We Should All Be Messiahs

May 31, 2007 | By | 1 Reply More

There may be little original in this post, but then, there seems to be little original in its subject.  It’s just that, well, no one, or not many, manage to say the obvious.

I was sitting before my tv the other day watching Dune.  The SciFi Channel version, not that monstrosity from David Lynch–of the two, the former is far superior, because you can actually follow the story without wincing at the acting.  Now, for those not familiar with it, Dune by Frank Herbert is a groundbreaking science fiction novel about a desert planet that contains in its substance “the greatest treasure of the universe”, the fictional Spice, a quasi-hallucinogenic morphogenetic substance without which travel in this universe is impossible and the Empire, such as it is, will cease to be.  Hmm.  Sounds metaphorical to me, how about you?  In any event, the planet, Dune, is peopled by a nomadic desert folk known as the Fremen, who, when roused, become the fanatical warriors for the messianic personality known as Muad’Dib.

As I’m watching, I listen to the second or third speech about how the Fremen have a prophecy about an off-world leader–the Mahdi–who will come to lead them against their enemies.  In the meantime, they collect water (a precious commodity) keep to themselves, and settle their differences among themselves with ritual combat and other related practices.  When questioned about this, the standard reply is “It’s our way.”

And it occurred to me that the function of the Mahdi–and all other Messiahs–is to serve as a catalyst for change, to do the things unthnkable within a society, to lever a people out of their traditions and set them to change. 

Something they could–and should–do for themselves.

Because none of these figures have ever done anything particularly special, other than to say what everyone–or at least many–are thinking but are too cowed by custom to say.

So they have prophecies about, essentially, some hapless goof who has the wisdom–or stupidity–to point out the exit from the temple and then have the audacity to tell everyone that they can leave.  For their moment of inspiration and trouble, they are usually killed–or coopted by the war faction to lead a jihad or something and do some killing, by which time a new order has taken root and customs are reestablished and immutable and the change brought by the messiah safely neutralized by all the bloodshed In The Name Of…

Custom can be a fine thing in its place, but when it chains people to misery and oppression because everyone is too afraid to point out the obvious, it becomes an abomination.  I’m watching Dune and thinking, “What the hell do you need a Mahdi for?  You have a pretty good idea already what needs to be done, why don’t you just go do it?”

In the case of Jesus, the Hebrews needed a Messiah to free them.  From what?  They could travel throughout the Roman Empire if they wanted (and had the money, something that was not a unique condition to them, having or not having).  In many ways, under Roman law, they were in fact freer than they had ever been under their own kings.  Free from the Roman heel?  Well, the pros and cons are arguable, but a close reading of the New Testament suggests that in order for them to change culturally to exist peacefully, they needed a symbolic sacrifice that fulfilled the law, freeing them from Old Testament legalities that hamstrung them.  They were likely never going to get their country back the way it had been and pining for it was inhibiting them from trying something new.  (I’m simplifying here to make a point.)  The messianic function Jesus performed was to tell them to, basically, get over themselves and start living a little.  They weren’t any better than Romans, Egyptians, Libyans, etc.  The thing they thought they had to have which put them at odds with Rome and made their lives miserable just wasn’t that important.  Love one another.

For this, he was killed.  (Actually, he was killed for other reasons, but if you go to Sunday School, this is what we’re told.)  And really, all these people already knew this.  They didn’t need a Messiah to tell them this.

But there seems to be a need for one idiot who will actually break the log jam and sort of grant permission for everyone to do the obvious.

The trouble with Mahdis and Messiahs is that those who follow them still don’t do the work.  They substitue allegiance for moral growth.  They hand responsibility over to the Leader instead of figuring out just what the change signified is all about.  And they end up building a new power structure around the Mahdi that is every bit as constraining as the one he’s supposedly freeing them from.

Of course, when you continue reading Herbert’s  Dune  novels, this is exactly the point he makes.

It’s not difficult to understand.  But damn, we still won’t wean ourselves off this whole Messiah idea.


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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Communication, Cultural Evolution, Culture, History, Law, Meaning of Life, Religion, War

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Ben says:

    Dune was great. The first movie was great. The second one was great. The book was too wordy for me though.

    The messiah (muad'dib) did not know he was the messiah, but there were clues to his greatness. Such a wonderfully inspiring and exciting tale.

    Ever seen Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome? It's really a fun ride, gotta trust me! Mel Gibson becomes the messiah, pretty hilarious, considering all he has been through since the 80's.



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