On the supposition of a future life we can adjourn the manifest inequities of this life to the hereafter and trust that good and evil will yet be balanced justly when time and eternity are put together (Walter Rauschenbusch, 13).Many theologians and biblical scholars today read apocalyptic texts, against the backdrop of their historical context, as a form of political resistance – as an encrypted summons to subvert the forces of empire. Not so Walter Rauschenbusch. For him, rather, the emergence of apocalyptic religion in post-exilic Judaism stemmed from a declension from the holy, reforming zeal of the early prophets of Israel and Judah, who sought a total reformation of society based on the central ideals of the Torah.
In his classic Social Gospel manifesto, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), chapter 1, Rauschenbusch gives a sketch and interpretation of the rise, maturity and decline of the prophetic consciousness in ancient Hebrew religion. The burden of this chapter – indeed, of the book as a whole – is to prove that the roots and fruits of authentic Christianity reside not in pious individualism but in social justice and political righteousness. In the eighth century BCE, the prophets Amos and Hosea issued stern critiques of a religion corrupted by greed and oppression. In their writing, the powers that be are shown to be profoundly corrupt and venal in light of the socially egalitarian vision of the Mosaic law. (Rauschenbusch acknowledges that, from the standpoint of modern historical criticism, the canonical formulation of the Torah may have been decisively shaped by the message of the prophets rather than preceding that message chronologically, but resolving this issue is not crucial for his overall argument.)
According to Rauschenbusch, the early vision of the prophets was realistic, this-worldly and -- despite the strident emphasis on divine judgment of the rich and powerful who oppress the poor and marginal – rooted in a fundamentally optimistic belief in the power of God to transform the chosen nation into an ethical commonwealth. The subjugation and exile of the southern kingdom under the Babylonians during the sixth century forged the watershed experiences that shattered national hopes for radical transformation of the social order. In the writings of Jeremiah the prophetic hope for nationwide renewal turns inward in a profound articulation of covenant piety. While this represents an axial development in the history of religion, in Rauschenbusch’s view, it also means a declension from the sociopolitical activism of the earlier prophets. This decline is exacerbated in Ezekiel, where the energies of piety are directed away from social ethics to the legalistic and formulaic ceremonialism of the priestly class.
This type of [prophetic] religion was destroyed when the national life itself was destroyed by the foreign conquerors. The nation had been the subject of prophecy, and now the nation as such was blotted out. How could the prophets any longer appeal for national righteousness, when it was not at the option of the people to be righteous? Political agitation among a people under jealous foreign despotism would mean revolutionary agitation and would never be tolerated. Thus all the religious passion and reflection which had formerly flowed into social and political channels was dammed up and turned back. Prayer and private devoutness in pious individuals and in groups of pious men was the only field left to the religious impulse. The religious history and the ceremonial worship of Israel were the only bond of national unity that survived (19-20).The decline of prophetic religion, as Rauschenbusch has it, culminates in apocalypticism, which he understands to be the religious expression of a defeated people who can no longer afford to be political as any gesture toward sociopolitical critique becomes an act of fatal insurgency against the imperial overlords. Pre-exilic Hebrew religion, he claims, was notably free of speculation about the afterlife: The just demands of God’s law were to be vindicated in this world. After the exile, by contrast, the focus on renewing the national life in the here-and-now is projected into the realm of otherworldly speculation. The locus classicus of this transition is the book of Daniel. Rauschenbusch writes, “[W]hen the weight of foreign empire was so overwhelming and crushing that even the boldest hope could see no adequate resources in the people, the catastrophe that would break this power was conceived as a supernatural cataclysm out of all relation to human activity” (25).
In essence, apocalyptic religion expresses an alienation of authentic aspirations for transformation of public life (note the affinity with Marxist theory here). Of course, Rauschenbusch can only dismiss apocalyptic forecasts because he believes they are fanciful and will never be realized; nor, however, does he take this genre of literature seriously as a non-literal call to political resistance under hostile conditions. This rejection of apocalypticism as an ersatz religious impulse will have ramifications as Rauschenbusch’s argument unfolds throughout the book, especially in his utterly non-apocalyptic portrait of the person and message of the historical Jesus (chapter 2). Does this move soften the edginess and disturbing otherness of Jesus – not only for his contemporaries but for us as well?
Might it also be an irony of Rauschenbusch’s thought that his account of apocalyptic literature reveals the genesis of a particularly radical account of sociopolitical, structural evil -- a resource that the great Social Gospel theologian fails to appropriate for his own program for re-envisioning social ethics? He writes:
By contact with foreign religious life during the Exile the belief in a great organized kingdom of evil had become a vital part of Jewish thought and the Jews saw behind the oppressive human forces the shadowy and sinister forms of demon powers that could be overcome only by archangels and heavenly armies (25).Might it be the case, pace Rauschenbusch, that the apocalyptic imagination cracks a window into a sphere of reality for which modern social criticism lacks suitable categories?
*Page citations for the Rauschenbusch text come are from Paul Rauschenbusch, ed., Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century (New York: HarperOne, 2007).