The Hezekiah Option

My Esteemed Partner and I both grew up in the Midwest and have lived here our entire lives. As we were enjoying our morning coffee amid the din of harsh winds and sirens, I turned to her to confirm an intuition: “Tornadoes are supposed to happen in the summer, right? Not in the opposite of summer, which it is right now?” She agreed with me, and yet here we are, waking up to find that tornadoes have ripped through multiple Midwestern states, killing dozens — in December.

Growing up in eastern Michigan, we had frequent tornado “watches” each summer (a note that tornadoes might form or enter the area), but a full tornado “warning” (there’s definitely one around) was more rare. I remember one tornado warning especially vividly. The sudden shift in the air, the strange light and atmosphere — I almost wanted to stay outside and watch. In fact, I was initially home alone and I think I was kind of planning to, until my mom got home and told me to go inside. I knew intellectually that I should be scared of tornadoes, but there was a terrible beauty to it in the event.

We were lucky that no tornado ever touched down in my town or even particularly close by, so it never felt real. Sheltering in the basement meant that we were stuck in the part of the house where we already spent the most time anyway. It wasn’t a proper finished basement, more of a makeshift affair with rugs over the bare tile floor. But the ad hoc furnishings made it feel somehow more comfortable and welcoming. It was our “kids room,” complete with Nintendo, cable TV, and the requisite worn-out couch with a loud print. What better way to wait out an emergency?

Since then, I have lived through more serious emergencies in relative comfort. Most notable, of course, has been the pandemic, which we were able to ride out in our cozy apartment with our cozy routine — greatly aided, of course, by Nintendo, cable TV, and old IKEA couches that are more tasteful but still worn out. I joke, too, that I have been so eager to settle in Chicago because it is one of the best places on earth to ride out climate change, with access to abundant fresh water and the promise of “better” weather. And now that we have been able to buy an apartment — in part facilitated by government stimulus and the enforced savings of the all-too-cozy pandemic lifestyle — our relatively stable perch in a relatively stable environment seems much more assured.

The world is ending, and I’ll be fine. That’s what all my striving and anxiety and hard work and stres-related psychosomatic health symptoms of my personal class-aspirational narrative have added up to — I clawed my way into the middle class just in time to get on the right side of asset inflation. The world is collapsing around me and I have a nice apartment in a high-rise in downtown Chicago, the one place in my native Midwest where I have the moral luck of not needing to own a car. Hence I am among the climate righteous, just as I lucked into being among the pandemic righteous because my employer arranged for us all to be vaccinated at the earliest possible opportunity.

I never could have envisioned any of this for myself as a child, even as the remotest possibility. I am in a loving relationship, I have a job that lets me engage with classics and big ideas, and my home is packed to the gills with books. It’s more than I ever could have known how to ask for. Also, the world is ending.

And now for the explanation of my title. In the biblical book of 2 Kings, we learn of King Hezekiah, one of the few righteous rulers of the Kingdom of Judah. It was not a great time to be ruler of a tiny Ancient Near Eastern country, as imperial powers were sweeping repeatedly through the region in waves of brutal conquest. In fact, Hezekiah witnessed the destruction of the neighboring Kingdom of Israel — home of the famous “ten lost tribes” — at the hands of the Assyrians.

Being spared a similar fate was perhaps enough of a sign of divine favor, but Hezekiah enjoyed further confirmation of his chosen status when he was miraculously cured of a fatal disease. Hence, when representatives of the next big imperial power showed up, he may have been feeling cocky — at least that’s the only way I can account for his seemingly glib behavior:

At that time King Merodach-baladan son of Baladan of Babylon sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he had heard that Hezekiah had been sick. Hezekiah welcomed them; he showed them all his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armoury, all that was found in his storehouses; there was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah, and said to him, ‘What did these men say? From where did they come to you?’ Hezekiah answered, ‘They have come from a far country, from Babylon.’ He said, ‘What have they seen in your house?’ Hezekiah answered, ‘They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.’

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’ Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?’ (2 Kings 20:12-19, NRSV)

There was indeed peace in his day. And after his death, he was succeeded by his son Manasseh, a ruler that the biblical author presents as so wicked that he irrevocably doomed the Kingdom of Judah to destruction.

Some readers will be familiar with a book by the arch-traditionalist, fascist-curious Christian commentator Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option. I have not read the book and do not plan to, but I get the sense that it is calling for arch-traditionalist, fascist-curious Christians like Dreher to withdraw from decadent Western societies, much like St. Benedict and his fellow monks withdrew from the ruined Western empire of the early medieval period. I’m not sure what that would mean or look like, and it certainly doesn’t seem like Dreher (last seen penning a blog post denouncing a TV commercial that portrays Santa Claus as gay) is following his own advice. Instead, it seems like he — like me, like most of us — is living out the “Hezekiah option,” counting on “peace in our day,” boasting of the very wealth that has already doomed us, even amid signs that the world as we know it is coming to an end.