Amid the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, apocalyptic thinking has become the new normal in societies around the globe. But for a large and influential group of evangelical Christians in the United States, the idea we might have reached the end times is not a source of anxiety. Rather, it is something to be welcomed and hastened, according to Praying for Armageddon, a Norwegian documentary by Tonje Hessen Schei and Michael Rowley that had its world premiere at CPH:DOX this week.
We follow Lee Fang, a reporter for the news organisation The Intercept, known for its adversarial journalism, on the road as he looks into how American policy is heavily influenced by the Christian evangelical right, which is pursuing Zionism as a way to create the conditions — namely, a Jerusalem under total Israeli control — they believe are needed for Jesus to come back to Earth. The cataclysmic doomsday war they envisage will see Christ return on a white horse as a judge rather than a saviour this time around, carrying an AR-15 assault rifle as he heads up warriors of armed militia and rivers of blood flow. We hear this from the mouths of pastors and proselytisers, such as biker-jacketed Gary Burd of the Texas-based Mission M25 ministry, as they instil a gory, militaristic vision of the Second Coming in their fervent, gun-loving followers.
Non-believers in the audience of Praying for Armageddon are in for a deep sense of alarm. The documentary team does not have to search far to find the radical and unhinged and packages its factual overview in the foreboding tone of a thriller. What’s more, this is no fringe phenomenon: Christians United for Israel, a leading force of Christian Zionism founded by John Hagee, has ten million members, eager ears in the White House from Republicans that are heavily dependent on the evangelical vote, and a strong hand in determining geopolitical moves abroad (President Trump’s 2019 shifting of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which it recognised as Israel’s capital, is here set in the context of this lobbying.)
We are taken inside evangelical sermons on American soil to discover what is being disseminated as fact by religious leaders who believe every word of the Bible to be literally true and display a preference for the more warlike passages that speak of an inevitable holy war. Some are excited to talk; others display distrust and contempt for sceptical media and have Fang roughly escorted out of the premises before preaching to the already converted begins.
The heightened tensions and conflict in the Middle East are all part of an Armageddon goal
We also witness the tension over territory in the West Bank, where policies enacted by Israeli occupation authorities have been systematically displacing Palestinians with the aid of US funding from settler organisations that operate as charities and are tax-exempt. Fayrouz Sharqawi of Grassroots Al-Quds, a Palestinian resistance organisation for community mobilisation, sets out a Palestinian perspective on the way settlers have become more emboldened by Christian Zionist rhetoric. Footage shows a group of Jewish settlers trying to aggressively force an elderly Arab woman from her home, which she is informed she no longer owns. Other well-known news archival footage shows the violence in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 2021, as Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades into the compound amid rockets fired from Gaza by the militant group Hamas. The heightened tensions and conflict in the Middle East are all part of an Armageddon goal, according to the documentary, in which it’s argued that US foreign policy is as theocratic as that of Iran or Saudi Arabia. It suggests that prevalent Christian Crusader iconography only bolsters recruitment to Islamic fundamentalist groups and motivates them to follow through on their own Jihad philosophies. Evangelist believers declare confidence that if a holy war is to kick off, they will be raptured up to Heaven before they can come to harm in any righteous bloodshed they look forward to.
A historical basis for the growth in geopolitical power of these ideas is set out, namely, the War on Terror declared by President George W. Bush, as he mobilised evangelical voters after the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001. No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, it would be difficult to argue after watching Praying for Armageddon that the influence the United States continues to wield in the Middle East is anything but non-secular. And hard to deny that support for many of its policies is drummed up and justified through a moral and biblical lens that sees only simplified camps of good versus evil — with very little interest in decreasing division or negotiating real peace.