Charting Millennialism's Political Message

A Position Paper for the Center of Millennial Studies
by
Ted Daniels


The task of the Millennium Watch Institute is to keep track of ideas about global transformation as they arise and spread through American culture in particular, but other places as well. We collect ephemeral prophetic material from more than 1200 (chiefly American) sources. The collection will shortly be archived at the University of Pennsylvania. Interested parties should contact Dr. Michael Ryan (+ 1215/898-7552; ryan@pobox.upenn.edu) for more information. This material is both printed and electronic.

The institute also publishes a printed and electronic newsletter called Millennial Prophecy Report. Back issues and further information are available from http://www.channel.com/mpr.

The purpose of this activity is to provide current information about these ideas as they emerge into our culture and our history, in events like Waco, the Order of the Solar Temple killings, and the Rancho Santa Fe suicides, as well as in more obscure musings of prophets and dreamers. It is our conviction that useful and appropriate responses to ideas and groups like these can only be developed on a basis of understanding.

Millenarians are rarely mad, though their ideas often seem utterly bizarre to those not familiar either with the traditions from which they spring, or the circumstances that propel people into this kind of mythopoeic activity. The millennium, very broadly considered, offers people a way to get (back) to paradise. It does this through the construction and sometimes the enactment of myths about power and its abuse in this world.

Like every other myth, millenarianism seeks to remove mystery's sting by cloaking it in a narrative that makes human sense of it. Worldly power, for many people, is just this kind of uncomfortable mystery. Who gets to wield it? Clearly not the good, or not them alone. Why is it so frequently abused? In a godly world, that could not happen. Why is justice so visibly absent from most of our dealings with one another?

Stories of the millennium are ultimately political, in the sense that they are concerned with relations of power. They propose a radical solution to the corruption, suffering, venality, and wickedness of this world. They generally appear in a religious cloak, but that frequently serves to legitimize the claims and hopes the millennium expresses. And it often, but not always, seems that nothing less than divine intervention is capable of changing the entrenched order of this world. This accounts for the frequent occurrence of images of global destruction that appear in the more apocalyptic strain of millenarianism: the planet becomes a moral actor in its own regeneration, symbolizing the titanic cosmic conflict that removing the enormous powers of this world entails.

These ideas emerge into a society's consciousness at large when it begins to appear that old rules of making sense of life suddenly no longer apply. It appears that society has embarked on a new and unpredictable course which threatens the social, economic, and moral bases of life. People turn to prophetic assurances when life's unpredictability seems intolerable.

Millenarian ideas are most likely to emerge in societies where similar beliefs are already part of tradition, but it appears that they can crop up anywhere. Christianity is of course a prime breeding ground for notions of eschatological salvation, but related ideas of a return to a golden age appear in other world religions and are quite capable of appearing in perfectly secular contexts, like purely political discourse, and even in the predictions of those with a "hard" scientific bent.

We have set out to follow the developments in this particular myth because the moment is prime for their appearance. The year 2000 looms just over the event horizon of our imaginations, and like a real black hole it draws everything towards itself--hope and fear alike--and gives back... nothing.

The turn of the millennium provokes hopes and fears of colossal changes, a new order for the world, divine or secular, and numbers of people are drawn into its mesmerizing gravity. We aim to chart those feelings and the tales they evoke until the millennium comes, and after.


Copyright 1997 by the Center for Millennial Studies. All Rights Reserved.

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