The Current Ukrainian Crisis in Theoretical and Historical Perspective

by

Howard Adelman

I am torn between wanting to write about the psychological premises of Saving Mr. Banks, the hagiographical paeon to Walt Disney’s universal lesson of hope based on fulfilling childhood fantasy versus the deep fears that pervaded Pam Travers, the author of Mary Poppins in the context of Walt getting Pam Travers to allow him to make his movie of Mary Poppins. But since I myself am increasingly gripped more by fear these days than hope, I have set that task aside.

I am afraid as I have never been since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. I finished Margaret MacMillan’s book a month ago, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, and am currently reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. In the current crisis with Putin over the Ukraine, will the world stumble into war in a topsy turvy fashion, unintended but somehow with alternative avenues seemingly each closed off in turn and set off by a catalyst on the eastern border of Ukraine or perhaps in Moldova or even Syria? Everywhere I look for, and perhaps magnify, signs of hope, signs that the exit route that keeps being signalled to Putin will be taken, but instead the signs of escalation keep mounting higher and higher, and we are only at the very initial phases.

Further, the latest character of that escalation – in the banning of certain individual Canadians from entry into Russia – is a giant search light signal. For while Canada banned oligarchs and politicians associated with the annexation of Crimea, Russia responded by banning Canadians from entry to Russia based on either their record as defenders of modern individual rights and/or for their expertise on Russia and the defence of civil rights in the Russian Federation. The real war is a war of values – the worst kind of war – one between a substantive sense of justice based on equity, fairness and the rule of law that provides the basis for true unity that allows for and encourages difference, versus prejudice and superstition and the desire to impose an inflexible and dogmatic orthodoxy of belief and practice imposed by an arrogant leadership who project fears onto outsiders as distractions from substantive failures and disagreements within.

And if I am frightened, what about the Ukrainian citizens who now stand on the frontier? We are once again at a schism in history. How our leaders and statesmen handle this chasm will determine the future. And it is a historicial divide, not because Crimea was seized by or voted to reunite with Russia, but because the process so thoroughly challenged an international order built on the rule of law, an order that has been challenged before by stupid and illegal actions, but never in such a brazen way and for imperial purposes built on the basis of misrepresentation and falsehhoods.

What follows is a short extract from an essay I published on eschatology that offers a theoretical framework for my fears and basis for hope. I will follow up tomorrow with a historical-theoretical essay on the nature of the modern world order and the fundamental challenge that Putin is posing. I will then send out a blog on the application of this eschatological and historical framework to the contemporary situation. I will, sooner or later, publish my review essay on Margaret MacMillan, but I so need the relief of fiction and movies and plays to allow me to see the looming potential disaster with greater clarity.

I do not mean to be frightening but only wish to share the source of my own fears. So I will be sending out updated extracts, mostly theoretical, to offer the fundamental sources for the modern political order that is once again being fundamentally challenged.

I begin with the premises about eschatology and radical change.

On Eschatology: Jews and Visions of a World Order

I begin with a huge conceit. When you are truly in love, when you embrace this world with all its follies and foibles and do not dream of replacing it with an ideal order, but instead work to construct a system to avoid evil rather than achieve the good, to avoid an apocalypse rather serve a philosophical idealistic dream of a messianic promise, when meaning is found in bringing the past into the present to construct a future that will patch up fissures and fault lines rather than searching for that meaning in an eternal truth intended to prove the finitude of temporality, then the whole world is Jewish. The modern dream of building a Tower of Babel with a vision of a globalized culture and a universal normative language is deconstructed. World Order is a chimera.

I begin with eschatology and its three different meanings: an ultimate end of days and absolute destruction of this world and human history; a radical transformation within history out of which a new world order will emerge; and, third, a point of transformation in history in which the Hebraic image of a peaceful compact of nations once again emerges from the nightmare of a global and universal order combined with the image of an eschatological absolute destruction. In other words, the third vision of eschatology, the re-emergence of an already revealed truth of the finitude and diversity of humankind is always at war with the marriage of a divine and uniform utopian vision of the good married to a nightmare of absolute collapse.

Tomorrow I will describe the nation-state system as the reemergence of an older inherited vision that eschewed dreams of a universal order in favour of a system of diverse self-governing nations. The day after tomorrow, I will apply to the contemorary situation the modest and more personal vision of eschatology as another stage in the struggle between the vision of nations trying to create order while recognizing diversity, and the eschatological dreamers of a new world order who, through their utopian visions, threaten to bring about the very nightmare they fear, the destruction of the world as we know it.

On Eschatology

There are three radically different views of eschatology. Two are opposing visions, absolute opposites. In one, the world comes to an end and it is replaced by paradise. In the second, the world we know experiences absolute destruction. In the paradoxical Christian vision, the two opposite eschatological visions are combined. It is a vision of paradise following absolute destruction. In a very different third view, eschatology is the study of a profound rupture between different moments in history in which there is a dramatic change from one historical period to its successor brought about externally by either a very catastrophic event – destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD – or a trying but ultimately transformative experience – the alleged freeing of the Jewish slaves in Egypt from the tyrannical pharaoh, the 1688 revolution in Britain, the Civil War in the USA that freed Black slaves, and the Holocaust. On a personal level, these catastrophic ruptures are but macroscopic extensions of experiences of personal ruptures in one’s personal life, such as when an individual experiences a dramatic rupture when a beloved closest to one’s soul dies. Cataclysmic ruptures are experienced both personally and politically. When either is made absolute, the result is madness in history,

Eschatology in all three meanings refers to the end of days (in Hebrew, aharit ha-yamim) and the science of what happens after one dies and, in the ultimate end of days, the election of God to rule over all humanity when Israel can live peacefully in its own land in prosperity, and the bones of dead humans would once again have flesh as the dead are resurrected from that vale of skeletons (Ezekial 37:1-14) generally associated with the Valley of Kidron, or at the end of time itself and mankind’s life on this planet (kez ha-yamim). But if the governing macro-eschatology is a concern with the end of time, then the primary concern after someone dies is the destiny that awaits each individual after he or she dies – hence heaven (paradise) or hell. Eschatology also refers to ruptures in time and human history as a whole in which aharit ha-yamim simply means the end of these days and the coming of a very different future.

If the primary concern is with rupture and succession within time, the key issue is the significance of an individual life on future history. First and foremost, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, individuals become immortal by engraving their values on their children in the transmission of memory across generations. On a larger scale, if the governing macro-eschatology is a concern with ruptures in time, then the primary concern after an individual dies is what contribution that individual has made to tikkun olam, literally mending the world, trying to leave the world as a slightly better place than it would have been had the individual not lived and not on how the individual will be judged in terms of some absolute abstract norm of goodness and serving justice.

In Christendom, eschatology has been focused not only on the most dramatic ruptures in life – death and the evaluation of the worth of that life – but on heaven and hell as successor realms to that life beyond temporality. For most contemporary Jews, the characterization of the end of days and its possible succession, including the resurrection of bodily existence for all who died, is left to the end of days. In Plato’s writings that had such an influence on Christianity through Saul of Tarsus, and eventually Islam, the soul faces judgment after death depending on the contribution of that individual to serving the Good. But Plato had a cyclical view of history as a whole. Thus, there was no end of time, only resurrection in time. In the myth of Er told at the end of the Republic, those who experienced trials and tribulations are very cautious in choosing their lot for their next round of life, while those who were children of privilege are ignorant of caution and rashly choose their lots for their next life on earth. The synthesis of judgment of each individual by a divine being after each dies combined with the Jewish vision of the end of days, produced a novel theology of the resurrected Jesus through whose death and sacrifice individuals could be redeemed. In contrast, Judaism emphasizes ruptures within time, and evaluation of each life by the community in terms of that person’s contribution to bringing about needed repairs or avoiding catastrophic threats. In rabbinic Judaism as it developed in the common era, the focus is on history and not eternity.

How did this happen when the end of days is such a repeated theme in the Torah? Isaiah prophesized that a messiah would grow up as a “root out of dry ground” (title of my play produced at Hart House in 1961) who will make judgments based, not on existing historical laws and empirical facts, but to provide for the meek of the earth through righteousness that smites the earth with the rod of his mouth and slays the wicked, so that then, “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb and the leopard with the kid.” (Isaiah 11.6) This prophetic vision combined with Deutero-Isaiah’s transcendent eschatological vision (41-45) was to be brought about by a new prince of humans who personifies the spirit of Israel. Through his suffering, he atones for human sins, and, further, brings peace and salvation to the world. It is a vision divorced from the particularity of the Hebrews and their historical condition and universalized with great power in the Christianity of Paul based on the belief that Jesus was that prophesized messiah rather than a prophetic teacher. Paul believed in the immanent coming of God’s earthly kingdom. He preached not only to Jews, the “lost sheep of the House of Israel,” but to the gentile nations as well.

Father Bruce Chilton in his book, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography, called Paul “the most successful religious teacher history has ever seen.” In his letter to the Colossae, Paul told the pagans that they did not have to abide by the laws of the Torah for converts were “set free from the sins of the flesh” and were born again into a new life. Acceptance of Jesus provided as radical a rupture as death, for it meant being reborn into Christ. The preacher of death in life and everlasting life in death taught that all humans share a common humanity through the suffering of Christ. Pagans were allowed to come inside God’s circle of love and purpose (Ephesians 2.12) (on the false premise that they had once been excluded by the Hebraic religion). Most importantly, by his suffering, Jesus removed what Paul labeled the “hostility” of the law to create a new human who could live in peace above and beyond rules, commandments and laws. In Acts, according to Paul, Peter prophesied “signs on the earth” – blood and fire, vapor and smoke, the sun turned to darkness and the moon bathed in blood, consistent with a huge nuclear war or a super volcanic eruption. (cf. Amos 5:18; 8:10; Zephaniah 1:2-24) Paul preached that the nation of Israel crucified Jesus and rejected him as both Lord and Christ. Christianity and a new eschatology had been created on the backs of an abused Israel, and the very source of that abuse was a Jewish dissident. Hence, the historic rupture between Christianity and Judaism, as well as a history of Christian persecution of Jews!

Do we mean by eschatology the end of a world as we knew it and the end of the rule of law, or the end of the world altogether, in massive devastation and/or collective redemption in a new world order? Does this vision in the face of an expectation of total disaster entitle anyone to live outside the rule of law? Or is eschatology simply the end of my world, the end of the world to which I have become accustomed?

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