Last night I saw a preview for Secret Millionaire, which caused me to seriously question my already tottering faith in humanity. Apparently based on the show where the boss becomes an employee for a day, Secret Millionaire asks its tititular millionaires to move to the areas of the US that have been “hardest hit” (by what?). There they will live among the poor, all the while trying to determine which family is “most deserving” of a sudden influx of cash.
The premise is disgusting, but familiar — after all, what is Jesus Christ but a fabulously wealthy individual who “took the form of a slave”? What I’d like to suggest in this post is that shows like Secret Millionaire are the latest products of an overarching cultural logic that grows out of Christianity’s shift from identification with the weak and oppressed to identification with the rulers — a shift that plays out doctrinally in the move away from the patristic “ransom” theory of the atonement to the theory that found its most influential form in Anselm’s Cur deus homo.
To summarize one of the key arguments from Politics of Redemption, the two theories are remarkably structurally similar, but the crucial difference between the two theories is the place of the devil. In the ransom theory, the devil is the oppressive ruler from whom Christ is rescuing us. In Anselm’s theory, by contrast, any acknowledgment of the devil’s rule is unthinkable — meaning that in effect God takes on the role of the oppressive ruler. Whereas the task of the patristic God is to undo the devil’s claim and set us free, the task of Anselm’s God is to find some way to save face in a situation that has called his rule into question (the fall of the angels, precipitating the fall of humanity).
The patristic Christ corresponds to a messiah who identifies with the subaltern class, whereas Anselm’s Christ corresponds to a messiah who reaffirms the ruling class’s hold — that is, Anselm’s Christ provides us with a model for Secret Millionaire. The entire premise of the show reaffirms the notion that millionaires are and should be in control — they are in control because it is their notion of “most deserving” that determines who is rewarded, and they should be in control because of their extraordinary generosity to the “hardest hit.” Similarly, Anselm’s God seeks a way to remain in charge (since forgiving sin by fiat would imply that sin did not have to follow God’s law) and creates the appearance of profound generosity (hence Anselm’s paroxysms of praise).
One question is who represents the left-wing messiah. One potential candidate is the hero from Avatar, who joins the alien race (using a mechanism that is even formally similar to orthodox two-natures Christology) and then leads them in overthrowing their corporate despoilers. Yet this doesn’t quite fit the patristic scheme, for which the divine is completely unaffiliated with the oppressor — instead, it would be as though one of Satan’s demons joined the human race in order to overthrow demonic rule. The net effect would be to reinforce demonic rule overall, just as the hero in Avatar winds up taking charge of things even as he’s supposedly overthrowing human control over the blue people.
The latter dynamic is very common: a member of the ruling class has a change of heart, with the net result that he remains the center of attention. Ebenezer Scrooge is a kind of paradigm here, as his harrowing experience with the various ghosts leads him to embrace a new generosity of spirit — but the end result is that he becomes a good boss rather than an oppressive boss. At no point does he say, for instance, “Cratchit does all the work anyway and he clearly embodies all the values I’ve only recently embraced — I should put him in charge of the business!” Bill Murray’s character on Scrooged introduces an interesting twist, hijacking his massive live Christmas Eve staging of A Christmas Carol in order to announce that he’s become a better person — thereby boosting ratings astronomically and ensuring that he remains in charge of the network.
This reality corresponds to what I have repeatedly read in various liberation theologies: white men are glad to get onboard with the cause of the oppressed, as long as they remain in charge. The Secret Millionaire and Avatar/Christmas Carol models are no different in that regard. The true standard would have to be analogous to James Cone’s demand that one become “ontologically black” and thus submit to the leadership of those who have been committed to the cause much longer (i.e., actual black people).
Cone is not optimistic that this option would be attractive to many whites, and it’s arguable that even Christ himself doesn’t necessarily fulfill it, or at least doesn’t fulfill it in most of the dominant readings of the nature of Christ’s intervention into human history. I would attempt to read the patristic ransom theory as fulfilling this standard (or rather, reread and rework it so that it does, as I attempt to do in the final chapter of Politics of Redemption). Christ has unique privileges to put at the service of the movement of the oppressed, indeed privileges so powerful (divinity) that they can completely undermine the devil’s claim. He submits those privileges to the movement to the utmost degree of suffering and death, thereby shattering the unquestioned legitimacy of demonic rule.
What does he do then? Yes, he does rise from the dead, but ultimately he simply leaves the scene — he gets out of the way.