THE SECOND COMING
In 1845, Frederick Douglass wrote in Life of An American Slave, Appendix “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels… I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me… They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy… Such is, very briefly, my view of the religion of this land…revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders. It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify.”
In 1919, William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called “The Second Coming”
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand…
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Christopher Columbus once declared, “God made me the messenger of the New Heaven and the New Earth of which he spoke through St. John in the Apocalypsis.” Columbus sailed at a time when the Old World, Europe, was collapsing under the weight of its own greed. Overpopulated and environmentally degraded, soon to erupt in massive economic wars thinly disguised as theological disputes between Catholic and Protestant. Suddenly beyond the unknown waters a new Eden appeared, filled with innocent naked Adams and Eves for the Catholic Spaniards to corrupt and infect and rob and enslave and slaughter in the name of Christ. Thor would have been proud, Zeus and Marduk and Ra would have been impressed. If there was a Devil, he would have been tickled pink. But Jesus might have been a little bit confused. “Um, so you met these people who lived like the birds of the air, like the lilies of the field, and you…what? And you said my name while you did it?”
It can get very confusing, looking at the career of Christianity here in the New World – a resume written in native blood, slave-ship manifests, ledgers of crooked money-lenders, houses of prayer heaped with the last pennies of widows. As a Bible teacher, it looks to me like the confusion comes from imagining that the Israelite Jesus has something to do with the New World Christ. The mental acrobatics involved in relating the swarthy vagabond of Galilee with the triumphant platinum Christ of America will only give you a headache. The New Heaven and New Earth Columbus stumbled upon would need a New Christ, and as we’ll see the American Christ grew right here on American soil, and has adapted with us as an expression of our cultural ideals. Today the American Christ is economically competitive, politically conservative, militaristic, racially exclusive, judgmental of women, disgusted by the poor and the outcast. Captain AmeriChrist loves the flag, the fetus, and the rifle. In the South they think the Second Amendment is one of the Ten Commandments: Thou Shalt Own GunS. And by “South” I mean “South of Canada.”
Before we roll into this, I should make a few things clear. First of all, I am a Seminary graduate, but I don’t get a commission for selling subscriptions to salvation, and I don’t know or care which franchise chain-church sells the best crackers. Second, I’m not here to painstakingly explicate a cosmic Christology, nor to explore who Jesus might have been “historically” in his own sociopolitical cultural context – right now I’m interested in exploring American proposals and sales-pitches about the Christ. Jesus “the answer” has been continually reshaped as new questions have arisen in American social and political history. Americans view Jesus through a kaleidoscope of mirrors, reflecting our highest ideals and lowest desires. And whether you believe in him or not, we all live in Jesus-country.
We are told that Jesus landed on the shores of North America with the puritans but it’s not really true – when we read the documents, the covenants, the letters and sermons of Pilgrims we see a startling lack of references to the peasant Jesus or the kingly Christ. Puritans were far more interested in the Torah’s Old Covenant God who promised land in exchange for righteousness. The Pilgrims were delivered across the waters and, like the freed Egyptian slaves, found a land filled with nature-loving pagans and quickly set about to purify the new Promised Land in the name of a conquering God.
The American Jesus was not really born until over a century later, and he was born right here in Western New York during what scholars call “The Great Awakening.” Gloomy pilgrims in drab colors would grimly reap their harvests, then leave their farmsteads and villages, swarming into the wilderness for camp-revivals – the Woodstock Festivals of Puritanism, people shouting and swooning and speaking in tongues (also some anonymous sex in the woods – a good way to keep Puritan towns from getting too inbred), whipped into frenzies over fire and judgment with tag-team preachers raving about an angry God dangling sinners over the pit of eternal flame. And just when it seemed all hope was lost, the preacher would mention a friend, a humble and idealistic young attorney named Jesus, willing to speak in your defense at the Judgment. If you paid his retainer.
It’s hard for us today to appreciate the originality of Jesus the frontiersman’s friend, characterized by a soft-cheeked, sad-eyed sweetness. Because Protestants rejected the Catholic mother-worship of Mary, frontier Jesus had to combine the virgin-mother and son. We can still see this androgynous, sometimes clearly effeminate demeanor in their hymns and paintings. This period’s image of Jesus is most historically significant in the counter-reaction it produced: the American Christ briefly experimented with gender-bending, and fathers have been whipping him into shape ever since, forcing Jesus to become more and more manly for three hundred years.
The American Christ was secretly circumcised by the Father of Modern Biblical Scholarship, Thomas Jefferson (who, in his free time, was also President). In the Capital at night, Jefferson sat up with eight Bibles and a razor-blade, trimming the magic from the Gospels until he’d carved a slim document – The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth (1804). Jefferson himself explained, “In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests…as instruments of riches and power [for] themselves… There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man…which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” But a strange thing happened – Jefferson with his razor had circumcised Jesus, but it was the stuff he cut away that would be kept and adopted by the new American Christianity, while the teachings and sayings and justice of Jesus were left behind, like throwing out the baby and keeping the foreskin.
In 1823, the American Christ was reborn in one of his most fascinating manifestations about eighty miles from here, in Rochester, when a farmboy named Joseph Smith claimed to have met with a glorious angel named Moroni who lent Smith special glasss to decode mysterious hieroglyphics in a solid-gold book, and reported that the true natives of America were actually Hebrews who fled Israel during the Babylonian Invasion in 586 BCE. Some were then cursed with Red skin for breaking the Jewish Covenant, they vented their fury in viciously persecuting the true white-skinned Israelite-Americans to near-extinction. Fortunately, after the Christ’s resurrection, he came to America and reconciled them in the glorious name of himself. But then the redskins relapsed into their pagan ways and killed off almost all the white Israelites. In desperation, Moroni hid their sacred book in Rochester for fourteen hundred years until he could reveal it to young blond handsome Joseph Smith.
Whether or not we accept this as fact, we must acknowledge the very real historical response. In the 1830’s, with a lot of people feeling guilty about the Indian genocide, Smith’s visionary scenario offered an answer to some very pressing questions: If Christ was king of the world, when did he find out that America existed? And if he knew, why not try to save them? Answer: he had, but most of them refused to listen. And shouldn’t Christians feel bad about Indian genocide? Answer: if the Indians were guilty of Christian genocide fourteen centuries earlier, then it was only fair. And why was the Biblical worldview so confined to the Middle East, if the true Christian Manifest Destiny was here? Moroni’s golden book revealed that the Biblical Garden of Eden was actually located in Missouri.
There is some possibility this was snake-oil, but it was powerful medicine for the guilt and shame of the Native Holocaust. Smith’s vision had the power to bend time and space, change the past, alter the genes and cultural identities of ancient peoples, a brilliant experiment in what we today might call “alternative facts.” Whatever we think his raw material was, Smith the alchemist turned it into gold, and it was no fad – the Church of Latter-Day Saints boasts 15 Million members today (add up all the Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans? Mormons still outnumber them). And it’s no surprise that Joseph Smith’s trusting flock turned out for Trump, after the failure of their own Mormon candidate Mitt Romney.
THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT(S)
In the 1840’s, another Christian fire was lit here in Western New York that still burns brightly today, and would dramatically re-shape American Christianity. A man named William Miller spent two decades studying scripture, particularly the books of Daniel and Revelations, and found a message that was both thrilling and disturbing: Daniel 8:14 says “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller then deduced that the days were actually years, and if you started counting when Atraxerxes of Persia commanded the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple in 457 BCE, then the Biblical Apocalypse must be in 1843! Or 1844! Now I don’t want to get you all worked up and frightened, so I’ll just say right now that Miller’s many followers experienced what religious historians call “The Great Disappointment.” They showed up to exult in rivers of blood, plagues, earthquakes, disasters, and Jesus riding on a horse with a sword coming out of his mouth, slaughtering non-Christian men, women and children, as we read in Revelation 1:16. But God disappointed them with a fine spring day.
But then a miracle happened – after the disappointment from Miller’s original prediction that Christ would destroy the world by March 21, even more people showed up for his corrected prediction that Christ would return on April 18th. And after that disappointment, even more people showed up when he predicted that it absolutely must be October 22, 1844, which…spoiler-altert, also didn’t happen. Finally, William Miller concluded that the Bible itself must have contained an error, due to some ancient copyist’s mistake. He died five years later, but gave unto American Christianity a valuable lesson: the Apocalypse sells, and no matter how many times you’re wrong in predicting it, you still get paid and even more people will give you even more money the next time you predict it. The Millerite movement did lose some of its members, but it did not die – actually, disappointed Millerites spawned a new church called “Seventh Day Adventists,” based on the belief that Christ could come at any time, and today there are twenty to twenty-five million of them.
In the 1860’s, Americans got excited about the Revelation again, when Jesus’ end-time prophecy seemed to be coming true with “wars and rumors of wars…Nation will rise against nation…Brother will betray brother to death.” (Mark 13:7-8, 12) The Apocalyptic fury of the Civil War was so great that when Abraham Lincoln was martyred for the sins of the people, his cadaver was actually resurrected by taxidermists and put on a train for a national farewell tour. And so began the long, bleak period known as Civil War Reconstruction, which began in 1865 and ended in November 2016 when the Confederacy was finally fooled into believing it had taken over America. …Just kidding about that – the Civil War Reconstruction period will not end until America is history.
In around 1882, a Baptist minister struck gold by writing a lecture called “Acres of Diamonds,” which launched him on a forty-year world-wide tour in which he delivered the speech over six thousand times. The man was Russell Conwell (the name should have been a tip-off) and he delighted audiences with what became, essentially, the American Sermon-on-the-Mount: “I say that you ought to get rich, and it is our duty to get rich… Money is power, [and] you can do more good with it than you could without it… If you can honestly attain unto riches, it is our Christian and godly duty to do so. It is an awful mistake of these pious people to think you must be awfully poor in order to be pious… I sympathize with the poor, [but] to sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it, [and] let us remember that there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings… It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow.” (Russell Conwell, c1882)
Conwell was a brilliant man who preached that great wealth was a sure sign of God’s great trust in one individual, and poverty was a sign of God’s punishment (his announcement that the poor were impoverished because of their own sins and weakness would have been fascinating to recently freed slaves, but most were too busy job-hunting and share-cropping to attend these lectures). We may not remember Conwell’s name but his truth is marching on – as a matter of fact, it has only grown more powerful, with millions of impoverished Christians fooled into voting for politicians who will slash the social benefits of the poor to fund massive tax-breaks for the wealthy. Jesus did once say “Whoever has [much] will be given more; whoever does not have [much], even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mark 4:25) But he was talking about faith, not finance. Worse yet, these poor voters have been bamboozled into blaming their financial problems (caused by the Wall Street they voted to deregulate) on even poorer people – minorities and refugees.
Many of my college students today believe that Jesus was comfortably middle-class (fascinating, since the “middle class” was not invented until 1914, and only lasted a hundred years). The Bible clearly tells us Jesus was homeless and unemployed. And most of my black college students still can’t help but see Jesus as a Germanic caucasian with blue eyes and blonde hair. But once we’ve seen some of the ways in which the Christ seed, planted in American soil, has produced unique plants and strange fruit undreamed of in Galilee or Rome or Europe, it’s no stretch to imagine any number of fantastical mutations – Jesus the gun-toting redneck, Jesus who loves the fetus but lacks compassion for the hungry child, Jesus the fiscal conservative, Jesus who rejects evolution but embraces social-Darwinism. Jesus who wants to “bomb the shit out of” the Middle-East.
Today we’ve glanced at only a few of many strange mutations of Captain AmeriChrist, and each of these has contributed an important piece to our present situation. Because it’s been building here in the dark heart of America, a desire for this new Christ to finally manifest himself in the flesh. A Second Coming of Christ with blonde hair and ruthless business skills, a Christ who could destroy the Chief Priests of news and the Scribes of government, bull-whip the scientists from the Temple, tear it down and rebuild it as his own theme-park. A new Christ who could bend time and space, changing the very nature of “truth” and “fact,” re-molding intellectual foundations. And maybe, just maybe, this new Christ would succeed where the old one had failed – to destroy the world itself, as the Bible promised (nevermind that the book of Revelation says people will be ruled by a demonic, capitalist Anti-Christ for a while before the real white-Christ returns).
Donald Trump is a savior and messiah, and although there is not a single Jesus-bone in his body, he is the physical manifestation of the American Christ. It’s been gestating, festering and mutating for centuries and every time it’s popped its head out we laughed, but it never disappeared, it only went underground to gestate and fester some more, and now that it’s emerged into the light we find it hideous, we’re horrified because we don’t know the history. Donald Trump is the real American Christ, and the Christians who elected him were not confused or misguided – it’s ridiculous to ask “How could you vote for someone so different from radical compassionate peasant Jesus?” American Christianity has no place for Jesus the Palestinian rebel (if he came back today he’d be tied to a rack in Guantanamo Bay). And as we gasp in horror that Trump has lied or broken something or hurt someone or stumbled us closer to human extinction, his supporters only love him more because he is manifesting the Christ power they want him to have. You want to shake people and shout “Think about the future!” But they are – an apocalyptic pie-in-the-sky future for which they consider themselves well-prepared.
Some of us talk about plague and famine and global meltdown as if they were bad things, but like everything else it’s a matter of opinion. Even to say “It’s true that humanity wants to live another generation” or “It’s a fact that hatred will not produce happiness” or “It’s illogical to put the foxes in charge of guarding the chicken-coop.” You’re bringing a pillow to a gunfight – religious fanatics will not be swayed by profane earthly trifles like “truth” and “fact.” Religion will not be reasoned with. Trying to understand Christianity today… We all know some reasonable, compassionate Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, but this is a tiny disappearing fraction of the Church. The growing, overwhelming majority of American Christianity is an apocalyptic death-cult, clamoring for a blond Messiah to light the fuse and make the whole thing go boom.
In October 1844, a man who’d heeded the call of William Miller and traveled to see the Biblical apocalypse with all its burning and plague and famine and earthquake and massacre and atrocity, stood heartbroken as the sun shone and the birds sang. He later reported, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before…We wept and wept until the day dawned.” Scholars call this “The Great Disappointment.” The failure of Jesus Christ to destroy the world in the 1840’s. And if our new Christ, Donald Trump, fails to destroy the country and the world, Christian American will weep and weep – they’ll call it the Great Disappointment Part II, and like most sequels it’ll be less funny than the original. The good news for the rest of us is, Donald Trump is really good at disappointing people, especially people who put their faith in him. And if he should fail to destroy this world, and the Christians wail and gnash their teeth while birds sing and the sun sends its rays through the clouds, I think I’ll be okay with that.