"Waiting For Armageddon" Interfaith Roundtable
January 7, 2010
On Thursday, I attended a panel in anticipation of First Run Features’ theatrical release this weekend of “Waiting for Armageddon,” a documentary by award-winning filmmakers, David Heilbroner, Kate Davis and Franco Sacchi. For a little background, Brian described the panel’s premise here, and the New York Times just posted a great review of the film.
The discussion provided an eye-opening, fascinating glimpse into a very powerful, popular and potentially dangerous Evangelical belief system, and the political and social implications it might have for people of other faiths. I have been thinking of the subjects raised that evening, and have found myself wanting to discuss them with everyone that I come across. I am certainly enticed to see the whole film and learn more.
I am glad to note that the discussion was surprisingly civil considering the broad spectrum of panelists from across the theological world and the controversial topics that were addressed. The participants were as follows:
Kate Davis, filmmaker
Rabbi Justus Baird, Director of the Center for Multifaith Education, Auburn Theological Seminary
David Elcott, Taub Professor at NYU and Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee
Galen Guengerich, Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Church
Paul de Vries, President of the New York Divinity School and Evangelical Christian
Franco Sacchi, filmmaker
David Heilbroner, filmmaker
And the moderator was Michelle Goldberg, journalist and author, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (MOD)
I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with many of the theology-related terms brought up that evening but I tried my best to document the gist of the discussion below. I thought you might need to be helped along a little too, so I’ve put a couple definitions of terms from the evening at the very end of this write-up.
The panel was organized around four short clips and began with filmmaker Kate Davis remarking that it was an exciting night for her because the roundtable proved that there can be intelligent, interfaith discussions about the issues raised in the film. There was also a brief explanation that the theology guiding the people in Waiting for Armageddon, which is Premillennial Dispensationalism* is only practiced by about ¼ of Evangelicals.
MOD: What role does Israel play in this theology?
Guengerich: The people featured in the film believe in the literal interpretation and absolute inerror of the Bible, but if you try to interpret it without any historical metaphor it can be highly problematic, especially for Israel. (Editor’s note: Evangelicals believe that all Jews must return to Israel as a precondition for Christ’s Second Coming.)
MOD: To put it another way, is this alliance beneficial for the Jews?
Baird: It’s good and really bad at the same time. In my understanding, dispensationalism leaves room for G-d’s covenant with the Jews. There is a respect for the historical relationship between G-d and the Jews and that Jews may be able to be resurrected without conversion. On the other hand, as a Rabbi, I think that good theology doesn’t instrumentalize other people.
Sacchi: The people we met during the filming believed that Jews had to convert or they will die.
Elcott: This is not a strictly Evangelical belief. I think that all three monotheistic religions instrumentalize other people so I’d frame it differently. All of these religions were obsessed with Messianism at various points, so it’s not surprising that it’s coming up for Christians now. The rise of Shi’ite Islam is also related to string Messianic fervor. Each religion uses others toward their own Messianic redemption. The interesting thing is that it’s all focused on the same place: Israel.
MOD: The Tribulation* entails great horrors for much of humankind, so why do the people in the film look forward to it?
Guengerich: Have you been to the movies lately? The human fascination with violence is pervasive and in this case, it’s violence sanctioned by G-d. It will be the ultimate battle between good and evil, and it’s fundamentally human. In the film, some people take a perverse delight in specific aspects of this, like the “bridles of horses.” (Note: a belief that battles of the Tribulation will cause blood to cover the earth as high as a horse’s bridle.) What gives them permission is that G-d gave this revelation that must be followed.
MOD: Is there any part of the Evangelical community that is trying to actively bring this period on?
de Vries: There is a small minority who are but we try to civilize them. I encourage everyone to read the Book of Revelation and get a real sense of it. Someone like Ahmadinejad is dangerous because he is a Muslim Messianic and he wants to bring on the end of days. But there is NO HINT in Jesus’s teachings that we need to immanentize the eschaton.*
Elcott: But that goes against the trend of Western society, which is to make things happen through action and activism. In Michael Chabon’s new book he talks about a 10,000 year clock and then realizes that his children can’t even imagine 30 years down the road. When you look at the disaster films, they aren’t about something that’s going to happen off in the distant future—its 2012. There is something in our culture that’s saying the world is going to change dramatically soon or something’s got to happen.
MOD: Isn’t there something fatalistic about all of this?
Baird: As an antidote to this kind of extreme theology, we recently brought theology students to Israel to Har Megiddo where Armageddon is supposed to occur, to show that in order to lead people into the future they must talk to those on the other side. Jewish students need to understand the rapture from a Christian perspective. The Jewish Talmud* is full of disagreements. The scholar Hillel often came out on top of those debates because he was kind and thoughtful and listened to the other side first. It is our responsibility as religious leaders to respectfully listen to each other and not wish for each other’s destruction.
de Vries: 72% of Evangelicals say that we must do more to help the environment. Every Evangelical believes that the world will be over, but we have to be faithful now so we need to take care of G-d’s earth.
Heilbroner: I just want to give a little context of the clips we’re showing tonight. These give you a sense of some of the issues in the film, but it’s really the story of the Evangelicals we met and their trip to Israel. However, the clip we’ve been discussing really underlines one issue: Demanding that your version of your religion is absolutely right has very dangerous political implications.
Guengerich: The U.S. and Israel are secular states. In the U.S., twice as many people believe in the Virgin birth as believe in evolution, and these ideas are diametrically opposed. People and countries have a choice about which philosophy to employ, and the U.S. and Israel go by a secular agenda rather than a religious one.
Elcott: That is technically true but in my opinion it a realistic appraisal. The U.S. went to war with Iraq against Islam. There are definite policy implications of Christianity. Israel is not secular—it is confessional. I am Jewish and I recite a prayer three times a day that basically says “I’m right, and you’re wrong” and in Islam they believe people must submit themselves to their god. It’s not that Americans want another world war, but there is a cost to fighting evil. In World War 2 it cost 50 million lives. My point is that it’s dangerous to say “It’s not us, it’s them.”
Sacchi: It’s important to look at where religious and “modern” intersect. They can co-exist within boundaries. This way of reading the Bible is actually modern—to interpret the Bible so literally—like a manual to be read in a rational way. This is not a traditionally religious approach.
de Vries: Modernism has definitely affected Fundamentalists to approach the Bible like a chemistry textbook. I don’t think G-d interrupts the flow of nature—He made it. He made the Virgin birth as part of it. We use the term “natural causes” to leave the big questions outside of the lab. I invented the term “methodological naturalism.” Once we take our lab coats off, then we can ponder the things we studied as part of a bigger picture.
Baird: It’s dangerous territory when we tell people how to read their own religious texts. It’s our job as human beings to make sense of our own experiences through our religious inheritance. It’s not just Evangelicals who have been affected by modernity.
Elcott: I became involved in civil rights because I felt G-d commanded me to do so. I’m not prepared to allow people to hurt others in the name of G-d. I’m willing to say that as a human, there’s a huge chasm between me and G-d. I, too, have fundamental beliefs and I’ve fought others over them. I’m not distant from someone who is fighting on faith-based beliefs. As I said before, it’s dangerous to say “It’s not us, it’s them.”
Davis: That’s why we made the film. The intersection of religion and politics is at the core of the way people spoke to us—whether small-town, Midwestern families or educated theologians. We act out of our spiritual selves in the decisions we make. It’s not a clean line. In the film, someone says, “The separation of church and state is a joke.” We really need to understand that worldview.
MOD: The fictional Left Behind series about the end of days has sold 70 million copies. In the video game based on the novels, you form Christian militias to kill global peacekeepers and the Secretary General of the U.N. is the Antichrist. (Editor’s note: SERIOUSLY?!) What are the implications of this theology for a 2-state solution in Israel?
Sacchi: That’s one of the things I took away from making this film. Whenever I hear the Secretary General of the UN on TV now, I wonder if millions of Americans think that the Antichrist is on TV. The people we featured see everything through this lens.
Elcott: In 1917, the British Cabinet approved a Jewish state in the Balfour Declaration because they were Evangelical Christians. But they’re not alone—it’s not just Evangelicals preventing peace in the Middle East. It’s Muslims and Jews, too, each for their own reasons.
Baird: David earlier highlighted the question: How do people who believe different things differently duke it out in the public square without killing each other?
Guengerich: In a modern constitutional democracy, you can form your convictions based on religious views, but arguing public policy must be done on terms that are fair and understandable to everyone. In this country, the Constitution trumps religious texts. We need to demand that religious people make arguments other than “My G-d told me so.”
de Vries: The Constitution is wonderful, but it doesn’t trump scripture. There are Evangelicals who respect human rights and the Palestinian people as equal players in the Middle East. Although 100 million believe that the Rapture and Tribulation will happen, only a tiny minority wants to force it. (Editor’s note: The moderator attempted to press Mr. de Vries by asking how Evangelicals can coexist with the Constitution as American citizens, but he evaded the answer.)
Audience question: Where do we draw the line between tolerance of other religions and intolerance of certain religious behaviors?
Elcott: Anything that kills, destroys, or dehumanizes in the name of religion is intolerable. I’ll never give up on G-d, but I’ll give up on that religion. I’ll fight it tooth and nail. Back to the idea of religious beliefs dictating policy, Sarah Palin was recently explaining her support of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank because, she said that more Jews will be coming to Israel and they’ll need a place to go. This is not actually consistent with immigration numbers. She is referring to the Evangelical belief that Jews must return to Israel to hasten Jesus Christ’s return to earth. It’s faith-based policy.
Audience question (to de Vries): I am a gay Jew. How can you use religion as a discriminatory tool?
de Vries: Evangelical means “good news.” The scriptures that we accept as authority provide instructions for how to live a godly life. But no one has the right to judge or condemn you. You won’t hear that from most Evangelicals.
Premillennial Dispensationalism: One form of Evangelical belief about the end of days that teaches that second coming of Christ will take place in two phases. In the first phase, Jesus will bring both dead and living believers to heaven to save them from the coming 7 years of tribulation, or basically mass death and destruction of earth and all of the nonbelievers on it. After the tribulation, they believe that Jesus will again return to Earth (phase 2) to set up his kingdom. At this time, he will reign from as king from earthly Jerusalem for 1000 years, after which he will resurrect and judge “unbelievers.” According to many Christians, this version of events refutes the Biblical teaching on the resurrection in which they believe that all of the believers and non-believers will be resurrected and judged at the same time.
Tribulation: A period of 7 years referred to in the Bible where massively destructive war and suffering will occur on earth before Jesus Christ returns to rule. Different Christians believe that the Tribulation will occur at different times, either before or after Christ saves all of the true believers from earth.
Immanentize the Eschaton: To trigger the apocalypse or end of the world by creating mass chaos and; destruction on earth
Talmud: The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism, in the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. (Wikipedia)