by Christine Wenderoth
Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry
The Homeland Security Advisory System is a color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale. The different levels on the scale trigger specific if obscure actions by federal agencies and state and local governments that purportedly affect the level of security at airports and other public facilities. This is referred to as the "terror alert level". The scale consists of five color-coded threat levels, which are intended to reflect the probability of a terrorist attack and its potential gravity. So we have
- red alert : severe risk
- orange alert: high risk
- yellow alert: significant or elevated risk
- blue alert: good ole garden-variety general risk
- green alert: low risk
Since its inception in 2003, there have been no published criteria for the threat levels, and no independent way to tell whether the current threat level is accurate. Threat levels Green (low risk) and Blue (general risk) have never been used, so obviously things have always been pretty risky. The published terror alert notices have urged American citizens, especially those traveling in the transportation systems, to "be vigilant, take notice of your surroundings, and report suspicious items or activities to local authorities immediately." You’ve heard this announcement on CTA buses and trains if you’ve ridden any time in the last six years, along with the ones about disturbing other customers with your listening devices. In addition to vigilance admonishments, DHS advises us to assemble an emergency preparedness kit [suggestions on the DHS website] and a family emergency plan. All of this, of course, is designed to enhance our sense of security. By design, therefore, we should feel secure as all get out.
Yet, a study published in the January 2009 issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that raising the threat condition had negative economic, physical, and psychological effects on people. Our sense of security apparently isn’t enhanced at all. To the contrary, we get more anxious the higher the threat level: vigilance breeds paranoia. Not only that, the study found that mentally ill folks, the disabled, African Americans, Latinos, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, and non-U.S. citizens are likelier to think that the alert level is higher than it actually is, and worry more and change their behavior due to those fears. We’re one freaked out country.
And then along comes Matthew. Just when you thought you were in for a little Good News about the coming of hope and peace and life this Advent, our friend Matthew reminds us—along with the Department of Homeland Security—that we are at risk. “…until the day Noah entered the ark, Noah’s neighbors knew nothing… until the flood came and swept them all away. So too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Red alert? Ha! The U.S. government and DHS are rank amateurs!
In other words, this is one tricky passage for 21st century Americans. How can we make sense of it? How can we find good news in the prediction that “one will be taken and one will be left” when the Son of Man comes? How can we, who live in a constant culture of fear, hear Jesus’ words except through our fear? And, man, we are afraid of everything! SARS, crime rates, West Nile and bird flu, identity theft, immigrants, AIDS, terrorism, Halloween candy! Did you know there is not one documented case of a child receiving tainted Halloween treats from a stranger, not one? (The razor blades in the apples have all come from family!)
We practice fearful parenting, protecting our children from statistically improbable disasters and teaching them to fear and pass fear along. We practice fearful communication. As Michael Moore exposed eight years ago in his Bowling for Columbine, our media spooks us constantly about crime and violence (particularly in urban landscapes) and the pernicious influence of song lyrics despite actual evidence—or lack of evidence—to the contrary. And we practice fearful responses: the ole standbys, fight or flight. “Carry a gun!” we admonish. “Don’t talk to strangers!” “Secure our borders!” “Join the militia!” “Lock your doors!” “Get your flu shot!” “Save!” “Deport!” “Prepare!” “Be vigilant!” The list of defensive and violent behaviors we enlist to fight our fears is long and creative. We even advertize out of our fears. Driving out of Cleveland this past weekend, I saw a billboard. Big picture of a snow blower with the caption: “Snowmageddon coming soon!” O, we must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
It’s easy to see this happening at the societal level, but our culture of fear invades our personal lives as well. Here’s an example. My 86 year-old mother fell and broke her hip in September. She’s been in rehab ever since, doing fine. For years now Mom has not eaten beef because, well it’s obvious, she could get Mad Cow Disease. She’s never known anyone with Mad Cow Disease. She’s never known anyone who knew anyone with Mad Cow Disease. She’s never known anyone who knew someone who knew someone with Mad Cow Disease. But the media told her that Mad Cow Disease was a mere hoof beat away and so she has not eaten beef. Guess what they serve for dinner and lunch at a small-town Midwestern rehab center day after day after day? Yep. Beef. Hamburger, meatloaf, Swiss steak, beef stew, chili, spaghetti and meatballs, pot roast, you name it. And guess what else: Mom is a veritable picture of good health. Yeah I know, Mad Cow Disease takes awhile to percolate through your system, something like 10 years, but honestly: Mom has been duped. She ain’t gonna get Mad Cow Disease.
I don’t mean to make fun of anyone—certainly not my mother! My point is that we are hyper-aware of every potential, imagined and manufactured threat. We are at no loss for things to worry about. We steel ourselves with guns and antibiotics and caffeine and resolve. It would seem that the last thing we need is some Bible passage telling us to “Keep awake”. We haven’t had a good night’s sleep in decades.
But is that what Jesus is saying to us? Is he one more voice from Fox News or MSNBC telling us to batten down the hatches, stock up on provisions, and shoot to kill? There are certainly Christians who have thought that. When I lived in Rochester, NY, I was a few blocks away from the hill where the Millerites waited for the Second Coming, assured that “Jesus Christ was come again to this earth, to cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same” –to Rochester, New York, at the corner of S. Clinton & Field Streets, to be precise, on October 22, 1844 (a day subsequently known among Millerites as the Great Disappointment). But is this our takeaway for today? Emulate the Millerites and pass the coffee ‘cause the Son of Man is returning any minute now?
There are three images, even mini-stories in what Jesus says in our reading for today: (1) a hearkening back to Noah and the Ark, (2) a scene of everyday life and work, and (3) the story of the robbed homeowner. What ties these three scenes together is their normality. People in Noah’s time eat and drink, and marry. There was nothing remarkable in their lives until there was and then it was too late. In the second scene, folks work in the field and work in the mill, stuff they do every day to keep life going—nothing remarkable until it is and then it’s over. And the third example, a man goes to sleep in his own house. Wow! There’s one for the ten o’clock news: “And this just in: A long-time citizen did not stay awake last night to protect his valuables. He went to bed and slept soundly. No one was hurt but apparently several dollars worth of bread, wine and dates were subsequently discovered missing.” No, nothing remarkable going on here in any of these vignettes. So what’s the point: keep on keepin’ on?
There’s another commonality among these scenarios of course. “They knew nothing until the flood swept them all away.” “One will be taken, one will be left.” Zap! No premonitions, just “whoa, where’d she go?!” “If the owner had known…he would have stayed awake.” But obviously he didn’t know, and he got robbed blind. Jesus says plain as day repeatedly, “he didn’t know, you don’t know, shoot even I don’t know. About that day and hour? no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son.” Give it up, friends: there is no Advance Warning System, no color-coded threat advisory scale, no prevailing winds or market indicators. When that day and hour comes for the Son of Man to return, when that day and hour comes, God only knows.
God only knows. That’s pretty scary…or is it? Well, there is something peculiar about the Christian wait that sets it apart from waiting for Godot or waiting for disaster. What is it that we’re waiting for, what is it that is coming “that day and hour”? We’re often confused here. Maybe partly we’re confused by the memory of the flood Jesus references. People died in that flood, and chickadees and kangaroos and elephants too, they all died. Flood carries understandably negative connotations for us: it destroys life! And so Jesus’ words here frighten us. But more to the point, we have the negative connotations of the flood story reinforced by our fears, the contemporary ones that motivate us today. We’re quite sure that what’s coming is bad: terror, disease, bondage, pain, loss, judgment. We’re on alert, but we’re on alert not so we can greet the unexpected with open arms, but so we can resist.
Friends, that is not the biblical vision. The biblical vision includes judgment, yes. But it also has something to do with peace and the well-being of all creation. It has something to do with the suspicion that things are not the way they are supposed to be. It has something to do with the conviction that the God who decisively acted in the past is still working for the salvation of this world and that things are not going to stay the way they are.
Key details of such biblical hope have always been withheld from us. [Like the date!] But we at least can be fairly sure that the changes coming when the Son of Man returns are inherently countercultural, that is, not the product of our culture of fear. And that may give us some clues as to how we are to wait. “Red alerts” are part of our culture of fear. Manufactured and exaggerated threats are part of our culture of fear. Confidence that we can predict the future and read the signs of the times are part of our culture of fear. So maybe in Advent we are called to counter red alerts. Maybe we’re called to a humble agnosticism, an admission we cannot know the unexpected. Maybe we are called to resist “apocalyptic fear” and the laws of self-preservation and greet the unpredictable future the way we greet a newborn baby, with open arms. In fact, it is what we are called to do. We are called to go about our normal business…with open arms, with mindfulness, but not with paranoia.
That reminder in these times is the incredible gift of Advent.