AntiChrist

I grew up in a Christian community that emerged during the post-Napoleonic period. It is no surprise that it was concerned about identifying an AntiChrist. Of course such identifications have multiplied over the years – Mussolini, Hitler, a Russian leader, someone who would emerge as the leader of the EU when it had 10 members, and others were all candidates “clearly identified by Scripture.”  Wrong identifications abounded without apologies or retractions when proven false, but what if the issue was the asking of the wrong questions and such a power is right under our noses?

Who Is the AntiChrist

The AntiChrist figure of Revelation (also called the beast) was modeled on Antiochus IV Epiphanes; the Beast is said by John to be Domitian, the 8th emperor (5 Julio-Claudian emperors and 3 Flavians, with Domitian viewed by some in that age as a type of Nero redivivus). Domitian himself has come and gone, but the spirit lives on. Remember that Paul argues in Ephesians that the Prince of the Power of the Air rules in the kingdoms of this earth, and Jesus says something of the same about “The Prince of this world.” My thesis is that we in the USA often fail to think of this as embodied in our government, the inner structure of the land we love.

Now, lest one jump to conclusions, I am not thinking of President Trump in particular. First, this would be just another identification like some of those noted above and so bound to fail, since he too will pass on. Second, he is nothing more than a particularly strident form of the same attitudes that have been characteristic of the USA for at least the last few decades.

It is true that the last election was dominated by emotional thinking (which is really just emotions, not thinking) and the appeal to anxiety and prejudice (i.e. another name for fear) using Twitter and the like. The USA sank to a lower level of differentiation and higher level of anxiety as described by Edwin Friedman in Failure of Nerve (1996). In fact, my knowledge of Friedman’s work made me aware of the likelihood that Mr. Trump would become President before he had the Republican nomination sewed up. The result of that campaign has been increased (increased, not newly appearing) polarization in the sense of black-white thinking and quick-fix mentality and a government characterized by the same emotional thinking. In other words, moving to the terminology of biblical theology, desire rules or the passions rule. And, of course, if one knows the New Testament, when desire or the passions rule, it is not good. It is not the work of the Spirit.
But it is also not new. The focusing on polls and popularity, the fixation on the accomplishments of the first 100 days (quick fix), and highly emotive statements without substantival backup are not unique to this past election, even if they showed up in extreme forms. Nor is the relativization of truth unique. Certainly it was more extreme: something was or is true because a candidate (or President) asserts it is to be true without citing evidence and then there is the demonization of those who dare to check for actual data that might prove or disprove the truth or falsity of the statement (liberal media, as if all media were of the same stripe), and this happens on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. But if your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth, i.e. if truth is relative to the person, is this not just a blatant example of that principle? Indeed, because of this I am not one who calls President Trump a liar (just as I did not think that President Clinton was a liar when he said, “I did not have sex with that woman”) for I suspect that he believes what he says. It is his truth for the moment (and in President Clinton’s case, I know from experience and talking with others that many in his subculture did not consider anything less than penetration “sex”). It is his emotional statement. And as such, he believes it is true, so it is, in such eyes, a violation of his person to subject it to the test of evidence. Extreme, maybe, but unique, no. This has been around in many parts of our society for quite some time.
(Also, there is also the psychological study I read that examined of the sentence structure, wideness of vocabulary, repetitions, and other linguistic evidence in Mr. Trump’s interviews and writings over something like the last 5 years. This demonstrated cognitive decline, which the psychologists who voted for Trump attributed to age-related causes, while psychologists who did not vote for Trump were more likely to attribute to some more than that. But all, not matter what their political affiliation, agreed existed. This would be further exculpatory evidence.)
Rather, I start with the central Christian claim that Jesus is Lord, that in the resurrection God vindicated his claim to be God’s promised anointed king, that in the ascension he took authority over, not just this earth, but the universe. He is Lord. The AntiChrist, then, is any symbol, spirit, or influence different from the authority of Jesus that claims to be Lord, that claims allegiance, and in particular claims ultimate allegiance. As 1 John says, many antichrists have gone out into this world. But they all have a basic characteristic that of denying absolute authority to Jesus and making some other value central.
One central value in the USA is freedom, not the freedom that the New Testament talks about, freedom from the power of evil and freedom to serve God, but the absolute freedom of the individual. In other words, “You shall be like God, knowing good and evil.” This means that you can determine for yourself who you are and what is good and what is evil from your point of view. Who are you to tell me what to do? I am an individual. And certainly this is one characteristic of this age, one that we see whenever the collective good, the common good, is put forward as more important than individual freedom.
But, sticking with John in Revelation, the characteristics of Babylon the Great (in Rev 18} have been touted as positive values by a series of administrations and candidates of both major parties in the USA. The USA has stressed its superior military might that it is not afraid to use around the world; the USA is the one the kings of the earth come to for power/weapons (although there are other candidates rising, which, of course, is what one would expect in a fallen world). Come to me and I will give you military power. That art of the military deal is not limited to the present administration. Come to me and I will support you militarily. The USA is seen as the key to power.
The USA has also stressed economic indexes as the measure of success for some time. What else is the fixation on GDP and similar measures? Nor is this the first administration that has been accused of being too cozy with or run by Wall Street or wealthy individuals. Nor is it the first one to give preferential access to the wealthy (whether wealthy individuals or wealthy corporations, even if it has been more blatant in making the superrich authority figures in the administration and even if there has been more boasting about the wealth of the President. As I said above, this is not the first time that indications of prosperity are used to judge national success (without regard to the prosperity of other nations or even of minorities within the nation). Nor is this administration unique in blaming the poor for their plight. What President Trump has done is to be rather crass and up front about all of this. With a cabinet made up of generals and wealthy business leaders, he has given clear signals about the gods in whom he trusts. Others trusted Mars and Mammon but were at least somewhat more subtle about it. Yet such subtlety is not a Christian value, after all “the snake” was the most subtle of all creatures. Naturally, if Jesus were Lord, other values than these  would prevail.
Now it is not that the Christian scriptures lack a role for rulers. The people of Israel wanted a king to lead in battle, but God seemed to think that the king should lead in creating justice. He should not create a large army, he should not gather wealth, and he should not have many wives, but, as the Psalms point out, he should bring justice to the poor and care for the oppressed. Then God would take care of the king in battle. Nor do the scriptures lack a role for the wealthy. The king is not to gather wealth, it is true. But those who prosper from just and righteous activities also have a place in God’s order, their place being to distribute this wealth for the common good, to be the advocates of the poor, to be the father to the fatherless, etc. Their place is not to heap up more of the same, for that is nothing less than finding security in something other than God. And that is bound to lead to injustice to the poor, such as offering wages on which one cannot live.
So in such values or “gods” is where one finds the AntiChrist. That spirit is alive and well. That spirit is embodied in the much of US culture. That spirit walks freely in the halls of Congress and the corridors of the White House, for that spirit is what promotes military might as security, demonizes minorities, values people on the basis of the amount of wealth they have heaped up, rejects others for failing to make it up the non-existent ladder to success, etc. That is the spirit of individualism, the spirit of a freedom that does not look at its own addictions, the spirit of an anxious protectionism, for, if I am my own god, how can I not be anxious.
The AntiChrist had great success when it manipulated US thought so that religion was said to be private and that a person’s religion should not determine his or her politics. That put Jesus in the private sphere and the AntiChrist in the public sphere. But a depoliticized Jesus is not Jesus at all, for Jesus is Lord, Lord of heaven and earth, not just a Jesus of personal internal salvation.
No, let us not demonize President Trump (or President Obama or any other President or member of the legislature). President Trump may be crasser and more blatant in his expression of this spirit, but let us remember that he is not known for his church-going background or his depth of knowledge of biblical theology. Let us realize that the AntiChrist spirit is rooted in the system and can express itself through any Congress and any Supreme Court and any President. It is only conversion of heart that will break the system. It is only embracing the cross that will undermine the system. It is only making Jesus truly Lord that will bring a true revolution.
And before that happens, Babylon the Great will likely fall.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed above are those of the author, not necessarily those of the particular church in which the author is incardinated and serves or of that church’s leaders and not necessarily those of the publican association of the faithful to which the author also belongs.
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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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