Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 29, 1999
History filled with bloody 'messiahs'
Every age and every culture seems to live in anticipation of a promise, be it the American Dream of rags to riches or the Cargo Cult of Papua New Guinea.
Life is such that we hope for better things to come, if not in this life then in the hereafter. Generations have been kept subservient with the promise of eternal rewards.
The promise is usually personified by a saviour, a hero or a strongman who will wipe away our tears and set things straight. In science fiction this person might be a Superman, or some extra-terrestrial being.
Hollywood created Rambo clones. Greek mythology presents us with Hercules and a pantheon of gods and demi-gods.
Life can be so overwhelming that it seems to require the interaction of someone bigger than life. Nietzsche speaks of the Ubermensch.
In real life the saviours are usually common dictators, generals, smooth-talking politicians and religious quacks who never live up to the promise. Still, hope springs eternal. People hunger to be led out of slavery.
No sooner was Louis XVI executed in 1793 by a people in revolt or the clamor arose for another dictator, this time Napoleon. Our mundane messiahs have simple solutions to complex problems. Brute force is the usual recipe, along the line of Alexander the Great slashing the Gordian knot with his sword.
Hitler's promise of paradise involved the "final solution" of the Holocaust. Stalin, replacing a demi-god Czar, executed millions who questioned his version of the promised land.
History abounds with strongmen who ruthlessly trampled over all obstacles to their vision of the perfect society. The list is long, even in our time, from Pol Pot to Pinochet and Somoza to Suharto and right into the White House and out again to every region of the world where puppet dictators knew what was best for the people.
Usually the promise has to do with overthrowing the old system and replacing it with something new, or with the prevention of something dreaded as evil. These messianic types prey on the powerlessness of people who yearn to be set free.
In the days of Jesus several messiahs sought an end to Roman oppression. There was a strong Jewish tradition which held that no battle could be won without divine intervention.
David's triumph over Goliath, Moses taking his people out of Egypt, Samson pulling down the pillars of the palace. In this context wars became holy wars as they are now humanitarian.
Joseph ben Matthius, a first century historian, declares "bandits overran the country, causing as much misery as a war could have done."
Around the time when Jesus started his active ministry, there were a number of messianic saviours which Joseph mentions by name: Hezekiah and his son Judas of Galilee, a slave named Simon, a shepherd named Athrongaeus and his four brothers and a couple of fellows named Tholomaios and Theudas. And then there was Herod the Great, defender of the status quo under Pax Romana.
The Jesus following was the least rebellious threat the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate had to contend with. Although crucified as "King of the Jews," a title bestowed on other messiahs as well, Jesus claimed his kingdom was "not of this world."
Still, there was the here and now promise of justice for the poor, the end of misery and suffering, the downfall of the wicked and a new divine kingdom where God's will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Unlike other messiahs, Jesus preached non-violent love of God and neighbour as the final solution.
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