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Date: Mon, 13 Sep 1999 17:56:45 EDT
Subject: AANEWS for Monday, September 13, 1999
From: owner-aanews@atheists.org
Message-Id: <EMDMbro202317ccs@zip.mail-list.com>

On the Cusp of the Millennium__Martyrs, Prayer Wars and UFO Visitations

From American Atheists News, No. 628
13 September 1999

Has it begun?

One thousand years ago, claimed a Burgundian monk Ralph Glaber, inhabitants throughout Europe packed churches in terror, stopped planting their crops, and prepared for the end of the world. Groups of pilgrims roamed the countryside warning of impending Armageddon. Apocalyptic movements arose, some even taking up arms to establish a "New Jerusalem," a paradise on Earth to pave the way for the Second Coming of Jesus. It was all a manifestation of the fervent religious belief__and social hysteria__linked to the calendric roll-over which brought on a new millennium. It had been one thousand years since the birth of Jesus Christ, and for many, the Messiah was about to return and fulfill the prophecies of Daniel, Revelation and the other apocalyptic texts of the Bible.

But did all of this really happen? Can we expect something like this as we linger at the end of our century, on the cusp of a new millennium?

Mainstream historians say that the accounts of a terrorized Europe anxiously waiting for the sands of the hourglass to run out on New Year's Eve, 1,000 A.D. ignore both the complexities of the western calendar, and the evidence of written record. Glaber's five-volume "Histories," on which this apocalyptic portrayal of early Medieval Europe is based, is considered unreliable in this respect, although there was indeed a pervasive sense of gloom, foreboding and anticipation at this time, much of it centered on the fulfillment of prophecy. Glaber provided a template for future apocalyptic writers, warning: "Satan will soon be unleashed because the thousand years have been completed..." His volumes, penned in the 1030s, describe "the story of the events and prodigies which happened around and after the millennial year of the Incarnation of the Savior." He wrote of natural disasters, including the violent conflagrations which swept cities in Italy and Gaul, and the deaths of prominent men. Even the comet of 1003 is mentioned as evidence to suggest that Europe was undergoing profound apocalyptic turmoil.

Today, there is a pattern which emerges as we approach the year 2000. Unlike the peasants of the first millennium, western moderns have more of an awareness of time based on a uniform calendar. Contrary to the beliefs of many, though, it is not 2,000 years since the birth of one Jesus Christ; historians debate whether or not Jesus even existed as a historical figure, but if he did it is likely that he__or the person(s) upon which the legend of Jesus is constructed__was not born on December 25 two millennia ago. Some early Christians, in fact, celebrated the birth of their messiah in the spring.

The belief, in a historic millennium, and a convenient date commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ is a strong artifact in the public imagination. A full page ad in the August 27, 1999 issue of USA TODAY invites people to a "2000th Birthday Celebration!" for the Christian messiah at Michigan Bible college. "Does Jesus' birthday mark the beginning of a new era?" asks the colorful broadside. "Clearly all the signs are there. Earthquakes in China, Turkey and Japan; famine in Africa, Asia and Russia; pestilences in the form of AIDS are now worldwide; fearful sights all over the world brought into our living rooms every night via TV; and continuous signs from heaven in the form of eclipses, constellation alignments, meteorites and comets..."

Like a temporal odometer, though, the transition from 1999 to 2000 possesses a compelling quality, as Stephen J. Gould noted in his book, "Questioning The Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide To A Precisely Arbitrary Countdown," (1997, Harmony Book, N.Y.) The next few flips of the calendar will mark not only the end of our century -- a poignant enough event which 100 years ago stimulated considerable commentary and speculation on the human condition__but the advent of a new epoch of 1000 years as well. There is, of course, the perennial debate; does this new millennium commence on January 1, 2000 (as popular culture would dictate), or one year later?

Those considerations are mere minutia, though, to a growing and diverse community of apocalyptics who believe that humanity has entered the End Times. As many as 40 million Americans express the sentiment that "ours is the final generation," and that events foretold in the Book of Revelation will take place in their lifetime. Many Christians point excitedly to the reconstitution of the State of Israel half-a century ago, a sort of eschatological ignition to kickoff an arcane sequence of prophesied apocalyptic events.

It's only fitting that in the postmodernist age, orthodox Biblical writings concerning the apocalypse merge with Eastern and new age beliefs creating a veritable apocalyptic marketplace. Salvation may come in the form of Jesus or benevolent aliens from outer space. Humanity will suffer the wrath of the Tribulation, or following a series of catastrophic events, emerge into utopia. The predictions are endless, the offerings of apocalyptic belief multitudinous. Choose your doomsday...

The signs are ubiquitous, say observers who monitor this feverish climb toward apocalyptic panic. The Center for Millennial Study (www.mille.org) in Boston serves as an academic clearinghouse for information about millenarian beliefs and sects; the current issue of its quarterly newsletter, "Millennial Stew," for instance, discusses the Israelites of the New Covenant movement in Peru, which has attracted over 200,000 followers with its message that the world will end in the year 2000. "Stew" also informs us that the Aum Shinryikyo cult in Japan, the group linked to the 1995 Sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, is still thriving despite a police investigation. Aum's guru, Shoko Asahara, has provided several dates for the end of the world ranging from 1999 to 2003. Observers speculate that the Sarin incident was a dry-run for a series of attacks which Aum hoped would precipitate a worldwide apocalypse. "Besides Aum Shinrikyo," notes the newsletter, "Japan is witnesses the proliferation of numerous 'new age religions' (e.g. the Order of Peace, the Institute for Research into Human Happiness, and various UFO religions), some of which base their teachings, at least in part, on seers such as Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce..."

There are disturbing events closer to home, though, that suggest that forms of millennialist fever are beginning to exhibit themselves as we approach the new millennium.

Martyrs and persecution of believers are seminal components of apocalyptic theory; indeed, believers in the Tribulation__a period of time when Satan will supposedly rule the earth as the Antichrist and his sidekick, the False Prophet__see such animosity as "proof" of apocalyptic prophecy, when good is defiled by evil, and the forces of darkness run rampant. Rarely is the label of martyr invoked, and the designation arose at a time of intense persecution of the early Christian church by the Roman Empire.

But themes involving martyrdom and persecution now resonated throughout many corners of America's religious subcultures. The story of Cassie Bernall, one of the students killed in the April 20, 1999 shootings at a Littleton, Colorado high school has taken on mythic dimensions. Accounts shortly after the murders report that Bernall was allegedly approached by one of the gunmen who asked her if she believed in god. When she answered in the affirmative, she was shot.

Questions may linger about whether or not this event actually took place as described; indeed, the story has been embellished with successive retellings. But there seems to be an insatiable appetite to believe in the account, and embrace Cassie Bernall as a modern-day martyr for Christianity. Bernall's heroics have been eulogized in sermons, political speeches, world wide web sites, and news reports. On Sunday, the ABC program "20/20" featured a segment with Bernall's mother, Misty, who has now penned a book, "She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall," just released from Plough publishing. The book is profiled in the current issue of USA TODAY newspaper. "Bernall writes that in ninth grade Cassie was an angry, unhappy girl enmeshed in a group of hostile teen friends fascinated with Satanism and drugs," notes reporter Deirdre Donahue. The mother ostensibly found a cache of threatening letters, then "confronted Cassie, called the sheriff's office, enrolled her daughter in a Christian school and stayed home to monitor her enraged daughter's activities." Misty Bernall says that the effort to control her contumacious offspring was "the forces of good and evil... We feel that there is a spiritual battle, and it is a battle for our kid's souls."

Persecution is another theme which, increasingly, resonates throughout America's religious community, especially in fundamentalist and evangelical churches. The sense that religion is "under attack" is a persistent message from radio preachers and Pat Robertson's "700 Club" program. Along with the claim that "America has kicked god out of our public schools," Robertson and guests warn the country that a variety of tough legislative measures are needed to preserve religious freedom and stem a rising tide of atheism and secularism.

Not even all religionists agree, though, that these shrill beliefs in new, persecuted martyrs are a healthy development. A recent A&E channel program, "The Road To Rapture" explored the burgeoning apocalyptic jitters with emphasis on the Christian belief in bodily resurrection and ascent to heaven when the apocalypse arrives. The narration explored the origins of belief in this event, commonly known as the Rapture, and how this ancient teaching has been embraced by modern day apocalyptic groups ranging from energized evangelicals to doomsday Christian Identity adherents.

But a staid Lutheran minister in Idaho, home to the Christian Identity cult, rejects the notion that religious believers are under attack. "You couldn't make a good case for persecution of religion in this country if you tried," he admonished. He cited apocalyptic belief as an obstacle to knowing the "real" message of Christian love and tolerance.

Rapture, martyrs and persecution, though, are mainstay themes in a popular series of novels flying off the shelves in Christian bookstores and even major retail outlets like Borders. The "Left Behind" books include titles such as "Tribulation Force," Nicolae," "Soul Harvest," "Assassins" and other of this doomsday genre which tell of a modern-day apocalypse. Co-author Tim LaHaye says that the series "is the first fictional portrayal of events that are true to a literal interpretation of Bible prophecy." A Baptist, LaHaye was one of the original founder with Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority movement; wife Beverly LaHaye serves as president of Concerned Women for America.

The series has now sold nearly 10 million copies, and made it to the top of the Publishers Weekly and Christian Booksellers Association bestsellers list.

The call to "win souls for Christ" in time for his expected arrival is causing excitement and confusion within some quarters of the evangelical movement. Last month in Argyle, Texas, for instance, a number of missionary groups huddled to devise new strategies for "harvesting" believers in the Third World. "Evangelicals believe their primary goal is to convert the world to Christianity," noted the Dallas Morning News. "And for the last decade, they've worked doggedly to get the job done__by the end of 2000." While not all of the groups believe that Jesus will be arriving next year, most predict an apocalypse in our lifetime or "soon." The groups included the World Evangelical fellowship, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism (founded by Billy Graham), and the AD 2000 Movement.

In addition, there is added enthusiasm, and a tone of urgency, with groups organizing other activities such as the annual "See You At The Pole" event slated for this Wednesday, September 15. Some groups advocate carrying the fight for Christianity into the public schools; youngsters are urged to proselytize their fellow students, form Bible study clubs, pray openly in the school lobby or cafeteria, and wear religion-themed clothing, jewelry and other accessories.

But civil libertarians and others are concerned about this heightened aggressiveness on behalf of sectarian proselytizing. A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, for instance, warns that the evangelical campaign to saturate the Middle East with Bibles, videos and other Christian materials "demonizes Islam" in the eyes of many westerners. Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR told the Morning News, "We don't care if somebody comes to the Islamic world and says they believe their faith is better. What we object to is deceit and deception." He cites cases where Christian missionary groups offer medicine, food and other humanitarian aid, but at the price of listening to a sectarian message.

In the nation's public schools, aggressive and inappropriate Christian proselytizing may be even more tendentious as the nation becomes more pluralistic. With an influx of immigrants, including Hindus from India, Moslems from the Middle East and Buddhists from Asia, demands for Christian prayer or other sectarian rituals like SYATP may be perceived as exclusionary and even insulting. Atheists are also speaking out against on-campus religious recruiting when it involves support or endorsement from school officials, or overly zealous tactics by spiritually intoxicated "prayer warriors."

Fundamentalist Christians are not the only ones preparing for some kind of apocalyptic convulsion in the near future. Many new age movements__some of whom blend traditional Christian teachings with esoteric Eastern occultism__are also professing a message of impending Armageddon often linked to cataclysmic natural disasters, or the arrival of space aliens. Elizabeth Clair Prophet of the Church Universal And Triumphant has dusted off the predictions of St. Germane and updated them and other prophecies in time for the new millennium. So have followers of Edgar Cayce despite a less-than-impressive list of predictions about the coastal U.S. sinking into the ocean.

In Eatonton, Ga., the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors is hunkering down while it builds the "Egypt of the West." Literature from the sect teaches that its founder, Dwight York, came from a distant galaxy called Illyuwn who will return to earth with a fleet of spaceships in 2003 to save a chosen group of 144,000 followers. This outer space mythos resonates in the writings of other groups too, from the Nation of Islam to the Cosmic Awareness organizations who predict the immanent arrival of a planet called "Nemesis" with a 40 million-strong army of reptilian invaders.

While the teachings of apocalyptic groups frequently strike us as foolish and bizarre, many millenarians feel a heightened need to assert to beliefs or prepare for struggle with the larger society. The Branch Davidians embraced David Koresh as a modern-day successor to Jesus, and saw their confrontation with federal authorities in 1993 as a prophetic clash between good and evil. Christian Identity is causing concern, as its teachings of racial annihilation__RAHOWAH, or Racial Holy War__are linked to the violence of lone terrorists who attacks synagogues, schools or other targets. In Georgia, the Nuwaubians are locked in a disagreement with local authorities over zoning issues; the group has built enormous pyramids, obelisks and other Egyptian-style buildings in its 400-acre compound which it has declared a sovereign nation. Local zoning inspectors have been turned away at gunpoint, and the Community Dispute Resolution Unit of the U.S. Department of Justice has been called in to negotiate a possible settlement. Many of those living in nearby Eatonton, Ga. fear cult violence, and a possible replay of the tragedy at Waco, Texas.

Many observers say that as we approach the year 2000 and beyond, apocalyptic groups are likely to become more active and even militantly confrontational. While phobia about the Y2K computer bug seems to be ebbing, according to "Millennium Stew," there is still a deep reservoir of apocalyptic beliefs that continues to find a credulous and receptive audience. Some millenarians may be predisposed to using violence to usher in their New Jerusalem, or confront what they consider to be the forces of evil. Others may hunker down to survive a period of Tribulation, as they await rapture or the Mother Ship. Still others find a new, emotionally charged sense of urgency in converting more followers to their brand of Christianity.

For all, the time is coming. Soon.

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