Saturday, September 8, 2012

False messiahs

Moon Sun-myung, the self-proclaimed messiah whom Jesus had asked to complete Jesus’ unfinished mission on earth, died on September 3, 2012 at the age of 2012. Moon and his followers (aka “Moonies”) built the Unification Church during the heyday of Christianity’s explosive twentieth century growth in Korea and a globe-straddling business empire that includes seafood distribution, media, arms manufacturing, and real estate holdings. His Church claims 5-7 million members worldwide but some ex-members and critics believe that 100,000 is a better estimate. Moon spent almost three years in a North Korean hard labor camp before U.N. troops liberated the facility in 1950 and thirteen months of an eighteen month sentence in a U.S. prison for tax evasion. Known for conducting mass blessings and marriage ceremonies in the 1970s and 1980s, his popularity had waned.

A conviction for income tax evasion seems incongruous with claims to be the Messiah. Jesus reminded people to pay to Caesar what was Caesar’s. Deceptive accounting bears more similarity to lying and theft (stealing from the government) than to evidence of being a messiah.

The word messiah denotes a leader or savior, especially of the Jewish nation. Jesus leads or points toward a path to life abundant; Moon appears to have led people along a path that benefited Moon and his family; they will inherit much of his business empire, presently intertwined with Unification Church holdings.

The sad saga of Moon and the thousands whom he duped and exploited highlights an issue with which many clergy struggle: building a community (or organization) that tries to center itself on God rather than the cleric. Personality cults tend to be narcissistic, exploitative, and short-lived. For example, the congregation that Robert Schuller built at the Crystal Cathedral but fell apart upon he retired and then filed for bankruptcy.

One of my college professors, William Geoghegan delighted in the phrase, the routinization of charisma. He contended that charisma (grace, an encounter of the divine) lay at the core of all religious experience. To preserve and to spread that charisma, the founder (e.g., Jesus) or followers (e.g., the disciples) inevitably formed an organization. Doing so forced the charisma to fit into structure and theological concepts that unintentionally and unavoidably destroyed the charisma they intended to preserve.

I have known relatively few people who chose to follow and affiliate with a false messiah like Moon. I have known many people affiliated with organizations in which rountinization has stifled the charisma that gave the group its original impetus and power.

In the post-modern twenty-first century many ecclesial structures have become, in essence, false messiahs, i.e., they have lost touch with their original charisma. No wonder that so many today find the church a turn-off, claiming to be spiritual but not religious.

On the other hand, charisma without some form of community or organization is bereft of much of its transformative power and has a very short shelf life. Instead of aiming to create an institution for the ages (permanent buildings, endowments, etc.), spiritual people may magnify their social influence and transformative potential by emphasizing community (relationships) and structures focused on the present.

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