controlling space ray that is to blame for the floods and tornadoes, not to mention the Japanese tsunami and the Haitian earthquake. As ludicrous as that seems, boiling everything down to a nonsensical and self-contradictory conspiracy theory beats the pants off imagining a god capable of authoring such pointless misery.
Over the past year I’ve been reading the Bible, trying to make sure that I’ve actually read it all and don’t just think I have. Right now I’m reading Isaiah, a book that combines deep outrage at social injustice with an apparent lustful glee in retributive destruction. God judges Israel and Judah for growing rich and decadent from by oppressing the poor and ignoring the misfortunes of the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Chapter 3, verse 14-15 says, “The Lord enters into judgement against the leaders of his people: ‘It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?'” God’s judgement arrives in the form of the army of the Assyrian empire, presented as God’s instrument in chapter 8. However, the judgement of the Lord soon turns against Assyria itself, and in chapter 10, verse 12 the Lord says, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.” Where Israel is destroyed for oppressing the poor, disobeying God and following idols (Check out 10: 1-2), Assyria is punished for imperial hubris.
Which brings us to America’s current wars. Because the prophetic books of the Bible spend so much time describing apocalyptic battles in the Middle East, often in horrific detail, it’s tempting to see the battles for control of that region as the prelude to the prophecies’ fulfillment. It isn’t hard to put the pieces together. As all the opposing sides remain irreconcilable, as the wars and occupations rage on long after the boogeymen they were incited to destroy are sent to their eternal judgement, as each consecutive American president builds on the work of the last, sending more troops, bombing more countries, crying, “Peace, peace,” while punching the war machine into its next highest gear and stomping the gas, it’s easy to imagine it all building inexorably to some final conflagration.
Obama’s recent speech to the British Parliament makes it clear that there is no hope for an end to the conflict coming from our democratic leaders. The Leader of the World’s Greatest Empire declares in no uncertain terms that US control over the world economy is his end and that military conquest is the means by which it will be accomplished. Obama’s hymns to the replenishing power of the free market hint at the more disturbing aspects of his call for Western leadership. The free market forces nation-states to compete with each other for shares of the world market. From that point of view, the ascendancy economies like China, India and Brazil, combined with the relative decline of the US economy, make it all the more essential that the United States maintains political control over the oil resources of the Middle East, and that it holds a death grip on whatever economic power it still holds internationally. Basically, now that the US has entered these wars, it cannot possibly relent without losing everything. In that light, Obama countering the view that Western leadership is on the decline with the statement “The time for our leadership is now,” should cause us all to shudder, especially those of us in the working class who will be asked, once again, to absorb all the bullets and shrapnel while the ruling class that treats us with unrepentant spite sends us to war to protect their own power in the world market.
So the sampled, regurgitated, technotronic beat of war drags on, soaked in the saccharine, autotune cheerleading of patriotic platitudes and takes on the illusion of prophetic inevitability. America’s cynical behavior toward the revolutionary upsurge in the Arab world, combined with its steadfast determination to pursue its previously established agenda bodes poorly for the current wave of nonviolent protests in Palestine. The armies of the world seem to be gathering along the edges of the valley of Meggido, and the Abomination that Causes Desolation is starting to sound like sweet relief. Obama (and you can bet this goes double for whatever liberty-touting charlatan replaces him) promises not to relent until this nation we’ve built has no more tax money, no more bombs, and no more working class young men to lay on the poker table and our society rots from the inside. It’s more or less the same thing that happened to the Soviets when they tried to invade a country whose name escapes me…
Is all of this, after all, merely the culmination of God’s plan? If you believe that God’s will is manifest in the self-interested actions of the rich and powerful, you find yourself on the same side as Saint Peter (1Peter 2:13) and with the Christian Church of the middle ages that saw the system of feudal oppression as an imposition of the divine order that conveniently placed the Church itself on top. You’d be on the opposite side of Jesus, who tends to portray all the authorities of this world as being satanically inspired, but Jesus and the prophets, as they oppose the oppressors and the empires that they faced, all looked forward to the coming days of turmoil and bloodshed as heralds of the destruction of the current, wicked system, and its replacement with the just and equitable Kingdom of God.
The truth is that God isn’t responsible for the actions of the world’s rulers any more than He is responsible for floods and tornadoes. We live in a universe governed by physical laws of cause and effect, where whatever god may have set everything in motion is content to let us all struggle through the contradictions of the world we create for each other. As it stands, we’re still at the whim of those who, cheered on by such dark prophets as Machiavelli and Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, grab power for their own ends and bend the world to their heroic wills. The mass of people continue to toil for the edification of those who say that it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. But it isn’t God’s will that makes things this way, only the armed power of the state organized to protect the interests of the ruling class.
It’s a fool, likely a comfortable liberal fool, who looks at the world today and doesn’t see an apocalypse in the offing. But what form that apocalypse takes is entirely in our hands. We can strap in to the rollercoaster that drags us to our destruction as the ruling classes of different nations compete for a larger portion of the wealth we produce, or we can bring on the chaotic zombie apocalypse of the common people and bequeath the world to the meek and powerless.
In the Kingdom of God that Jesus advocated as the future for humanity, the last will be first and the first will be last. It seems to good to believe in a world that gets as ugly as ours. But it still beats the hell out of believing in anything else.