This article was first published in an online journal called ‘State of Nature’. As is the way of online publishing, the journal no longer exists. So here is the article, updated and revised, on narratives of catastrophe:

Reports of catastrophe seem to be all around us. It may be the urgent matter of global warming and environmental collapse, or signs of the decline of the ‘West’, or of refugees flooding the last citadels of liberal democracy, of the Eurasian integration of China and Russia, or indeed the culmination of United States democracy in President Trump. Some catastrophes come and go, while others remain with us.

However, if we look a little closer at the way these stories are told in many parts of the world, they seem to follow some familiar patterns. The imminent catastrophes might be new in some way, but the shapes of the stories are certainly not. I like to call them the narratives of Noah, Jonah and Repentance – especially in cultures influenced in complex ways by the Bible.

The Noah Story

Let me use as an example the most consistent picture of catastrophe: climate change and environmental destruction. Despite the desperate efforts of the climate change deniers, the scientific evidence is overwhelming. We have overused the earth’s resources; in fact, thinking about the earth as a ‘resource’ is part of the problem. Since the industrial revolution, the parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere have risen to dangerous levels through our thirst for fossil fuels. We have been encouraged to consume more and more, or at least those in the rich third of the world have. Needs we never thought we had have suddenly arisen, encouraged by the propaganda (advertising) industry. We use too much water, too many plastics, we fly too much, drive too much, eat too many processed foods. Our demand for ‘energy’, produced by heavy-polluting power stations, grows and grows. And when it gets hotter and hotter we simply turn the air-conditioner up. Our ‘carbon footprint’ is far too high.

The scenario here is as grim as it can get. Large-scale extinctions are already under way, clean water for human beings becomes increasingly scarce, crops begin to fail in areas that have been until now the bread-baskets of the world, low-lying coastal cities (the major commercial centres) go under water as the sea rises, diseases we never have seen become rampant, increases in starvation follow, the Greenland ice-cap melts, the Arctic becomes ice-free in summers, large chunks of the Antarctic ice shelf break away, the Gulf Stream stops and northern Europe freezes up, extreme weather events increase, such as storms, floods, and cyclones, the tropics extend their reach into temperate zones, the deserts grow, and life itself faces its biggest challenge.

But how is this story often told? One form is drawn from the age-old structure of the biblical story of Noah. Told of a coming catastrophe (the Flood) some years in advance, Jonah sets about building a massive boat according to a divine blueprint. His neighbours laugh and mock and his family thinks male menopause has addled his brain. But Noah keeps building. When the catastrophe does arrive in the form of torrential rain and subsequent flooding, Noah manages to ensure a remnant makes it onto the ark, two of some species, seven of others, as well as his own family. Eventually the floods subside and the ark finds a resting place in order to start life again (except for the fish who have done rather well).

More than one account of our impending doom has invoked this story form. The occasional Hollywood catastrophe film (meteorite strike, space invasion, monster storm and what have you) has its own version of the Noah’s ark story. Indeed, there is an environmental organisation called ‘Planet Ark’, focused on the planet as a whole, whole some in the environmental movement have called on this story as a means for ensuring some species survive.

An excellent example of the use of the Noah narrative is the ‘Survivalists’, a loose movement that shares the same basic assumptions. For them the arrival of Peak Oil and the catastrophic effects of global warming will mark the end of society as they know it. They buy land in remote areas that will be least affected by global warming, learn to become entirely self-sufficient, and seek to free themselves from oil dependence. However, this is not a collective act, done for the good of everyone. Instead, it is a retreat from the masses, a move to ensure that they will survive, even if everyone else will not. So they stockpile weapons and ammunition to protect themselves from the starving, dispossessed hordes that will soon be raiding their land looking for food and shelter. In other words, they seek to build their own ‘arks’ for the coming deluge and will fight off anyone who might want to join them uninvited.

The Jonah Story

Another version is what may be called the Jonah story, a title I draw from the biblical book of the same name. In that wonderful fictional novella Jonah is called by God to go and preach doom and destruction on Nineveh (in present-day Iraq). Jonah is less than impressed by the job description and heads in precisely the opposite direction, boarding a ship, incognito. But God is not going to let him get off the hook so easily, so he follows Jonah, brings on a great storm (as gods tend to do) and then forces him to admit to the crew that he is a prophet fleeing a less than attractive commission. They promptly toss him overboard, the storm ceases but a great fish swallows Jonah, swiftly gives him submarine passage to Nineveh and spits him out on the shore nearby. Properly pissed off by now, Jonah decides to let Ninevites have it. He strides about the city, crying out with great relish that the end is nigh, that they have only days left. Then he takes himself to a hill and finds a comfortable spot to watch the fireworks.

So also do the Jonahs among us take grim satisfaction in telling us that the world is coming to end and that there is nothing we can do about it. No-one will change, they say, people will keep on consuming far more than they should, species will keep becoming extinct, and armies will be deployed to turn back those who come hammering on the gates of the wealthy nations. No one will in fact repent, people have brought this catastrophe on themselves, so damnation to the lot of them. Like Jonah, they preach destruction to an evil generation who will not change. Catastrophe is coming, so we had better get ready for it.

Call to Repentance

Apart from the Noah and Jonah narratives, a third approach involves repentance. Indeed, the purpose of the narrative itself is to call for repentance. In regard to the environment, one book after another, or one film or documentary after another, calls on us to repent of our destructive ways. We are to assess and reduce our ‘carbon footprint’, or find eco-friendly ways to live, whether growing our own vegetables, showering less, buying carbon offsets, or indeed walking, cycling and taking public transport. Or in the case of fossil fuels, repentance requires giving up our addiction to coal and oil and finding some other energy source, whether bio-fuels, or power from sun, wind, tides and hot rocks beneath the earth’s crust. All that stands between us and redemption is a great push for innovation. If we act now and change our ways, we can still save the planet from its doom.

By now it will be clear that this narrative of imminent doom and the call for repentance is by no means new. Warn your audience of the dire consequences of their acts and call on them to change before it is too late. It was and is the favoured mode of fire and brimstone preachers, warning of torments of eternal punishments in hell should we not repent and amend our ways. I wonder whether this is the most effective way to tell the story.

Another Narrative?

What are we to make of these stories? Some will point out that they are mere fictions, scary doomsday scenarios that we should really ignore, for they are no different from many similar prophecies of the end throughout human history. The problem with dismissing these stories is that doing so denies the wall of scientific analysis which shows that climate change is a reality.

Here I want to stress that both the way we choose to tell the story and the reason we do so are as important as the story itself. I must admit that I have indulged in the Jonah narrative from time to time, telling myself it is the most realistic of the lot. People will not change, capitalism will keep ploughing on in its destructive path and so a grim forecast is the best approach. Assume the worst and then anything looks like an improvement. The Noah narrative is as grim although more individualistic and selfish. Once again, it claims to be realistic for much the same reasons as the Noah narrative but then says, ‘stuff the rest, I’m going to save myself’. As for the Repentance narrative, we need to ask, repentance for what? Is it to keep our current system staggering along with a few bandages and splints? Then I am not interested. Or is it a wake-up call to change an economic system that has led us to this point? Then I am more interested.

At least two features are necessary for such an alternative. The first is that the socio-economic conditions of all human beings – not just a privileged few – should be improved to a moderate level. If this entails that those accustomed to much need to do with less, so be it. When people no longer have to worry about adequate food, shelter and clothing, then the environment benefits.

The second is that it requires a strong state with consistent policies to bring about such change. Advocating changes in individual behaviour never works. A consideration of the history of religions is instructive in this point. Why is it that Eastern Orthodoxy dominates today in Eastern Europe and Russia, while Roman Catholicism is characteristic of the south-western Europe and Protestantism in north-western Europe, if not in areas they colonised? In the past, rulers decided and enforced their decisions. Why did Buddhism become a Chinese, Japanese and Korean religion, as well as an Indian one? Again, because rulers enforced and fostered it, so that Buddhism took on local features. So also with socio-economic systems and their cultures. Human beings will act within frameworks provided. And if the framework changes, so will human ways of being in the world.

Does this sound like a prescription for dictatorship? If we think of individual dictators, of course not. But if it is a collective dictatorship, a democratic dictatorship exercised by the vast majority, then yes.


As we work our way through material for Time of Troubles, we are struck by many things, such as the rampant economics imperialism of the last couple of decades, or the assumption that the ‘economy’ refers only to commercial activity and that agriculture is for some strange reason not an economic activity. But the other day, I was struck by another question: why did female slaves not tend to work the fields in ancient Greece and Rome? It may have something to do with the following assumptions, shared by all classes in these ancient societies. For example, as Ste. Croix points out, it was believed that if a menstruating woman touched a rue shrub it would wither. If she even glanced at young cucumber shoots, they would immediately die. On the other hand, such special properties may have been put to good use, for it was also believed that a menstruating woman could kill caterpillars by walling around the endangered plant three times with loose hair. Then again, the risk of collateral damage may have been too great.


I am increasingly drawn to the Taiping Revolution of 1850-1864, especially in light of Samir Amin’s observation: it was the ‘ancestor of the “anti-feudal, anti-imperialist popular revolution” as formulated later by Mao’. However, what no student of the revolution has yet examined is that the Taiping Revolution marks the moment when the revolutionary Christian tradition arrives in China. I will be speaking about this to some extent – as a way to deal with the question of Marxism and religion – in the Deutscher Lecture later this week. In the meantime, I have been tracking down some images, especially after visiting the Taiping museum in Nanjing last month.

This is Hong Xiuquan, the man with the vision and biblical interpretation:

IMG_7733 (2) (475x640)

Central to Taiping practices was the weekly church service (alongside daily prayers and recitals from the Bible):

IMG_7747 (2) (640x408)

They gave great attention to ensuring the Bible was reprinted and interpreted:


Taiping Bible 02

Interpretation of the Bible led them to a revolutionary position and to practice forms of Christian communism. Their revolutionary armies (with both women and men) numbered up to a million and the innovative tactics saw them control the cradle of Chinese civilisation in the Yangze (Chang Jiang) basin:

Taiping battle 02

Taiping battle 03

Taiping - storming a fortress

This one is a battle flag held on behalf of a general:

IMG_7751 (2) (640x480)

Their aim: to overthrow the whole Chinese imperial system and inaugurate the ‘heavenly kingdom’ (tainguo). This was part of the widespread appeal among peasants and miners. They abolished the Confucian examination system, replacing it with one based on the Bible and open to women and men. The women had their feet unbound and young women were not permitted to bind their feet. The men grew their hair long, without the queue and the shaved front insisted by the Qing rulers.

Taiping vs queue

Among many things, I am intrigued by the character used for ‘heaven’, tian. Usually in Chinese, it is written so:

The second stoke is longer than the upper stroke. However, the Taiping wrote the character in a different way:

IMG_7740 (2) (480x640)

In this case, the upper stroke is the longest. The reason is not quite clear, but it may have something to do with the respect shown for heaven, and indeed that it was a different heaven from Chinese mythology.

IMG_7752 (2) (640x640)

The Taiping were on the verge of crushing the Qing dynasty, shaking it to the foundations. Were it not for foreign intervention (the British Empire had lost much of North America and they certainly weren’t going to let the Chinese market opium slip away), the Taiping may well have done so. Meanwhile, in the space of 14 years they achieved an immense amount: rebuilding Nanjing, land reform, new forms of social organisation, the publication of an extraordinary collection of texts. And they had some seriously weighty coins:

IMG_7754 (2) (640x480)

In many respects, the Taiping Revolution was the forerunner of the Republican Revolution of 1911. Sun Yatsen was known by the nickname of ‘Hong Xiuquan’ and some of the revolutionary wore their hair in the same way as the Taiping. And when Mao writes of revolutions in which the masses rose up against the international (imperialist) and national ruling class, he speaks of three: the taping Revolution, the Republican Revolution and the communist revolution.

Cross posted from Bible and Class Struggle:

This academic colloquium on Radicalism, Violence and Religious Texts will take place at the University of Auckland from 10-11th September 2015.

José Clemente Orozco – Christ Destroying His Cross

What is the relationship between religion, violence, and the interpretation of texts? On the one hand, sacred texts are populated by depictions of divinely-sanctioned violence. On the other hand, both insiders and outsiders repeatedly emphasize the non-violent aspects of various religious traditions. This seminar will facilitate critical discussion on the associations and contradictions between radicalism, violence, and religious texts in an age of terror, abuse, and capitalist exploitation. Papers will utilize the most revolutionary-oriented methods currently available in biblical and religious studies, including critical theory, Marxist exegesis, radical indigenous, postcolonial, and genderqueer hermeneutics, and other ideological and political readings.

Confirmed speakers:

There are slots available for additional papers from both established scholars and PhD students. To be considered, please send a title and brief abstract (150 words) to Robert Myles at by the deadline: 24 July.

When: 10-11 September 2015
Where: University of Auckland
Official twitter hashtag: #RVRT2015
Deadline for abstracts: 24 July 2015

The 1936 Constitution of the USSR contains two biblical verses:

He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.

The first is clear enough, being drawn from 2 Thessalonians 3:10. But the second is a little more obscure, although it comes originally from Acts 4:35. Clearly, the appearance of such texts in the Constitution is not by chance. So how did they end up there?

A hint may be found in the slight obscurity of the origins of the second text, for it is not exactly the same as that of Acts 4:35. That hint suggests a unique exegetical path that winds its way from the Bible, through Lenin and the slogans of the early Bolshevik government in the USSR, to none other than Joseph Stalin. Let me trace that path.

I begin with the text from 2 Thessalonians: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’. Among the Bolsheviks, Lenin was the first to use it. It was 1918, during the famine brought about by the shortage of grain through the disruption to rail transport by the First World War and the White Armies of the Civil War. With the grain shortage came massive speculation by the profiteers – kulaks in the countryside and business owners in the cities. In that context, Lenin addressed a group of workers in Petrograd:

‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’. ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’ – every toiler understands that. Every worker, every poor and even middle peasant, everybody who has suffered need in his lifetime, everybody who has ever lived by his own labour, is in agreement with this. Nine-tenths of the population of Russia are in agreement with this truth. In this simple, elementary and perfectly obvious truth lies the basis of socialism, the indefeasible source of its strength, the indestructible pledge of its final victory (Collected Works, volume 27, pp. 391-2).

As the Civil War raged on and shortages continued, the text from 2 Thessalonians became a major feature of Agitprop. It featured on posters plastered throughout town and country. And it led to the Metropolitan of Moscow, Aleksandr Vvedensky, to observe:

When you say you are for the principle of work, I remind you of the slogan, ‘he who does not work shall not eat.’ I have seen this in a number of different cities on revolutionary posters. I am just upset that there was no reference to the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Thessalonians, from where the slogan is taken (Vvedensky in Lunacharsky, Religia i prosveshchenie, 1985, p. 193).

So it should be no surprise that Stalin should make much use of this text – with Lenin’s blessing – and that it should appear in the Soviet Constitution of 1936.

What about the second text from the Constitution: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’.

I suggest that it is a reinterpretation of Acts 4:35 in light of 2 Thessalonians 3:10. This reinterpretation was undertaken by the erstwhile theological scholar and avid student of the Bible, Joseph Stalin. Let us begin with Acts itself:

They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

The context is the brief account of early Christian communism, in which everything was held in common and no-one had private possessions (see also Acts 2). Everyone would put whatever wealth they had into the common property and then it was distributed according to need. I do not wish to go into the long history of the various interpretations of this passage, save to point out that Acts 4:35 eventually became a socialist slogan, ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’. The influence of Engels’s argument for revolutionary Christianity had an influence here, as did Marx’s use of the slogan.

Yet, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 does not use this version of the slogan. Instead, it has ‘to each according to his work’. The exegetical work of Stalin is responsible. In texts leading up to the constitution (a revision of the one from 1924), Stalin interprets the text in light of what was by then a well-established distinction between socialism and communism. Socialism became the first stage of communism, which would eventually – albeit without a specified time frame – become fully fledged communism. Indeed, after the frenetic and profoundly disrupting drives for industrialisation, collectivisation and socialisation of economic and social life in the late 1920s and 1930s, the government announced that socialism had been achieved in the Soviet Union. But communism was still to come.

So Stalin distinguished between two slogans, one appropriate for socialism and the other for communism. Under socialism, the appropriate slogan was ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work’. Under communism, it would be ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. The first slogan was clearly a combination of the texts from 2 Thessalonians and Acts 4. Not only does one need to work in order to live (targeted at capitalists and the idle rich), but one also works according to ability and is recompensed in light of the work done.

But what does this mean in practice? It means people will be paid according to the labour they have provided. It means different pay scales (within reason) in terms of skills, type of labour, and contribution to the overall good of the socialist project. It also means that one should take responsibility for one’s labour and stay in the same job for a while. This is far from the idea of ‘equalitarianism’, under which ‘everybody would get the same pay, an equal quantity of meat and an equal quantity of bread, would wear the same clothes and receive the same goods in the same quantities—such a socialism is unknown to Marxism’ (Stalin, Works, volume 13, p. 120).

Is communism different? In one respect it is, for this is the time when ‘labour has been transformed from a means of subsistence into the prime want of man, into voluntary labour for society’ (p. 121). Yet, communism is like socialism in that it does not fall into the trap of individualist equalitarianism in relation to labour. One provides labour according to ability and is given what one needs. Obviously, the abilities differ, as do the needs – depending on one stage in life, whether one has children or not, whether one is sick or healthy.

Until then, the socialist version of the two biblical texts remained in force:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.

In response to all the well-wishing on his fiftieth birthday, Stalin wrote:

Your congratulations and greetings I place to the credit of the great Party of the working class which bore me and reared me in its own image and likeness. And just because I place them to the credit of our glorious Leninist Party, I make bold to tender you my Bolshevik thanks. (Works, vol. 12, p. 146)

Not only did Stalin study Holy Scripture for almost 6 years at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, but he also made annotations on the Bible in his library, priding himself on memorising long sections. And it shows, as in this lyrical appeal at fourteenth congress of 1925:

But even if we do not receive outside assistance we shall not become despondent, we shall not cry out for help, we shall not abandon our work (applause) and we shall not be daunted by difficulties. Whoever is weary, whoever is scared by difficulties, whoever is losing his head, let him make way for those who have retained their courage and staunchness. (Applause.) We are not the kind of people to be scared by difficulties. We are Bolsheviks, we have been steeled by Lenin, and we do not run away from difficulties, but face them and overcome them. (Voices: “Quite right!” Applause.) (Works, volume 7, pp. 358-59)

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