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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

 


Ranting at the Apocalypse

Tina Pippin, Agnes Scott College, Decatur, CA

With all the doomspeak in the AIDS crisis, one more apocalyptic voice is bound to be redundant and annoying. But since I am a student and teacher of New Testament texts and culture, I want to investigate the power and authority these apocalyptic documents have for the discourse of (Christian) religion and AIDS, and also for other religious groups. There is a growing demand for so-called moral purity from the Christian Coalition to the Mary message relayed for one last (?) time by Nancy Fowler in Conyers, GA on October 13. This call involves sexual purity, and is inherently heterosexist in its intent. This heterosexism is grounded in the notion of heterosexuality as "normal" and thus "the norm," and every other expression of sexuality is thus "abnormal." The apocalyptic message of the religious right is that homosexuality and other "deviant" behavior must be cleansed from our society in order for the Kingdom of God to occur. On the other hand, the Kingdom must be preceded by an apocalypse, so sinful behaviors and their resultant earthly punishments (e.g. AIDS) must precede the "End." The apocalyptic texts of the New Testament are mixed up in all this policing of morality and judgment pronouncing, for Christian eschatological consciousness has been a dominant discourse in the AIDS and religion debate.

The traditional eschatological position is that AIDS is a plague, a punishment, or "Armageddon in our arteries" (Palmer:10). The assumption is that disease comes from some supernatural realm; in the case of AIDS it is sent from a judgmental God that sends this plague as a punishment for homosexual "sin". Some conservative Christians have even coined the terribly inaccurate term, "the gay plague." Homosexuals can then be the scapegoats for the necessary purifying ritual. Susan Sontag revealed the link between epidemic illness and moral pollution and the need for a scapegoat (1978:71). The more extreme voicing of the conservative Christian view goes something like this: more generally, the nations need to be set right (at least the European and North American states); the innocent children and others are merely unlucky further warning of how far the sin affects the planet; too bad about other continents, such as Africa, the "dark continent" where the "black plague" is spreading rapidly; they are heathens anyway, and we know God's plans for such peoples if they refuse to repent. AIDS is just a hastening of the eventual punishments of hell, a head start, so to speak. This racial imagery and inherent racism (as related in this morning's panel session) keeps AIDS sufferers on the margins. But in this way AIDS has become an apocalyptic metaphor a metaphor of apocalypse that continues the dualism of purity/danger and promotes a deity that constantly curses parts of creation.

  


A recent New York Times Magazine article on scolding by the Christian, political right in the United States reveals the link these conservatives make between homosexuality and disease (October 11, 1998). These evangelical politicos, such as Bill Kristol (on ABC's "This Week") advocate "a spiritual and psychoanalytic 'cure' for homosexuals. one speaker, a priest, described homosexuality as 'a way of life that is marked by compulsion, loneliness, depression and disease"' (49). Much of their agenda is linked to white supremacy and to the dominance of the white race by means of (heterosexual) procreation. Homosexuality, along with abortion and contraception, leads to "'race death"' (49). Here is a case of the interstructured nature of oppression race, class, gender, and sexualities all converge in the dangerous search for spiritual and bodily "purity." This quest for purity is reminiscent of the madman General Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's apocalyptic film, Dr. Strangelove, who calls for "purity of essence" of "our precious bodily fluids" as he sets the planet up for nuclear doomsday. Duke Divinity School professor Richard Hays makes a similar connection in his book on the ethics of the New Testament, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Harper 1997), when in his discussion of the two Pauline passages cited in the debate (Rom. 1 and 1 Cor. 6.9), he equates homosexuality to alcoholism. He sees both as diseases, and both as treatable (1996:398). Homosexuals are eligible for ordination if they practice sexual chastity (1996:403). Again, the superstitions surrounding "moral purity" and the need for ancient scape-goating rituals are central in New Testament interpretation

Biblical interpretation is never free from political ramifications. The desire for apocalypse among some Christians is a perverse Joy ride toward genocidal imaginings. As Sontag relates, "America is a nation with the soul of a church -- an evangelical church prone to announcing radical endings and brand-new beginnings" (1989:87). AIDS is a threatening second Flood, yet it only threatens. Sontag calls it "Apocalypse From Now On" (1989:88). AIDS is an incomplete apocalypse on a global scale, and some have been able, through access to extensive and expensive medicine, to prolong their lives. of course, some evangelical churches are working toward radical inclusively, but the dominant media voices are those of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and Trent Lott, who speak of AIDS in Christian apocalyptic terms, while clearly placing blame on homosexuals. Religious communities have to address AIDS on so many levels and contexts. AIDS as an apocalyptic metaphor for global annihilation helps to justify passivity toward changing systems, such as poverty and patriarchy, which perpetuate the disease and the crisis. There is a passivity that is similar to the support of nuclear proliferation in the 1980s, when Falwell pronounced that Christians need not worry about nuclear annihilation because if the bombs go off, God will have pushed the button, and all the believers will be raptured before the bombs land. Involvement in the politics along with the healing is necessary for religious groups in the future.

The discussion of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. in the late 1980s continues to be instructive. They helped to coax the mainstream Christian eschatological discourse away from AIDS as God's apocalyptic plan toward a view of social action in the midst of an apocalyptic scenario on earth. There is a need for change in Christian eschatology away from divine wrath and toward grace and hope to be mimicked by believers. I believe that some Christian responses to AIDS have come out of a desire to copy what they believe to be divine behavior. In this act of being "God- like," compassion is excluded

The New Testament imagery for this disease is found in the Apocalypse of John (the Book of Revelation). One of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse brings the curse:

  


When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, "Come!" I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth. (Apoc. 7:7-8)

Further in this chapter is the cleansing by the blood of the Lamb, the symbol for the sacrificed Jesus. The blood of the Lamb (Apoc. 7:13): what if? in these days of AIDS, Christians reread this passage as the Lamb as HIV positive? If Jesus is really the bearer of sin and disease for humankind, then wouldn't he also take on the body of one of the ultimate sacrificial humans in our late twentieth century culture?

How do we deal with scriptural apocalyptic and its cultural manifestations around AIDS? Many mainline churches leave out apocalyptic texts and language to avoid the exclusionary hate rhetoric. Other churches decide to "table the issue;" that is, they decide that they cannot decide at the present time. I have heard an explanation given in several intentional Christian communities that are committed to radical social justice. The argument goes like this: "We do not know enough to make a decision on the issue of fully accepting homosexual couples as full members or partners into our community; we need to study this issue further, since there is disagreement among the members." These same communities can understand perfectly a justice issue half way around the world, discern intricate global political situations, work diligently for the marginalized in a variety of cultures, but wind up marginalizing a whole population of their neighbors here at home.

What do we say to college students cynical about organized religion? What can I bring from religions and religious studies to the mentoring program with adolescent~ parents my academic department is involved with at a local high school, as we deal with gender justice with a highly marginalized group in this country: predominantly, poor, at high risk, pregnant, teenage young women ages 14-18 who have abusive home lived? For the most part religion fails to address their needs.

In apocalyptic drama, the deity is the main actor. Where is the deity in all this suffering? Traditional explanations of theodicy fail to comfort me. Keith Ward states the dilemma: "It often seems that we can neither stand the thought of God acting often (since that would infringe our freedom), nor the thought of [God] acting rarely (since that makes [God] responsible for our suffering" (1990:2). All I know of theodicy is the responsibility of humans to act for just relationships; indictment of a deity (with either positive or negative meaning) wastes valuable time.

Where is the hope as religious peoples face this apocalypse? I think we have to control our scriptural texts, our apocalypses that tend to leak messily into the cultural psyche and into hate rhetoric. Facing the apocalyptic deity is another matter, one that is personal, but also corporate. Still, we live in a world of AIDS. What do we do from now on? on a personal note, I continue to cycle around in the grief process over AIDS. Lately, I spend most of my time in a subset of the anger stage a stage I want to call RANT. Ranting is a way of dealing with the "apocalypse from now on." I think there can be a hopeful, pro-active piece to ranting. Ranting is similar to Mary Daly's concept of "rage:" "transformative focusing force that awakens transcendent E-motion" (1987:91). Perhaps ranting is an anger of apocalyptic proportions. Religious peoples need to rant at those who stood recently at the funeral for Matthew Shepard in Wyoming with signs that boldly read, "God hates fags." The billboards I saw a year ago in San Francisco, "Homosexuality: It's not a lifestyle; it's a life," echo in the distance, nearly drowned out by the so called "family values" hate rhetoric. RANT could stand for: Rethinking AIDS in a New Time or Realizing Action Needed for Tomorrow or Reconciling Alliances Necessary for Transformation. In any event, such millennial ranting on the part of religious peoples could prepare us for the future, for future plagues, but also for future hope.

Works Consulted:

Daly, Mary, 1987, Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language.Boston: Beacon Press.

Hays, Richard B., 1996 The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary, Introduction to the New Testament Ethics. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Morrow, James,1996 Blameless in Abaddon. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Palmer, Susan,1997 AIDS as an Apocalyptic Metaphor in North America. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford,1993 Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. 10th Anniversary Edition. Boston: Beacon Press.

Russell, Letty M., ed.1990 The Church with Aids: Renewal in the Midst of Crisis. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Sontag, Susan,1978 Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Ward, Keith, 1990 Divine Action. London: Collins.

Wojcik, Danie,l1997 The End of the World As We Know We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America. New York: New York University Press.

 

 

 

 

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