A withdrawalist stance is often a mixture of liberalism and despair. Liberalism can only offer individual solutions; despair threatens no solution. Systems of oppression like capitalism and patriarchy can feel overwhelming in their scale and sadism. The promise of withdrawal—that a strategy of personal change can compound into political change—is understandably appealing, especially because it often comes with a set of directives that, if not always easy, are at least simple. Indeed, a whole life—including an identity—can be built around these actions. Thus, it is an answer to despair, but it’s an answer that relies on faith, not on strategy—which is to say it’s an emotional solution and not a material one.
We have got to think past our emotional needs. Faith-based solutions can’t stand up to intellectual scrutiny. When questioned, the adherents feel threatened and must retreat to the protection of repeatable platitudes and the reassuring company of like-minded others. This is the stance taken across much of the progressive community. And currently, there is a whole subculture of withdrawalists who have achieved true millenarianism.
Millenarianism is “any religious movement that predicts the collapse of the world order as we know it, with its replacement by the millennium, or period of justice, equality, salvation, etc. Millenarian movements are thought to be an extreme example of the use of religion as a ‘way out’ or reaction to social stress and its resulting anomie.”52
The worst historic case of millenarianism was the cattle-killing cult of the Xhosa people. The Xhosa are a cattle-herding people who were living in eastern South Africa when the Dutch arrived in the mid-1600s. Their first encounter with Europeans was in the early 1700s. The century that followed was filled with the predictable displacement, resistance, and war. Along with those stressors, a lung disease spread through the Xhosa’s cattle in 1854, leaving people even more vulnerable.
In April of 1856, a fifteen-year-old girl named Nongqawuse had a spiritual vision in which she was told that the Xhosa should kill their cattle, raze their crops, dump their food stores, and destroy their garden and kitchen tools. If these things were done, the dead would return; sickness and old age would disappear; food would spring from the earth; fat, fertile cattle would materialize; and “the whole community will rise from the dead” to drive out the British.53
The story of the prophecy spread quickly. The Xhosa chief, Sarhili, was converted, and ordered the killing of the cattle. As the prophecy picked up speed, other people began to have visions, seeing the dead rising from the sea or hanging in the air. This encouraged more destruction of food stores and cattle. So many cattle were killed that the carrion birds couldn’t keep up and the carcasses rotted. In total, 400,000 beasts were slaughtered. The Xhosa built bigger and better corrals for the promised new cattle and giant skin bags for their milk in preparation.
The first prophesized deadline came and went with no fulfillment. The date was moved. Still nothing. With that much psychological investment, the people’s response was predictable: the problem was with the unbelievers. The few cattle left to provide for immediate needs had to be killed. They were, and still no miracle happened. Mass starvation ensued, with the attendant atrocities and cannibalism. People ate animal food, they ate grass, they ate their own children. The believers never gave up their belief, they simply blamed the skeptics. Between starvation and attendant diseases, the population collapsed from 105,000 to 26,000. Many of the survivors were forced to migrate. One hundred fifty years of imperialism couldn’t destroy the Xhosa, but two years of millenarian fever nearly did.
From a different continent comes a related example, the Righteous Harmony Society Movement, also known as the Boxer Rebellion. They were a secret religious society in northern China who believed that a combination of martial arts, diet, and prayer would give them the power to fly and protection against bullets and swords. They also believed that an army of heavenly “spirit soldiers” would drive out foreigners. Bad flooding and drought conditions had created both hardship and starvation for farmers and refugees, and desperate people make good converts. The overarching context, of course, was British imperialism and the escalating exploitation and humiliation of the Opium Wars, forced trade, and the loss of Hong Kong.
The Righteous Harmony Society (RHS) members were able to scapegoat both Chinese Christians and European Christian missionaries for the famine. The scapegoating culminated in the Taiyuan Massacre, in which the Boxers killed over 18,000 Chinese Christians. In June of 1900, Righteous Harmony Society fighters massed in Beijing to lay siege to foreign embassies. The siege of the Legation Quarter resulted ultimately in the arrival of an international force (six European nations plus Russia and Japan) of over 20,000 troops, called the Eight-Nation Alliance, which ended the siege, occupied Beijing, and forced the Qing court to make reparations. The soldiers of most of the eight nations behaved abominably, looting and raping with the encouragement of their commanders; once again, it was the grass that suffered.
The point, for our purposes, is that the members of the RHS were not assisted by “spirit soldiers,” couldn’t fly, and had no immunity to bullets. Thousands of people wanted to believe it, but believing only brought useless atrocities and their own deaths.
Millenarian cults spring up with regularity even among people not enduring the stress of displacement and genocide. The Millerites, for instance, believed in the Second Coming of Christ and set the date a number of times. It built into a mania. People didn’t plant crops, they broke up their furniture, and they gave away their valuables. Alas, what followed was called the Great Disappointment—Christ didn’t arrive. The Seventh Day Adventists, not disappointed enough, grew out of the Millerites. They believe that Christ’s coming is imminent but wisely refrain from picking a date. Jehovah’s Witnesses, another descendant of the Millerites, picked a succession of dates: 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1920, 1925 … World War II was interpreted as Armageddon to the point that people put off dental work and lived with the pain, so strong was their belief that they would soon be taken to heaven. Writes one former member, “To this day, I associate the fragrance of cloves [used for tooth pain] with the imminence of disaster.”54
In the 1970s, the Watchtower, the legal organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, began predicting that 1975 would be the year. One family member of a Jehovah’s Witness observed her brother and his family giving away their belongings and scaring their young children with instructions on where to hide if they heard screaming. When the Second Coming didn’t come, her brother was hospitalized with suicidal depression.55
Leon Festinger, with colleagues Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter, developed the concept of “cognitive dissonance” to explain the behavior of people who continue to believe in millenarian sects even after the predicted catastrophe/utopia doesn’t come to pass. Their book, When Prophecies Fail, is a psychological examination of the cult that sprang up around Marian Ketch, a woman who claimed to be in communication with aliens. Said aliens predicted a world cataclysm and offered survival in exchange for belief. When the prediction didn’t come true, the believers clung more tightly to their belief system, as is common among disappointed believers. Festinger suggested the phrase “cognitive dissonance” to explain this phenomenon. When people try to believe two contradictory things, the resultant discomfort has to be resolved. The more strongly the beliefs are held, the more imperative the resolution becomes. That resolution often comes by actively proselytizing. Explains Festinger,
The dissonance is too important and though they may try to hide it, even from themselves, the believers still know that the prediction was false and all their preparations were in vain. The dissonance cannot be eliminated completely by denying or rationalizing the disconfirmation. But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. Consider the extreme case: if everyone in the whole world believed something there would be no question at all as to the validity of this belief. It is for this reason that we observe the increase in proselytizing following disconfirmation. If the proselytizing proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it.56
This is a common psychological process, and one that we would do well to name and intervene against as it starts to take hold in our communities.
When the Black Plague devastated Europe, no one had ever seen a microbe. They can be forgiven for believing that Doomsday was at hand. We don’t have the same excuse. We know what is causing mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change. Yes, these systems are massive, hegemonic, and well-armed. But unlike Yersinia pestis, they are at least visible to the naked eye. This is probably the reason that the millenarian leanings on the left tend not toward explanation, but resolution. We will be saved, though not by the Second Coming. Cosmic forces, often linked to indigenous myths, will appear. The Age of Aquarius faded, to be revived by the Harmonic Convergence in 1987, when eight planets—and all the self-proclaimed druids—lined up according with the Mayan calendar, presaging some Vague New World of the usual peace, light, and consciousness. Except nothing happened. Up next were the three syllables that we never have to speak again: Y2K. I had friends who were furious with me for not stockpiling food or water. One woman on the fringes of my social network gave away all her belongings and her cat, so sure was she that her demise drew near. Again, nothing happened. But never fear: the end of the Mayan calendar (once again) in 2012 clearly spells the end of the world.
So far, New Age millenarianism hasn’t generally resulted in more personal trauma than a pantry full of MREs—military meals, ready to eat. But on a broader scale, the spiritual approach of the alternative culture is damaging to our movement. Instead of guiding people to face the hard reality of oppression and environmental destruction, and giving them the emotional and spiritual support to wage a resistance struggle, it offers a range of other-worldly events and characters who—deus trans machina?—will save the planet.
An example from life. In the middle of a perfectly reasonable dinner conversation about global warming, one of the other guests earnestly tried to reassure us that “the beings [Beings?] from the Akashic Plane would never let that happen.”
The sudden silence was broken by a man with a long gray beard. “I don’t want to save the whales,” he said. “That’s just karma.” Was he missing a segue or some synapses? Never mind a conscience.
Another man joined in, in that smooth, soft voice that is supposed to signify spiritual attainment. “We were meant to be the consciousness for the earth. This was our childhood stage. If the human race doesn’t grow into clear intention, the Holy Ones will step in.”
The original speaker led the conversation into the inevitable cultural train wreck. “Yes! Haven’t you heard the Native American prophecies?”
Millenarian beliefs can be a destructive force across communities, and they can also detour vulnerable people into a dead end. Thankfully, very few people have ever heard of Akashic Beings. But what if the dinner party participants provided the only context I knew, the only place to bring my biophilic despair? The stories and myths of a culture provide the matrix for the possible, and only extraordinary individuals are able to break out of their surrounding context.
There is a final level of complication. A claim of access to divine guidance is not one that can be proven. Mystical visions are both a compelling and an individual experience. Both of those characteristics render the realm of the mystic potentially dangerous to the mystic and the people in her community. The compelling, suprareal quality of religious visions produces intractable loyalty in the visionary, a loyalty that can lend seductive charisma to anyone. And if the source of the vision is illness rather than a friendly cosmos, the result can be disaster. The individual nature of the visions means that the received guidance can’t be verified, only experienced. But more people having the same vision does not actually confirm its veracity: all it confirms is that the human brain is capable of producing ecstatic states. Religious mania is common among schizophrenics, for instance, but mental illness has never yet proved a sound basis for a political strategy. The mystical vision thus contains a contradiction in that people must apply rationality to an inherently nonrational experience.
Three examples from the same movement point to both the promise and pitfalls of mysticism: John Brown, Nat Turner, and Harriet Tubman. Brown was the leader of the Harpers Ferry Raid. He and his followers attacked the US arsenal at Harpers Ferry in an attempt to arm enslaved people and inspire an uprising. Brown believed that God told him to undertake the raid and that he would be given divine protection. But if God promised him protection, God lied, as the raid ended in disaster. Likewise Nat Turner, the enslaved man who inspired Turner’s Rebellion, was a fiery preacher nicknamed “The Prophet” by his followers. He heard voices, had visions, and claimed to be the second coming of Jesus sent to end slavery. Some historians think he was in fact schizophrenic. Believing that an eclipse of the sun was a sign from God, he led seventy-five others in an insurrection that, like the Harpers Ferry Raid, ended in disaster. Turner was caught and hanged, and 200 other blacks were beaten, tortured, and murdered by white mobs. Laws were passed across the South prohibiting the education of both enslaved and free blacks and instituting other reductions of civil rights.
In counterpoint is the example of Harriet Tubman. Tubman received a severe head injury as a teenager when she tried to protect an escaping enslaved man. The injury gave her lifelong visions, seizures, and hypersomnia. She claimed the dreams and visions were from God. Some historians suggest she had temporal lobe epilepsy. No one can argue with her incredible success. She spent eleven years as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, guiding over 300 people to freedom, including her disabled father whom she hauled through the swamps on a jerry-rigged, hand-built cart. She was never caught and she never lost a single passenger. She also served as a scout and a spy in the Civil War, leading the spectacular Combahee River Raid, which liberated 700 enslaved people. When in need of guidance, she would lie down and fall unconscious for ten minutes, which she called “consulting with God.” Her visions, even when counterintuitive, never led her astray.
There is a role for our spiritual longings and for the strength that a true spiritual practice can bring to social movements. There may even be guidance from other realms, but tread carefully: no one has yet developed a simple checklist to distinguish mysticism, desperation, and mental illness. And we need to learn from history. Despite all the suffering of genocide and depression over centuries, no spirit warriors have ever appeared to save the day. That’s N-E-V-E-R. No special garments have stopped bullets except Kevlar, a gift from the Pentagon. I think we can all agree that they’re not the Holy Ones. No amount of prayer can stop the harrow of oppression, and no special diet can produce special powers. The only miracle we’re going to get is us.