The soapbox preacher perfectly encapsulates a common perception of religion as a form of “madness.” At its worst, an obsession with the End of Days represents an actively dangerous fanaticism; at best, it’s simply ridiculous. In England, it’s often seen as part of the bewildering cocktail of ignorance and reactionism offered up by the American Bible Belt. Though you will find dispensationalist theology in England, even some of its proponents would look slightly askance at the more impassioned proclamations of their American co-believers. In the popular imagination, English Christianity is characterized more by a good-natured domesticity, with believers more likely to be found handing out raffle prizes than preaching from street corners. England is seen as reserved, familial, and homely, in contrast to American vitriol.
So it seemed out of place when I picked up a doomsday tract from the welcome table at St Mary the Virgin’s, Bramford—a quiet, conventional Church of England parish—where it lay next to the purple Bible verse bookmarks, while my grandmother and my great aunt did the flower arrangements. The Antichrist and the Great Tribulation by Rev. W. Byron Jones. This tract was a small hole in the fabric of that gentle world, a portal bringing hellfire, the thousand-year reign, and the mark of the Beast down upon this peaceful rural village.
Yet this comic incongruity depends upon the image of a quiet and reserved Englishness, an image that is largely fictitious. This self-image was crafted during the rise of the Empire, presenting the British as a peaceful, civilizing influence on those we subjugated, who were depicted, by contrast, as wild savages. In reality, Britain’s most distinctive mark on the world is one of horrifying violence and exploitation, from which many ex-colonial territories have never recovered and which continues to shape global politics. English Christianity has been all too happy to cooperate with this project, with Christian evangelism often counted among the “civilizing” effects of colonialism. The courtesy and peacefulness of the country parson is the product of a security guaranteed by fire.
This is by no means mere history. Even aside from continued British military adventurism from Iraq to Libya and beyond, imperialism continues to be determinative closer to home. The colonial project and the wealth it provided were foundational to the rise of British capitalism, so naturally this legacy became a central point of appeal in the wake of the financial crash of 2007-2008. Brexit represents the mobilization of imperial nostalgia—the longing for a return to the mythologized golden age of “Rule Britannia”—behind a reconfiguration of the state and a renewed authoritarianism in the service of capital, a mobilization that at a popular level resulted in a sharp rise in hate crimes against migrants and people of color.
Unsurprisingly, this includes a mobilization of Christianity, the seeds of which can be found in The Antichrist and the Great Tribulation. According to this pamphlet, the Bible predicts that before the End (in Greek, παρουσια, literally “presence” or “arrival,” used in the New Testament to refer to the Second Coming of Christ) comes, “all inhabitants of the earth will worship the Beast” (Revelation 13:8), whom Reverend Jones identifies as the Antichrist:
From our humanistic perspective we might wonder how one man can possibly come to control virtually the whole world; but many signs pointing to this possibility are already evident. We now have the phenomenon of globalization whereby the economies of every developed nation have to act in cooperation with one another.
From such a perspective, global trade blocs like the EU or NAFTA are the tools by which Satan establishes his dominance over the earth. Thus, Christians must be careful not to offer allegiance to such political conglomerates, lest they accidentally submit to “the mark of the Beast” (Revelation 13:16-18).
If one were being theologically consistent, that’s as far as it would go. There’s no real justification here for attempting to leave such trade blocs, let alone seeking their total disintegration. After all, while sinister, the global rule of the Antichrist is ultimately part of God’s will, just another step in the master plan for the eventual return of Christ. But in real life, such eschatological nihilism can prove dissatisfying. It is difficult to accept that one’s place in God’s will is mere acquiescence to Satan’s power. A much more natural reaction to such a worldview is to fight, to seek a way out from under the thumb of the demonic institutions of globalization. In Durham, where Leave gained 57.5% of the referendum vote, one could see a man walking around the city center, bearing a sign that read, “LEAVE THE EU – RETURN TO YOUR GOD.”
But this apocalyptic perspective on institutions like the EU is not entirely misguided. Formed in the wake of the Second World War in an attempt to navigate the two-headed threat posed to Western capitalism by its own internal contradictions and the external enemy of the Soviet bloc, the EU has consistently acted to quell unrest and maintain the dominance of the capitalist order; it was instrumental in the creation of what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history,” a supposed liberal eschaton in the wake of the Cold War. The EU’s activities include not only the enforcement of austerity and other exercises of economic discipline, but also violence at its geographical borders, through a combination of passive abandonment and active hostility to non-European migrants. Although, under present conditions, the neo-colonialism of Brexit is inescapable, the Euro-skepticism of Welsh or Northern voters—among those most affected by the EU’s ruthless neoliberalism—is not beyond understanding; nor is Rev. Jones’.
Appropriately, eschatological responses to these entanglements of colonialism and globalization look very different outside the imperial core. On January 1, 1994, the same day that NAFTA came into effect, thousands of armed indigenous guerrillas, known as the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN), or the Zapatistas, seized control of much of the Chiapas highlands in Mexico. For the Zapatistas, NAFTA represented the latest stage of the continual marginalization of Mexico’s indigenous population, from their exploitation by the landowners to their suppression by the police and the military. This uprising was their attempt to regain control over their own communities in the face of an increasingly hostile world order. In the words of their 1996 Declaration of La Realidad For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, “Against the international of terror representing neoliberalism, we must raise the international of hope.”
When the Zapatista uprising began, some in the government and the media blamed the movement usually known as “liberation theology,” and specifically the actions of the Bishop of San Cristóbel de las Casas in Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz. This is largely inaccurate. EZLN is not a religious organization, and ideologically it lies far closer to the symbolic world of the indigenous culture than Monsignor Ruiz’s Catholicism. In fact, when he was first appointed to the diocese in 1960, Ruiz was highly conservative, wary of the perceived threat of communism and supporting efforts to “civilize” the indigenous peoples, that is, to destroy their traditional culture and way of life. However, shortly after his arrival in 1965, he began a tour by mule of every village and town in his diocese. Discovering the reality of life for indigenous communities, Ruiz began to recognize the economic and political systems that marginalized them and to realize the need for indigenous peoples to have control over their own lives.
One could characterize this as a process of repentance, and he himself said of his early actions, “We only had our own ethnocentric criteria to judge customs. Without realizing it, we were on the side of those who oppressed the indigenous.” Following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the Conference at Medellín, he began work on translations of the Bible and the liturgy into the various languages of the region. He also encouraged catechists to foster discussions of the scripture and of social issues, rather than merely instructing their parishioners on an official church line, with the aim of “inculturating” the Word of God in the local communities. Many began to see parallels between their own situation in Chiapas and scriptural passages about poverty, justice, and liberation, such as the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, developing a form of “liberation theology” such as was emerging throughout Latin America at this time. While Ruiz cannot be credited with the Zapatistas, the networks of indigenous catechists and “base communities” he created did help to support the formation of political consciousness in the region and to create an impulse for self-organization. The bishop was typically supportive of these organizing efforts, defending the peoples’ rights and their historic lands, earning him the derisive nickname “the Red Bishop,” and after the uprising he acted as a mediator between the EZLN and the government.
One aspect lying behind the new political culture Ruiz helped to create is the distinctive eschatology common to much liberation theology, emphasizing the role of human actors in ushering in the Kingdom of God, a new order of peace and justice. Much as Rev. Jones presents a narrative placing the EU under the judgement of Christ, so the Zapatistas also orient their politics to a better world to come. Yet between San Cristobal and Sunderland—which voted to Leave the EU by 61.3%—lies the gulf created by imperialism. The architects of Brexit don’t genuinely care about those affected by neoliberalism; they simply seek a return to imperialist order. While more explicitly Christian, Rev. Jones’ reliance on the narrow sense of the word of scripture causes him to neglect the wider political context from which his exegesis has emerged. As such, his apocalypticism is just another product of a theological culture (whether faithful or not) that sees the end of the Empire as the end of the World.
It is true that the Zapatistas do not appeal to eschatology quite so directly. Indeed, their call for “a world in which many worlds fit” implies a critique of any attempt to form a politics too rigidly determined by any one theological or ideological orientation—well founded, given the role of the Catholic Church in Mexico’s colonial history (and Christians might be reassured by a refusal to identify a worldly political project with the ultimate Christological eschaton itself). But there is nonetheless something apocalyptic about this proclamation of the end of the neoliberal international, the end of a world, and the dawn of a new and better world, the seeds of which lie in solidarity against the ravages of capitalism and the continual subjugation of indigenous peoples in Chiapas and around the world. This hopeful solidarity has more in common with the apocalypticism of the early church—the hope of a small community of, as the second century anti-Christian polemicist Celsus tells us, “foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children,” under a hostile Roman Empire—than with the timelines of Rev. Jones.
We have attempted to resist the conflation of politics with eschatology or vice versa, either to deny the genuine agency of those involved in political struggle or usurp the Parousia with a purely worldly newness. Yet one might suggest that those of us in the imperial core may have something to learn from the politics emerging from that eschatological horizon—calling our own imperialism into judgement, calling a better world into being.
Jonathan Murden writes a monthly column of cultural theology. Murden is an Orthodox Christian and undergrad currently based in Prague.