Book review: Apocalyptic Theopolitics

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Elizabeth Phillips, Apocalyptic Theopolitics (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022)

reviewed by Wing Yin Li, PhD student in Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary

Apocalyptic Theopolitics is a selective collection of academic essays and sermons by Elizabeth Phillips, the public engagement fellow for the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. This book comprises 14 chapters organised into four major parts. Each part encompasses the author’s scholarly analysis of specific subject matters, alongside corresponding sermon(s) delivered on various occasions. Within this slim volume lies a dense yet profound exploration of the intersection between eschatology, Christian ethics and political theology.

In part I, Phillips offers a compact survey of the notions of eschatology and the apocalyptic in Scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, early liberation theologies, millennialism and postmillennialism. While acknowledging the value of the historical turn in Reinhold Niebuhr’s eschatology, Phillips argues that the shift away from the apocalyptic is a misguided one. Despite the dangerous employment of apocalyptic rhetoric and ideology in some sociopolitical movements, Christian Zionism for example, such usage bears “no direct relationship to the overarching contents and functions of apocalyptic texts, nor necessitate[s] any connection whatsoever with them” (p. 19). Therefore, to reject the apocalyptic as dangerous because of some erroneous use of the apocalyptic is a syllogistic fallacy. One of the central objectives of this book is to reclaim the value of the apocalyptic, drawn from the apocalyptic texts, as a normative resource for political theology. In this section, the author also critiques the existing conceptual, disciplinary and methodological separation between theology and the political and between theological ethics and social ethics. Engaging with the political theology of M. Shawn Copeland, Phillips contends that the theological engagement of discourses outside the ethical (problem-solving) frame can help broaden our political considerations, which are deeply ethical in the sense that they have a direct influence on our concrete political praxis.

In part II, the author presents her ethnographic study of Christian Zionism, which she conducted in an American congregation in 2007. According to her observation, eschatology plays a key role in shaping the theopolitical imagination of this congregation, where eschatological language is often invoked at worship, prayer meetings and other church events to express a hope of militant victory of Israel as a nation-state. However, contrary to the common assumption that Zionism is offering support to Israel simply for the sake of hastening the second coming of Christ, Phillips discovers that this congregation exhibits a more complex understanding of divine revelation and eschatology. To these Christian Zionists, the militant victory of Israel, as promised by God to Abraham in Gen. 12 and prophesised by Ezekiel to the dry bones (Ezek. 37:3), is a sure reality that will be fulfilled in the near future. This military success, including not only the establishment and expansion of the state of Israel but also the failure and fatality of Israel’s “enemies”, is not a means through which Christ shall return but the ends itself that occurs at the second coming of Christ, a time when the sovereignty of God is revealed to the world. Their political activism in funding Israeli settlement and war in the land of Palestine is, therefore, understood by the community as a participation in carrying out God’s ultimate will for humanity and all creation. As Phillips rightly points out, this literal interpretation of biblical texts as predictions to be fulfilled through nationalist militarism, disregarding “Scripture’s own critiques of militarism, nationalism, violence, and injustice,” is highly problematic (p. 72). Notably, the grave consequences yielded by such dangerous theology is now tragically unravelled in the genocide taking place in Gaza against the Palestinians.

In part III, Phillips compares Christian Zionism and its dispensationalist eschatology with the theology of John Howard Yoder, whose eschatology and view of a political Jesus rest not on the militant triumph but on the very suffering of the Lamb slain by the imperial regime. Concurring with Yoder’s analysis of the deconstructing function of the apocalyptic, Phillips argues that definitive forms of the apocalyptic should manifest in 1) deconstruction – disclosing the possibility of a different reality, 2) proclamation – proclaiming the sovereignty of God against oppressive power and 3) empowerment – enabling the community of faith to speak truth to power. In this section, she discusses the doctrines of “The Two” with a creative approach to put Yoder as an interlocutor with Augustine, examining the boundary between the sacred and secular, public and private, church and world, and church and state. Regardless of the numerous insights present in Yoder’s academic contributions, Phillips makes note of Yoder’s sexual misconducts and discusses the complicated legacy left by Yoder in shaping Anabaptist theopolitics in the twentieth century.

In part IV, Phillips engages with the work of Herbert McCabe, Anathea Portier-Young and Judith Herman to explore the element of hope as a theological virtue in the apocalyptic. She argues that an apocalyptic imagination and praxis that “emphasizes the integration of the political, linguistic, narrative, and bodily essence of our human nature and morality” (p. 149) can not only provide comfort to a people who are undergoing great suffering but also empower them to reclaim their agency and resist the domination and hegemony of the oppressive powers with a counter narrative grounded in God’s providence and sovereignty. The Eucharist, the author proposes, is one of such apocalyptic practices that allow the participants to see “how the depth of catastrophic human oppression is met and overcome by what Herbert McCabe called the ‘revolutionary depth’ of our future in God and how it impinges on our present life” (p. 156). While Phillips asserts that the Eucharist is not a “moral magic… [that can] make us more moral and make social ills disappear” (p.157), it does make one wonder if the apocalyptic hope expressed through this Christian liturgy might resonate with those outside the Christian community who are experiencing suffering.

Apocalyptic Theopolitics is a rich and timely read that provides invaluable and constructive insights into the apocalyptic and its relation to political theology. It is particularly relevant amidst the ongoing genocide carried out by the Israeli–US coalition with a Zionistic tone. While this book warns us of the perilous use of apocalyptic eschatology in Christian Zionism, it advocates for a reimagined apocalyptic that takes roots in the textual–historical analyses of the apocalyptic texts and centres in its function of unveiling the oppressive narratives in the world. Bringing together intellectual depth and pastoral and homiletic wisdom, this volume stands as a visionary resource for scholars, church leaders and Christians wrestling with the apocalyptic literature in the Bible and seeking to embody their faith in response to the contemporary sociopolitical complexities and challenges.

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