Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Trump the Messiah

So, it's been a bit of a creative lull coming out of the holidays. You may have noticed I didn't post anything last Thursday. There was no motivation. Sorry. We are getting into Grammy and Oscar season, so there will be a little more pop culture and a little less pseudo-intellectual rambling, if that's your thing.

I originally titled this post (way back in November, when I envisioned it) Messianism and the Messianc, which, I'm sure, would have gotten a TON of clicks. I don't like being super topical in the titles - as much as the click bait is attractive, I kind of like to be honest instead of a salesman. At the same time, when do you get a blithering politician's name that also doubles as an actual word than makes sense for the pseudo-intellectual argument of the day? You have to use the topical double-meaning, right?

Trump's the obvious candidate for an example (far more obvious than he was in November, when this was all just a side show). I wanted to talk about Messianism - the "arrival" of a savior. This can be anything - communism, some new computer technology or energy breakthrough, an election - anything that bills itself (or allows itself to be billed) as the solution to a previously intractable problem. Pretty much every politician runs a campaign this way, but none more thoroughly than The Donald.

I'm not going to talk about the politics in particular (although there's an interesting piece here about it), but the manner in which he engages them. Unlike anyone before, Trump litterally touts himself, personally, as the answer to the world's problems. He doesn't have policy papers or complicated proposals, he is simply selling himself as the answer. There's really no better way to define messianism.

Yes, a lot of people see through Donald Trump, but the archetype remains true. We tend to impose this perspective on whoever we happen to want to vote for. A lot of the fervor in 2008 was simply believing that the mere act of electing Barack Obama President would save the world. The Nobel committee gave him a peace prize just for winning an election! I think we all got a little carried away because we spent an entire generation voting for Presidents whilst holding our noses. The notion that some candidate might excite some people was a little unusual.

We see messianism on a smaller scale all the time. TIME did a big piece earlier this year on nuclear fusion, which, if realized, "promises" an end to energy wars and climate change. Skeptics will always be skeptics - and I tend to be a skeptic - but they're not always wrong, especially when the claims are so immense.

We want the quick fix, the easy solution. It's why so many people play Powerball, despite the odds of winning a solo jackpot going down the more people who play. I also noticed that everyone seems to know right away, with some specificity, what they'd do if they won a billion dollars, even if they firmly believe the lottery is a waste of time and would, honestly, never buy a ticket. We're waiting for the windfall.

Whether a political candidate, a discovery, or a pile of cashing dropping from the sky - we're all in on messianism: the promise of a solution.

Peter Rollins would say that the very notion of a messiah is the real problem. He'd argue that whatever energy we put into hoping and expecting the solution to drop from the sky, perhaps in the form of a thick-lipped, jowly dude with strange hair, would better be used actually living and working for the good of those around you.

I'd call this, perhaps, the difference between messianism and the messianic. If, as Christians claim, Jesus Christ is the actual messiah, the savior of the world, this whole notion gets put into perspective. He dropped into a world poised for a messiah, rife with messianism - they even had groups of people who moved into the desert to bide their time waiting for an immanent salvation. Yet when Christ came, it wasn't a get-rich-quick scheme, it was a long slog through tough times; it was a call to suffering and service and patience.

The messianic isn't a sharp guy in a sharp suit. It's the nitty gritty of dirty reality. Salvation doesn't come at the end of a miracle; the real miracle is that we don't need one. Jesus Christ was not the first messiah to come along in ancient Israel. They moved in pretty regular cycles the way we see today. Whether it was the Roman Emperor himself, who certainly talked the talk of messianism, or the various angry prophets who wandered out of the wilderness to rile up the natives against their captors, the world has been and continues to be, filled with potential messiahs.

The real message of Christ, though, was to trump the messiahs. He came without a push for power, in fact to the powerless. He came without a call to heroic action, in fact to the very unglamorous world of selfless service. His message was not "Follow me to freedom," the way William Wallace said it - it was "follow me to freedom" as we escape this cycle of messianism, of waiting for the solution from somewhere else and in some unknown way. The call to salvation is the call to live, simply, with care and concern for everyone - even your enemies.

Trump isn't really the problem. In fact, in many ways, the other candidates like having someone like him running (although they don't like him winning). They like it because he becomes the scapegoat. They can say Trump is the problem, when they're really promising the same thing (if only in saner terms): elect me and save the world. I have the answers. I know what's up. All politics is a call to messianism. It's the kind of thing directly opposed by the messianic way of Christ.

As we enter this season, I'll probably write and talk more about the election. I find it fascinating theater, but this is one major reason why I don't vote for President. The messianism is too strong and too tempting. We don't have to play this game - putting one person in charge and praying for a miracle. The very notion that our patriotic duty is to pick a candidate and vote works against the messianic. Not that democracy and voting are automatically wrong - as Churchill said, it's the best of all the terrible options we've come up with so far - but the notion that this is the only choice, the only way, the necessary framing narrative of human life, is a bit dangerous.

Elections push us towards messianism - even if we're pretty sure the guy we elect isn't messiah, it shapes our outlook on the world in such a way that we expect to see a messiah on the horizon. That's a dangerous thing, because we're supposed to see our salvation in the midst of the poor, the prisoner, the enemy, the outcast. Our true salvation comes not in seeking a savior, but in following the example of the savior who didn't much fit the title.

It's nothing supernatural. It's simply love for those people who get it least and love for those people who give it least. In other words, it's pretty much the opposite of Trump and all the other wannabe messiahs out there this year.

No comments: