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Introduction: The Beginning Is Nigh
The bell tolled at midmorning, summoning the faithful to their church. They trooped down the hillside silently; they'd abjured unnecessary speech, along with sex and liquor. Some stopped to pour out food they wouldn't need, covering the path with flour.
The members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, a shoot sprung from the trunk of Catholicism, had expected the world to end in 1992, in 1995, and on the last day of 1999. Despite their prophecies' failures, they'd continued recruiting new members. Now, on March 17, 2000, they knew the Virgin Mary was about to come to take them to heaven. They'd celebrated, slaughtering three bulls, at their compound at Kanungu in the fertile hills of south Uganda; they'd burned clothes and money, vestiges of earthly life. Inside the building, waiting, they sang and chanted. Someone nailed shut the doors and windows.
The End came in a flash of gasoline-fed flames.
Afterward, local police guessed that 530 people died in the fire. The dead were hard to count, since ashes were all that was left of many bodies. Within days, police found some four hundred more corpses buried in pits at Kanungu and other sect compounds. The signs were that they'd been stabbed, strangled, or poisoned in the weeks before the fire, though neighbors had heard nothing, no cries of resistance.
Ugandan officials described the case as mass murder, rather than mass suicide. They posited that the sects' leaders had escaped, taking the wealth of the members; warrants were issued for their arrest. An AP report referred to Credonia Mwerinde, who founded the movement after seeing visions of the Virgin, as a "huckster" and "charlatan." It fit a common description of "cults" that predict the End con-man leader, duped followers. Perhaps that was less frightening than another possibility: that hoping for history's end and the kingdom of God, sane people had killed or had willingly died, based on beliefs an inch or three away from those of established religions. But in the first days after the fire, it was impossible to prove either explanation of the catastrophe. The witnesses had left this life.
One thing should be clear: A certain sigh of relief elsewhere in the world at the start of 2000 had been altogether premature. In the months before the turn of the millennium, media reports and security agency assessments warned that religious groups might commit violence to help the End begin. At the same time, newspapers carried
updates on concerns that the Y2K bug would stop computers at midnight, December 31, 1999. That whiff of techno-apocalypse helped merge the two concerns. So did the use of "millennium" to refer both to the Christian belief in God's kingdom on earth and to the biggest New Year's party ever. It was easy to get the impression that anyone predicting the End was expecting it that midnight, and that if anyone acted on the belief, that's when he'd do so. But the magic minute passed, the computers didn't even hiccup, and no "cultists" killed themselves. Ergo, the religious concerns were misplaced, just like the technological ones.
Just two and a half months later, fire swept through a Ugandan church. Reading the reports in Jerusalem, I was sickened, but not surprised.
As a journalist and an associate of the Center for Millennial Studies, I study people who believe we are living in history's final days. Popular depictions of such people are often simplistic, drawing too great a separation between "doomsday cults" and mainstream society. The fact is that millions of quite rational men and women, belonging to established religious movements around the globe, look forward to history's conclusion, to be followed by the establishment of a perfected era. They draw support from ideas deeply embedded in Western religion and culture. You don't need to go to central Africa to find them; they live in American suburbs; they work in insurance offices and high-tech startups. Some are influential leaders of America's Christian right.
Likewise, the fear that any outburst of violence would occur on January 1 was mistaken: It fed exaggerated concerns about that day, and overlooked more serious risks afterward. In fact, the Uganda tragedy fit a pattern familiar to researchers: The deaths came as a delayed reaction, after reality repeatedly defied prophecy. Worse, there was no reason to assume that the Ugandan case would be the last outburst of violence linked to expectations of the End. The turn of the millennium marked not the end of the danger, but the beginning of a dangerous time.
Living where I do, I take that danger seriously. If there's any place in the world where belief in the End is a powerful force in real-life events, it's the Holy Land. The territory today shared and contested by Jews and Palestinians is the stage of myth in Christianity, Judaism, and even Islam. When a great drama is played out here, the temptation to match events with the script of the Last Days can be irresistible. For a century just such a drama has been acted out, compelling the world's attention and firing expectations in all three religions among those who hope for the End.
The impact of such belief on a complex national and religious struggle has received too little attention. It underlies the apocalyptic foreign policy promoted by many on the American religious right: support for Israel based on certainty that the Jewish state plays a crucial role in a fundamentalist Christian script for the End. In Israel, belief in final redemption has driven the most dedicated opponents of peace agreements. Among Muslims, expectation of the final Hour helps feed exaggerated fears about Israel's actions in Jerusalem. Belief in the approaching End has influenced crucial events in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Time and again, it has been the rationale behind apparently irrational bloodshed, and undermined efforts at peacemaking. In the worst case, desire for history's finale has the potential to spark all-out war in the Middle East.
And here's the paradox: The world's resolute refusal to end doesn't mute expectations; it turns them up. In the years to come, therefore, hope for the End will continue to exert political influence and its potential to set off violence will only increase. That hope is more than a fantasy; it has the power to affect our world. The purpose of this book is to show why.
I came to Jerusalem from California in 1977. I was a year out of college. I came to study Judaism in the Holy City for a year, but I had a one-way ticket. I had nothing written down for the future. I fell in love with the place and, surprising myself, I stayed.
The America of my childhood had been the arena of outrageous hope: We could change the world, completely, by tomorrow. When I was fifteen, spending a summer as a volunteer in a legal aid office on the poor side of Los Angeles, I sat with friends on the floor of the house we shared, and we talked about what America would look like after the revolution. We had, of course, little clue as to what "revolution" meant, besides a mood expressed half by having long hair and half by spending a summer in south Los Angeles, suburban kids righteously slumming. At the university where I later studied, on the coast south of San Francisco, the mood of the sixties lasted halfway into the seventies. Fellow students had programs for remaking humanity: Marxism, lesbian feminism, offbeat spirituality. By the time I left for Israel, the mood of extravagant hope had passed, leaving a dry hangover in many mouths. My last year in America I spent in Berkeley. The town's telephone poles were the public notice boards, covered in countless layers of announcements. Already, flyers advertising new kinds of psychological therapy and meditation had buried all the famous calls to protest. My older sister, who'd thrilled me by getting arrested at a campus demonstration when I was in eighth grade, now commuted to a job she hated.
Through college, my own commitment to Jewish tradition deepened. There were many reasons, but two messages of that tradition matter for this story. One was messianism: faith that a time would come when war would end, oppression evaporate. Irreligious or anti-religious as my left-wing friends often were, it seemed obvious that this hope was the mother of their hopes. If we believed that the world should be radically different than it was, religion was responsible. The second message had the opposite import: People were inherently capable of both good and evil; that's what made them human. No change in the regime, class structure, or relations between the sexes would change that. Therefore, anyone hawking a program for a perfected world was selling a hollow promise. The two messages didn't live peacefully with each other, but both struck me as true.
In Israel, political passion had not gone out of fashion. Strangers argued politics on the bus. In a society where very little was rude, it was rude to phone someone during the evening TV news: The news mattered. There were a dozen political parties in parliament; banks and HMOs had party labels, even the soccer teams belonged to parties. Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977, offering peace in return for the Sinai Peninsula. Everyone I knew, it seemed, went to demonstrations for or against. Simply deciding to live in the country rather than returning to an easier life in California would be a political statement. Eventually, I succumbed, trading my tourist visa for an immigrant's papers. After several years of study, in yeshivah (Talmudic seminary) and graduate school, I began a career as a journalist.
I wrote regularly on religion and politics. In particular, the ultranationalist Orthodox settlers of the West Bank gripped my attention. They were changing the map of the occupied territories, but they were also imposing a new map of Judaism. The settlers' ideology was messianism: The creation of Israel fulfilled prophecy, and the conquest of the West Bank was another step toward final redemption. They claimed to know God's program for history, and their place in it. For the most extreme, that hubris freed them of all moral constraints: In the mid-eighties, a group of settlers was arrested and convicted of terrorist acts against Palestinians and of plotting to destroy the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine at the center of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A central member of the group, Yehudah Etzion, told me after his release that "we saw ourselves as God's messengers, asking what He would want us to do."
This isn't where faith has to end up. But I wanted to lay bare at least part of the reasons that it sometimes does. In the process, I widened my focus to include all three of the religions that call Jerusalem sacred. I've listened to Muslim sheikhs explain how verses in the Koran foretell Israel's destruction, and to American evangelical ministers who insist on their deep love for Israel and nevertheless eagerly await apocalyptic battles on Israel's soil so terrible that the dry river beds will, they predict, fill with rivers of blood. I also came to realize that the center of my story had to be the Temple Mount. What happens at that one spot, more than anywhere else, quickens expectations of the End in three religions. And at that spot, the danger of provoking catastrophe is greatest.
Which is also an old story: A Jewish text records the debate of sages 1,800 years ago on why Cain murdered Abel. By naming what drove Cain to kill, each sage meant to identify the source of human violence. According to one, a twin sister was born with Abel; the brothers fought over who'd possess the only available woman. Another sage argued that the brothers agreed to divide everything in the world between them. One promptly claimed the clothes on his brother's back and ordered him to strip; the other claimed the ground under his brother's feet and shouted, "Fly." Blows followed, then blood.
The third sage, a Rabbi Levi, also said the brothers agreed to split the world. But then, he said, one claimed the land where the Temple would be built, the other insisted it was his, and "Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him."
The history of fratricide began, said Rabbi Levi, in an argument over who would own religion. It began with a fight over the Temple Mount.
Copyright © 2000 by Gershom Gorenberg