Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
A few days ago, I was walking downtown to do some work when I came across an interesting site. On one of the power junction boxes, there was a mural painted on there of environmental activist, Greta Thunberg. The previous week, she was at the UN council harshly chastising them for their inaction and hypocrisy on climate change. She made headlines for her directness and authenticity, declared a hero by many people the world over, and inspired a global protest against the continuing inaction. Greta was even nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, the highest honor any activist and humanitarian can receive. So on those accolades alone, seeing her image painted as graffiti on walls and structures wasn’t surprising.
However, some friends talking to me mentioned their concern at this idolization. They thought that it was too soon for someone to become such a cultural icon, that she would already be getting monuments and art work dedicated to her name and image. Maybe in a couple of decades, but not a few months. Putting what Greta Thunberg represents aside for the moment, it did represent to me a symptom of a larger tendency: making messiahs.
Cult of Personality
Since the last century, it is easy to recognize someone as a pop culture icon when they become pieces of art everywhere you look. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had their faces put on money and monuments raised in their honor. Andy Warhol for his vibrant colors and art style in museums. The faceless Banksy for his graffiti activism in England. And perhaps the most famous of them all, Che Guevara, the Latin, communist revolutionary who became so synonymous with revolution that his face was on every college shirt and poster decades after he was killed.
Something seems to compel us to lift up ordinary people into extraordinary positions of recognition and reverence. Messiahs sometimes anointed by the people, and other times self-proclaimed. Once on these man-made mountain tops, the chosen ones become both targets and inspirations, depending on who's looking up to them and that's where the divide begins.
Those who find Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Malala inspiring, make them into these perfect, moral beings. They wouldn't verbally say-so, but raise the possibility of them doing something considered wrong or immoral and the reaction is often one of rebukes. They represented all that was good and positive about human nature! Even more so if they were killed for their cause! How could anyone dare think that they do something like plagiarism, racism, or not being a caring human being?
Those people who shoot stones at these idols do so because they had become significant threats to their own position and beliefs. Their mere names are mobilizers of armies, influencing the masses to do more than just talk about their disgust for the status quo, but also to actively move against both them and the ivory, white towers that they uphold. Therefore, finding flaws in their character and past mistakes is their way of undermining that influence, especially if they are untouchable or already dead. Discouraging people from acting on the idol’s words and reminding them that their efforts are futile or compromised.
Being made into a cultural messiah is a polarizing event.
The OG Players
This polarizing is what I find disconcerting, from both sides. The efforts and sacrifices of these people should absolutely be respected. For one reason or another, it's not something everyone can do. At the same time, these people were never gods. Of course, many would say that they don’t see them that way, but the longer their legacy persists, the more infallible their morality and lives are believed to be. Human beings are grey creatures. We believe in black and white boundaries- though we may name them differently, yet we often cross those lines when the moment suits us or in a moment of passion. This is a fact that often gets lost with cultural icons. They are no longer people with fluid personalities, but monolithic structures that stand unchanging and eternal against the winds of history. Nowhere is this more seen than in actual religious figures.
Jesus Christ would never support something like gay relationships, despite that there is one recorded incident according to some scholars where it is implied while addressing a Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Or the idea that he never had a family of his own and most famously, was raised from the dead. Mohammad wasn’t an illiterate, camel merchant who came with an idea to inspire his people to revolution against the ills of his society, but heard directly from the archangel, Gabriel. And is then inspired to write out what God wants in what became known as the Quran, and that the language has remained unchanged ever since. There were never any different translations or addendum's made across time and cultures. You get the idea.
The person gets lost in the legend, and can even be seen sometimes as a threat if the idea of the person becomes a founding pillar of an institution or society. Their humanity can no longer afford to be recognized as they have now in the minds of the people transcended that to become quasi-gods.
"I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances."
— Nelson Mandela
The other issue I see with making icons out of average people is that it is often used as a crutch by some. I said earlier that these people become notable for doing things that most others are not able or willing to do. Greta has gone to extraordinary lengths to push for political accountability for climate change. I doubt she planned on speaking before the UN when she first started, but that's where she ended up. But for all the people clicking on ‘likes’ in articles and reposting them on social media, few of them are going to similar lengths that she is.
I believe within all groups of followers, there are those who support inspiring people so that they can become the lightning rods for accountability and criticism. Let them do all the work and take the body blows. Let them foot the bill, while the followers themselves reap the benefits and rewards of their work. Freeloaders who automatically get credit for the work their icons did by simply associating with their name. They are good and upstanding people, doing their civic duty because they paid lip and finger service to the cause.
This kind of follower brings an unauthentic element to the movement that their icons are fighting for. The “I’m right behind you: way behind you” intention puts a selfish-if human, stain on the integrity of the cause.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
There are many would-be messiahs the public thinks will become immortal, only to be forgotten in a few months time, by today's standards. Names of people you saw on the internet or learned in school barely ring a bell anymore, like Columbine High School and Anita Hill. You have to Google their names just to get a brief summary of whatever their impact was supposed to be. The people who were criticizing the immediate reverence for Greta Thunberg, said she hadn’t earned it to become an icon so quickly. To that, I reply that its not people who determines who become remembered icons, but history itself.
There are more Pharaohs, kings, queens, and emperors than we can count that are not are remembered. Even if we don’t know the context of those remembered, we remember the emotional weight of the name. It’s gravitas is past down, sometimes genetically, sometimes culturally. Whether it's Ramses the Great, the Beatles, or Albert Einstein, their place as cultural icons and messiahs is locked in, because history seems to choose to remember them over others who accomplished the same results.
Perhaps Greta Thunberg will become one of those chosen ones. She certainly wasn't trying to be, as she said during her UN speech, “I shouldn’t be here.” . Perhaps not, as there are already many forces trying to make sure that her efforts gain no headway, Yet, neither they, nor the artist who did the graffiti on the junction box, or Twitter followers, are the ones who get to decide that. Time will tell.
© 2019 Jamal Smith