Thursday, July 28, 2016

Messiah Complex

"At the time of Christ, people were ready for the world to change." --Scott Daniels

It was the 2008 election that finally drove me to stop voting. It was a bit of a strange election for me; I'd written in John McCain for President the two previous times I'd been old enough to vote. Now he was on the ballot for real and I was not a fan. It was a "change" election, right? I'm not sure people had the same sense of change in 2000; I know they didn't have it in 2004 because they re-elected the same guy.

2008, though, people wanted something different. Change was in the air. Which, I guess, made that election ripe for a messiah complex. Oh nearly every politician has it; it would be near impossible to put one's self through a modern American campaign without really believing you were the one to change everything, to get it right. I'm not sure the candidates ever have it as bad as their voters have it for them. When they do, that's when you get autocrats and dictators. But the narrative is bigger than the man.

In 2008 I saw myself too easily subsumed with that mentality - that one person could be the one to change everything. About four months before the election, I checked out. I was reading Jesus for President at the time. It's a compelling argument. Oh, I was still excited about the election - it was historic, after all - but it was the start of a different perspective.

Barack Obama, like every other President, didn't really give us change. He certainly did some of the same things in different ways (there are uniquenesses to everybody), but he did things the same way. Who, was it, who said: "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

That doesn't stop us from hoping, though. We're seeing it again this time around. People want change; they're desperate for something different. So they gravitate to a candidate who's real good about setting himself apart. To look different, in our mind - in our society, is to be different. That's the narrative anyway. So we find someone, this someone just comes right out and says it, who's "the only one" that can make things right.

That's got messiah written all over it.

If you're looking for a new way to achieve an old goal, Donald Trump can seem like a good option. There ain't nothing traditional about him. It's hard to imagine anything but change from a President Trump, however you want to slice it. But, of course, it's not really change. It can't be, because we're still all playing the same game. It's the real danger of nationalism, of patriotism - the system becomes so ingrained in us, over generations, that we can't imagine anything different - we are incapable of seeing any alternative to playing the same game by different rules.

That's what people were hoping for from Obama and it's what people (almost assuredly a 100% completely different group of people) are hoping for from Trump. New rules - or at least a reset - a chance to right what once went wrong. What we're missing, though, is a real alternative.

This is the subversive gospel of Jesus. People were expecting a change, and looking to messiah to bring it. There had been a lot of messiah's in Jesus' time and before. Years and years of dead guys who ran on hope, incapable of bringing real change. Because they were playing the same game, just hoping that new rules would change things. They never do.

It's ironic that the one guy who perhaps deserved to have the messiah complex didn't. Jesus looked at the expectations of messiah and said, "no thank you." The people wanted him to play the game, to march into Jerusalem and then, maybe Rome, at the front of a righteous army and fight power with power, grab the throne, change the rules, and make things good and just and right for all those who'd been wronged.

Sound familiar? I know; it's enough to make you sick.

Jesus gets to be messiah because he refused to play the messiah game. No change. No marching into the eye of the political machine and taking the world by storm. He just checked out. Said, "you can play all your crazy power games, I'll be here with the hopeless and the helpless; give us a call when you get tired and want to really live."

You can see a bit of this in those 60's radicals - the hippies. They lived in a tumultuous time, one in which most people couldn't help but beg for change. They tried, they really tried to get outside the game. They checked out, too. Let's all go live on a farm in upstate New York and grow our own food and love each other. It sounds great; it is great. The problem is they expected to change the game by not playing.

It's a subtle difference.

Your brother is cheating at monopoly, so you thrown down your wad of colorful cash and stomp off to the other room. You're reading a book with a frown on your face, but also with a constant glance over the top of the pages, just waiting for him to give in. "Oh come on," he'll say, "I promise I'll play fair, just come back." You might refuse a time or two, but ultimately you'll return, because you really do love playing the game. It's the only one in town.

Jesus didn't look back, though. It's the one thing his followers miss the most when they try to imitate him today. We're always expecting our alternative lifestyle to change the mainstream. Christianity has become an avenue of change. We're walking away with our neck craned over our shoulder, unaware that it's just going to turn us into a pillar of salt.

The way of Christ is not a new and improved way to change the game. It really means leaving the game for good. Giving up. Not because you're a sore loser, but because you really recognize that the game's not worth playing. It doesn't actually have the meaning and importance we've always been told it possesses.

I still love the political game. It's entertaining and unpredictable; it's fun. It's even more fun when you ascribe to it no power whatsoever. It's like a game of solitaire. Have you ever got to a point where the board is so hopelessly messed up it's more frustrating than fun? Do you keep going because it's a game and there are rules and you need to see it through? Or do you remember it's just a game, what's more, a game with no opponent. There's nothing wrong with just piling up the cards and putting them back in the box.

It's so easy for us to press on, to seek out real change from the messiahs that so readily offer themselves up to us. It's far more difficult to give up our notions of right and wrong and power and privilege and just live, outside the game. The Matrix started out as some great gospel allegory. People saw Neo's escape from fantasy into a larger world as akin to a Christian conversion - from something fake to something real. As the movies went along, though, we came to realize that the game never ends. When he thinks he's escaped, Neo has just reached a different level. Yes, maybe the rules are different and things look new, but the game is always the same.

Those movies end up depressing and nihilistic. The message is that we're always caught in the game; there is no escape. You know what? Maybe that's true. Maybe even the messianic way of Jesus, of checking out without checking back, is just another layer in a game that is both vitally important and epically meaningless. I mean, there's no real way to be sure, right? At least not until we've explored the whole thing - not until we've journeyed through Zion and found the architect wanting.

I just know I'm not about to play the game the way it's always been played, and especially not with the meaning and importance it's always been given. I'd prefer to have my messiahs in denial, refusing the power others so desperately crave. It seems like the only way to make a real life in this world. It's just so easy to succumb to the siren's spell, to fall in line with the chorus of those who see no other way.

What piques my interest, what makes this non-messiah messiah worth following is how he challenges this power game. By refusing to play, Jesus rejects power as powerful. By choosing to die he somehow finds life. It is this self-sacrificial love, as improbable and unfathomable as it may be, that just seems to fit.

In the end, maybe those hippies were right - they just didn't have the patience to see it through. Perhaps all you really do need is love?

*For an in-depth analysis about how The Matrix really says this same thing, check out this piece I didn't discover until after I wrote mine - it's way cooler than the last movie itself.

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