Wednesday, September 30, 2009

We All want a Leader

Observing the present political climate in the United States is a very interesting show. There is a cultural phenomenon on display that was present in during the previous presidential administration, but (in my opinion) has grown even more. People can disagree whether the respective presidents welcomed this trend, but it seems more defensible that this trend existed during the 43rd president's terms and has not abated so far during the 44th. What is this cultural trend? The human gravitation to "Messianism" (the belief that a saving figure will fix that which is airy in the world).

Before people automatically believe I am viewing the country through a partisan lens, consider that Evangelical Christians were no better following the 2001 Presidential inauguration. Phrases such as, "finally we'll see needed change now that we have a 'godly' President in office," were not infrequently heard at Bible studies. The fact that George W. Bush had frequently spoke of his faith only added fuel to the fire. Many evangelicals expected cultural "rescue" from him, forgetting that the Constitution prohibits him from meddling in the affairs of the citizenry as much as they hoped. In addition, many often spoke of having "hope" in Bush that one should only have in Christ. Misplaced Messianism was rampant among evangelical Republicans, unwilling to stomach any critique of his policies - be they foreign or domestic. So vested in this "messianic" view of Bush were many on "the right," that to critique his policy or (God forbid!) vote for someone else could generate rifts in fellowship at church. I witnessed this shameful trend first hand.

Having said that, it does appear to me that the trend which began during the Bush terms among "the right" is growing now to new levels among "the left." It does not appear enough to simply vote for Barak Obama during the 2008 presidential election, and enjoy his January inauguration. Rejoicing over the election of Obama now rises to the level of "messianic" laud and praise. By now we have all seen the YouTube videos of children singing for his election or praising his present administration. In addition, among his supporters there appears an expectation that he will influence more about culture, economy and communities than is constitutionally appropriate for an American President. The "messianism" has far from ebbed, but instead seems to have grown (only from the other side of the political spectrum).

While "Messianism" most often has a religious connotation, it speaks also to the broader human instinct for rescue by means of a powerful leader. The world is not working the way that you want it to, so hope is maintained for a central figure, a Savior, to wave his hand and make it all better. Christianity maintains that this instinct is only well placed when directed at Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, consider the plea of Israelites in 1 Samuel 8:5b, "So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.” While they had a perfect theocracy under YHWH, mediated through prophets and taught through the Law of Moses, they still wanted a human figure to lead them. Instead of frying them for their insolence though (which would have been His right), YHWH used that human flaw to bring about the reign of King David, who would foreshadow the One that was to come later (Jesus Christ).

The messianic instinct is resident in the human condition. That instinct can be directed productively at the Messiah of God (Jesus of Nazareth), or it can be directed misguidedly at a human figure whose motives cannot help but be mixed with good and bad intentions. If armbands suddenly come into vogue featuring Obama's symbol, it likely will not be his doing. It is the nature of people to place their hope in the wrong thing. If children sing "Red and yellow; black and white; all are equal in his sight," they're likely not consciously rewriting an Sunday School song about Jesus to sing Obama's praises. They're just placing hope in Obama that should be sorely directed at Jesus. We all do this. Evangelicals may not have sung such songs about George Bush, but were often over the top in their "hopes" regarding him too.

We all want a leader with a human face. In our depravity, Jesus' human face is often just not enough. We all want a leader with temporal power, but Jesus statement that "all authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me," is not enough either. One can "hope" that the messianism will eventually simmer down, before something really crazy emerges out of it. Among the great lessons of the twentieth century is what can happen to a society that develops a collective "messianic" adoration for its leader. Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia and China have all experienced this (to name just a few). Hopefully, America will tap the brakes a little on its "Messianism" before our country resembles the plight of those others.

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