The word thlipsis in the original Greek of the New Testament has been on my mind recently. It doesn’t signal vague and abstract “tribulation” (the standard translation in English Bibles), but is literally about crushing, squeezing, and grinding. With antecedents in the imagery of famines, sieges, slaughters, and extirpations in the Hebrew Bible, thlipsis is the action of history’s millstone on human bodies. Considering what could easily happen to whole communities in late antiquity, pulverization may be less a metaphor and more a factual if generalizing description. These lives might sometimes even undergo quasi-industrial processes and be quickly and forcefully reduced to mere molecules.
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Nero turned the first major persecution of Christians, in the year AD 64, into a series of festive entertainments. Some Christians were enclosed in animal skins and torn apart by dogs; others formed a light show. Humans are a lot like pigs in their body composition; both burn long and impressively, their fat functioning like the tallow of candles. Nero was remembered as ingeniously ranging the Christians, bound to poles, around his gardens to burn all night for the delight of crowds, who were moved to pity in spite of their prejudice against the new sect.
A Jewish collaborator with the Romans, the historian Josephus, describes the storming of Jerusalem in the year AD 70, during the First Jewish War. Soldiers intending to slaughter whole households retreated from the sight of corpses warehoused indoors, the victims of starvation. But in the streets the killing was exuberant and exhausted the killers. After the order came to kill only armed men, soldiers killed the old and the sick too. Saleable survivors were herded together and sorted by age, strength, and appearance for optimal exploitation: for toil in publicly run mines, for death in provincial arena shows, for display in the victory parade in Rome, and for retail sale as ordinary slaves.
Against such backgrounds, ancient apocalyptic literature – including passages of the Book of Daniel, the Messianic Apocalypse (part of the Dead Sea Scrolls), and Revelation – no longer seems cartoonish and overblown. A new age of pandemics, social and political upheaval, and environmental collapse presents new demands for ways to comprehend mass disaster. Most modern industrialized countries have been lucky enough since the end of World War II not to have experienced anything like this. But amid growing hardships we’re again struggling to even picture civilizational continuity.
Jesus’ discourses about the apocalypse as recorded in the four canonical Gospels may be particularly helpful; here the narrative and dramatic elements are muted, and closely integrated with moral and practical teachings. For people in shock, who have to think about thinking about what is happening to them, this might be just the reading prescription.
Apocalypse is anticipated through a build-up of dreadful, inexorable events. In speaking about such mass disasters, Jesus avoids making them about individual character. In a passage of Luke, his examples are a massacre during a sacrifice and the deadly collapse of a tower. The events are otherwise unknown to us, but both had likely happened in Jerusalem, the first in the crowded Temple courtyard during one of the three great pilgrimage festivals. Here is my translation:
At that very time, there were people newly arrived who reported to him about the Galilaioi whose blood Pilatos had mixed with that of their sacrifices. And in response he said to them, “Do you think these Galilaioi were wrongdoers, beyond all the other Galilaioi, because these things have been inflicted on them? No, I tell you: on the contrary, if you don’t change your thinking, you’re all going to be destroyed in a similar way. Or those eighteen the tower at Silōam fell on, killing them – do you think they owed that because of their bad behavior, more than all the other people did who were living in Ierousalmēn? No, I tell you: on the contrary, if you don’t change your way of thinking, you’re all going to be destroyed in just the same way.” (Luke 13:1–5)
Jesus is usually shown as reluctant to assign the traditional blame to sick or disabled individuals he is called on to heal. But in the case of these sweeping tragedies, he outlines a vigorous, explicit challenge to the logic of divine punishment. Galileans like himself had the reputation of stroppy highland yokels, and in fact some of his neighbors had originated a major tax rebellion around the time of his own birth. But what were the chances that only troublemakers had been killed now, out of all the Galileans who had flocked to Jerusalem for the festival? Anyone back home, hearing a list of the dead and injured, would probably have been baffled by the task of working out a theory of God’s justice based on it. And why, Jesus’ listeners might have asked under his guidance, would targets of that justice have died while attending to a religious duty?
The reductio ad absurdum expands in the case of the somewhat mysterious Siloam tower. Here, the pool of potential victims was likely immense, presumably including babies, children, animals, tourists, and slaves, as well as Roman occupiers. Would not this last group, then, have been the most fitting target of God’s wrath, if this were deployed according to ordinary human notions of justice? During the sacrifice, it was no doubt Pilate’s soldiers, always surveilling the crowds in the Temple courtyard from on high, who moved in on a disturbance (or just a suspicion of one) and, protected by their stout armor, laid about them with their broadswords in the panicked crowd. The collapsing tower can’t be identified with any certitude, but most towers in the ancient world were for military and policing purposes. It would have seemed pitifully ironic that a tower the Romans built, or just one they were manning – with their usual claims to be ensuring the public safety – wiped out a random, unoffending group of civilians.
In any event, in the context of this discourse, Jesus’ usual call for what standard translations call “repentance” is especially cogent. The most literal rendering possible really is “change of mind,” meaning an expansion of understanding leading to a broad new purpose, not simply acceptance of particular guilt and the cessation of some discrete sin. “Change of mind” in the Gospels usually refers to whole communities, so the term has special weight where mass victimization is concerned. Helpless rage at widespread suffering may naturally lead to violence, which begets more violence. The pacifist response to break this cycle is not passive, is not mere endurance; it is centered in inner strength, a transformation from within – a transformation that is meant to happen across a society.
In the modern West, which with its hyper-individualism effectively glorifies terrorists and evil masterminds, this message hardly registers. But in the age of pandemics, world wars, genocides, and systemic injustice, we might willingly move back into certain older communitarian attitudes, if not because we are “returning to faith,” then because those attitudes are more in line with reality. A typical suburbanite used to fuzzily believe that his ability to obtain a carton of milk depended, and would always depend, solely on himself or someone close to him; it was about “performance” on the job and as a household leader, the cheerful ideal set out in commercials. It’s no longer possible to believe that. The world of the everyday superhero, from whose virtue, energy, and ambition every good thing was supposed to flow, is over.
Jesus went further than demanding consideration of collective responsibility in the face of the terrible things that can happen. He warned against intramural smugness and arrogance, turning up the volume on the Jewish prophetic message that a people with a special heritage have special obligations. This message is put in extreme terms in Matthew 12:41–42 and Luke 11:31–32: outright pagans like the people of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba, merely because they paid attention, listened, and acted, will come out better at the end of the great convulsion than a favored people who do not even pay attention, who believe their privilege is permanent and protective.
It is important to overcome the anti-Semitism infusing these texts due to bitter conflict with the Jews during the early spread of Christianity. (Indeed, by the time the Gospel of John appeared, around sixty years after Jesus’ death, he was written about almost as if he had not been Jewish himself.) In the power balance of the time, the Jews were a safe target, while the Romans were the opposite; in early Christian writings they are held as little accountable as possible. To read these texts with the right modern eyes, we must look deeper than the national and religious conflicts on display and into the more essential meaning, and stretch our imagination and sympathy to the size of international trauma. The Queen of Sheba, after all, didn’t convert; she went home, after bestowing some gifts and posing some challenging questions (1 Kings 10, 2 Chronicles 9).
This points to another important theme of the Gospel passages on the apocalypse: unknowability. Not only are final judgments of other human beings not ours to determine, but the use of oracular science to predict future events is foolish and wrong too. Jesus again and again rejects demands for “signs,” and merely tells his followers to keep watch, emphasizing how quickly they must respond in the crisis if they want to survive: they must jump off the roof and flee rather than go down into the house for supplies, and if they are in the fields they must run for it in their skimpy work clothes and not go home at all. What people evidently can project from right now, what they should rehearse beforehand, is grief and compassion, especially for the vulnerable: for the unsheltered, for pregnant women, for new mothers.
I’m reminded of how anxiously the media shuffles the medical and financial data during this pandemic – how we’re urged to learn about outbreaks of the Spanish flu, smallpox, and the bubonic plague, study the Great Depression and the Great Recession, and accept big, long-term analogies. Of course, leaders and analysts can put this information to very good use, and we have a right to know what they’re doing; but as a society we shouldn’t be assured – not that we aren’t eager to be assured – that if all this data is merely crunched hard enough, we’ll have the life we had before. We can’t, and all the attention scrounged from the past and tossed toward the future must be distracting ordinary people from dealing with what’s coming at us right now.
I’m hardly exempt from the prevailing drive to game things out for eighteen months, five years, twenty years. Freelance writers are conspicuous among the professionally spooked who are doing this as individuals – and in the meantime neglecting everything we most need to protect. In my locked-down house, I was plotting how to make the money that could transport my husband and me and those we love most to a safer … neighborhood? State? Country?
But for my own “change of mind,” it proved useful that I was finishing my new translation of the Gospels and coming to terms with the harshness and vividness of apocalyptic language while the inside-out events of the past couple of weeks developed.
My own Quaker community approaches scriptural messages (along with other sources of what we call Light) with the discipline of silence: we delay retreating, embracing, or rationalizing, and at first and at length just are still and wait for inspiration. But there’s a problem inherent in that mode of worship. The stillness and waiting can become fetishized, and this is dangerous to the souls of people like me: people in midlife, in suburbs, in learned professions, with spouses and pets and gardens and well-behaved, accomplished nieces and nephews (if not children). Am I contemplating not the God who works in and through history, Abraham Lincoln’s God, but myself and people like me, relishing the empty roads and the sight of foxes, gouging milkweed plants out of the lawn and giving them to friends to plant for the benefit of monarch butterflies, hoping to stay out of trouble – because I think this silence, this respite is the point?
Of course it isn’t, as shown by the murders and the protests and the threat of tyranny, soul-defining events that once again call to mind the dramatic Gospels. “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination of desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader know what I mean – then those who are in Judea had better run to the mountains” (Matthew 24:15–16). The idolatrous statue in the temple, the desecration and destruction of God’s most precious creation, the human being, is the moment when, famously, “they came for the Jews.” It is the moment not to be alone and to protect the individual self, but the moment to be together for survival. Wherever we run together from our doom, God will meet us.