The Right-Wing Messiah

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.

28 thoughts on “The Right-Wing Messiah

  1. Oh gawd, every time I see the ads for Secret Millionaire I start shouting at the screen. I like this analysis a lot, the “saviour” narrative is quite clear – as is the emphasis on the millionaire who *feels*. And it’s their feeling which renders them innocent in this context.. redemptive affect?

  2. It has taken all of the restraint I have to refrain from ranting about this in the presence of civilians when the commercials come on TV, typically while I’m trying to watch a sporting event.

  3. I think it takes the concept of Extreme Home Makeover, which is ostensibly about some sort of nebulous “community” helping poor people, where the “community” is actually various corporate sponsors and the network, and making it explicit that no, it really is “the elite” enacting a kind of therapeutic benevolent spectacle.

  4. Thanks for these reflections. That show looks just awful. I’ve always been partial to the ending of the Gospel of Mark because the ending is so anti-climactic and for a similar reason you mention, namely, Jesus pushes back responsibility onto his followers. The angel tells the women that Jesus is already on the streets ahead of them. Jesus basically abandons ship and charges his followers to go into the streets to start dong the real work.

  5. Thanks for the reflection.

    I think Hill is right; this is basically the gist of Extreme Home Makeover pushed to a more offensive, in your face limit. It’s disgusting.

  6. As far as I can tell, the UK’s entire role within the global economy is as an R&D center for terrifying reality TV shows. I’m wondering what the American version of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is going to look like.

  7. A few years ago there was a leaked casting call for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The producers were especially interested, not in poor people as such, but in people with, to put it mildly, a huge brood of medical freaks–throw in a dead vet father for good measure. So, in essence, not just one kid with a severe mental, psychological or physical problem, but multiples. A little color, obviously, wouldn’t hurt too much at all. I can’t imagine “Secret Millionaire” being any more offensive than that. “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” came to Jodi Dean’s town once. She blogged about it. Worth looking at.

  8. Lying wonders never cease…

    It is good to know that in the Body of the Antichrist, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female but a diversty of colors and creed. This makes your use of Cone that much more powerful – we can imagine many people as the millionares, but the black man remains the one most in need of the the millionares’ grace.

    I will be moving “Politics of Redemption” up my wishlist for when I have a few extra bucks or a co-worker comes out of the poverty closet. Untill then, thank you for your blog an know that $0.50 of your next royalty check for Awkwardness is from me.

  9. “One question is who represents the left-wing messiah.”

    Coming from Judaism, where the messiah has not yet arrived, I should point out that medieval rabbinical Judaism believed that the messiah will be a monarch in a literal sense. Philo, Maimonides and many others represent the messiah explicitly as the philosopher-king (Philo also argues that Moses was also a philosopher-king).

    So it seems to me that the messiah, who is a future king (the legitimate heir of the Davidic dynasty), cannot plausibly be made left-wing. Or, at least, I don’t know how I would transform a royal conception into anything resembling something left-wing.

  10. As much as I agree with how incredibly disgusting/paternalistic/patronizing the show seems, it also seems that Kotsko is reading a lot into the show’s premise. Nowhere is Christ mentioned, nor is a Christian narrative given as a logic for the show. This perhaps demonstrates the failings of a culture perceived to be “Christian,” but actually has nothing to do with being Christian. It has more to do with TV executives trying to make money off of feel-good moments of helping out poor people.
    Perhaps what is most unsettling about this clip (and your Avatar Left-wing Jesus) is the paradigm that implies that in order to be savior, Jesus has to be white.

  11. Leaving the show aside (it sounds pretty lame), I’m curious: does the understanding of atonement and salvation expressed here imply that power, in and of itself, is evil? Do you allow for a concept of authority?

  12. Andy, Regardless of whether the show’s producers consciously intended it, the parallels between Anselm’s Christ and the show’s millionaire seem obvious to me — if you’re not convinced, you’re not convinced, but I tried to lay them out as thoroughly as I could.

    Matt, You’ll have to read my book to find out!

  13. I think I too will be clicking around Amazon to buy “Politics of Redemption.”

    Maybe I’ve blathered on about this on AUFS before, but in case I haven’t, here goes. I think another “culprit” here is the judgment scenario in Matt 25. It’s clear in the scenario that it is the nations/Gentiles that are being judged for how they treat “the least of these,” and it’s equally clear that the “least of these my brothers [and sisters]” are disciples of Jesus who (in the light of Matt 10) are engaged in a mission that puts them radically on the underside of society–no money, no extra clothes, itinerant, dependent on the hospitality of others, subject to rejection and imprisonment). Christians reading this scenario invariably assume that it’s Christians who are being judged according to their deeds toward “the least of these” (“the hardest hit”) which also assumes that it’s Christians who are in the socio-economic positions from which they can display their magnanimity to poor slobs and thereby inherit the kingdom. But the judgment scenario in fact suggests that the salvation of the nations depends upon the fact that disciples of Jesus are precisely (because of their dispossessed itinerancy) in need of the magnanimity of “Gentiles,” not vice versa. Jesus is on the scene among the nations in the “weak messianic power” of those who are true to the mission set out in Matt 10.

    In other words, the load of shit one is going to get from Secret Millionaire may have been shoveled from shitty readings of Matt 25.

  14. This blog and my various experiences with working-class folk – including a man who struck up a conversation with me at the deli where I used to work about Pharaoh; how God speaks from below rather than “on high”; and my former corporate managers – keeps my tottering faith in humanity in check.

  15. @Andy — and why not? I’ve heard a lot of logic, over the years of my theological education, that in order to be savior, Jesus had to be male. Even believed some of it once — none of the systems involved would have taken her seriously, and she’d have been stoned. There’s a basic notion behind such logic, that asserts that the redemptive task is some form of negotiation with power. It’s very unsettling, once you can think about it. That’s not the nature of God; it’s human rationalization of the permanent position of the marginalized, and the permanent location of power for change on the high side of the social power dynamic.

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