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When redemption fails

Americans are in thrall to fulfillment, and prophecy is king.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares to board a helicopter after announcing his resignation Aug. 10, 2021, in New York. Cuomo says he will resign over a barrage of sexual harassment allegations. The three-term Democratic governor's decision, which will take effect in two weeks, was announced Tuesday as momentum built in the Legislature to remove him by impeachment. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

(RNS) — When I was a boy, my grandmother (along with millions of other Americans) took the S&H Green Stamps she got for buying things in her supermarket, pasted them into the S&H booklets, and after filling up a bunch, used them to acquire additional merchandise from a small warehouse called a redemption center. 

Today, when I order something from Amazon, where does it come from? A huge warehouse called a fulfillment center.

In short, over the past half century we’ve gone from redemption to fulfillment. Seems like a spiritual step down, a metaphor for the decline of American civilization. O tempora! O mores!

But wait. The verbal metaphysics are not so simple. 

Redemption comes from the Latin verb “redimere” — to buy back. It was only in the early 1400s that it acquired the additional meaning of deliverance from sin and spiritual death.

As for fulfillment — from the Anglo-Saxon “fullfyllan,” meaning to fill up (say, a room or a ship) — already in the mid-1200s it was being used to indicate whether a prophecy had come to pass. I note for the record that one of the essays in “The Fundamentals,” the pamphlet series that gave the world “fundamentalism” a century ago, is titled “Prophecy Fulfilled: A Potent Argument for the Bible.”


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In other words, both redemption and fulfillment, rooted in economics, retain a powerful religious meaning. So what does it mean that American society is now looking more for the latter than the former?

Take New York’s soon to be ex-governor Andrew Cuomo (please). Nothing in his mistakes-were-made-but-I-did-nothing-wrong resignation speech Tuesday (Aug. 10) suggests that anything like redemption is in the offing for him. On the other hand, those like Joe Biden who months ago predicted Cuomo’s resignation now see their prophecy fulfilled.

Or consider this week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Redemption for the planet is nowhere in sight as the IPCC’s increasingly dark prophecies look closer and closer to fulfillment.

Of course, not all prophecies are fulfilled. MyPillow Guy’s prediction of Donald Trump’s second coming this month (or maybe next) is just the latest in a sequence that have all so far failed. But as the authors of “When Prophecy Fails,” the famous study of a small doomsday cult in Chicago after World War II, discovered, there will always be true believers for whom holding on to false belief is essential to their being.

They must believe that someday, sometime, the package they dream of will arrive from that Great Fulfillment Center in the sky.