Christianity is a religion of heroes and victims.
Jesus was a rabbi with a hero/ savior/ messiah complex. Heroes save the day. Saviors… well I guess they save people. Messiahs bring metaphysical bliss down to Earth. You could add redeemer to the complex list – someone who pays someone else’s debt, or pays for someone else’s freedom. According to the Christian story, Jesus was and did all of that, and one of these days He’ll culminate the messiah part by staging a glorious return to make everything all good forever. (Kind of like Trump 2024….) You and I – and every human who’s ever lived – are the victims Jesus did all that for, but in a surprising plot twist he did it by becoming a victim himself, submitting to death by torture at the behest of his own Father. (Some father….) Then, to complete the loop, once Jesus rescued, saved, and redeemed us, we’re supposed to return the favor by acting like him – which means being both heroes and victims ourselves.
That’s the Bible story. It has dominated western worldview and culture for two millennia. It’s still the majority outlook in the USA, where I live. Mental health professionals don’t think much of the hero/victim model. Instead, we’re supposed to set boundaries and know our competencies, be aware of both our own power and our own limitations, accept what we can and can’t change, etc. Plus there’s a good chance all that rescuing and saving and paying and making everything work out is a ruse – we only do it to look good. Too much of that and the next stop is narcissism, where it’s so much all about you that you’ll turn nasty to make sure it stays that way. Narcissism is when “hey, can I help you with that?” turns into “I’m the only one who can fix this.”
Can we agree we’ve had enough of that for one lifetime?
Well then, what would Jesus do? He offered lots of guidance, such as the following:
“Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Luke 9:23-24 ESV
Take up your cross – get crucified, lose your life in the most horrible kind of way…. That’s the gold standard for how to be both a hero and a victim at the same time. Never mind what the pop psychology mental health weenies say about it. That’s what Jesus did. Now it’s your turn.
From what I can tell, most Christians don’t bother with the gold standard. Tin will do – it’s more sensible. Bible verses like that need to be theologically sanitized – no way we’re supposed to save and rescue and redeem our way to death by torture. Thus bearing your cross turns into putting up with shit. I mean, shit happens, right? So deal with it.
Me, I went for the gold — took everything literally, like I thought we were supposed to. Well not quite literally – I had to modify the role to fit, so I fashioned a Lord of the Manor complex. I became the beneficent ruler – my own surrogate version of Jesus’s over-indulgent loving Father. Money? Time? Personal disadvantage? Letting people run all over you while turning the other cheek? No problem – nothing too shitty for my God, nothing too shitty for me. Pick up the tab. Write the check. Hold the door. Sign up for the cause. Take one for the team. Come early stay late. Clean the toilets. Give it all away. My God is rich, so I’m rich in Him. I can always come back for more. And if I lose it all, well, I’ve still gained Christ. I’m still good – if not in this life, then in the one to come. That was me – the Lord of the Manor, always pushing the limits of my divine pedigree, always looking for a way to be magnanimous and great while also being last and lowest.
These days, I’m amazed at what I used to believe.
It wasn’t easy, and because most people didn’t try it, it got me noticed and promoted in the Kingdom. I liked being Lord of the Manor. I got used to being the one to sweep in and save the day, be an inspiration to others. It was cool to be noble and self-sacrificing, upstanding and honorable. It never occurred to me that responsible stewardship might mean balancing the ledger. If I had, at some point it probably would have bothered me that my Divine Rich Dad never came through with the money to float my magnanimous habits. I guess I just figured that was okay, because my job was to get low – identify with the poor and meek and lowly – in the name of being great.
Can you spell “royally screwed up”?
A close cousin to Lord of the Manor syndrome is “servant leadership.” It was big in my Christian world, these days I’m occasionally surprised to see it make a comeback in the “secular” world– no doubt because it’s one of the many ways Capitalism and Christianity get cozy. Secular foot-washing will grow your company, fatten profits (and your paycheck), fund cool vacations, build empires, make life sweeter. Servant leadership comes right out of the Bible, straight from the Man:
“And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” Mark 9:35 ESV
“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.” Matthew 20:26-27 ESV
Wow — “slave.” Tough word. I guess it gets a pass because it sounds like the modern workplace. There’s a branch of law called “Master and Servant” — the historical term for employment law. No kidding. Master and Servant is right out of the Bible. No surprise there, because so much of Western culture comes right out of the Bible. No wonder bosses are the way they are. No wonder a recent economic study says that the average CEO makes 351 times more than the average worker. Master and Servant indeed.
I never caught the “slave” part, never made the connection between what I was doing and what it was like to be a slave under the USA’s original legal system. Like everyone else, I was going along believing that the Civil War had actually ended slavery and that the 60’s Civil Rights Movement had fixed a few things that had slipped through the cracks. But now, after George Floyd and over 200 others have been murdered by police for having the wrong skin color, roughly half the country seems to know better, while the other half is busy banning books that suggest that maybe “liberty and justice for all” has been a long-standing sham.
“Liberty and justice for all” – when a culture is too dumb to get its own ironies, it’s in serious trouble.
When will we be delivered from the Rage Boys and their flags and battle cries of “freedom”?
And then there’s the issue of laying down your life for your friends – how to be a big time hero and victim at the same time:
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” John 15: 13-14 ESV
Oh okay, we’ve heard the lay down your life bit before, but what’s this about the way to be Jesus’s friend is to do what he commands? “You wanna be my friend, you do what I tell you.” Hmmm. Does anyone else feel like that’s a little… um, skewed?
If you’re going to have a messiah, hero, savior, and redeemer, you’re going to need a lot of victims. That would be us – again with Jesus leading the way on both counts because he wasn’t just any old victim, but an uber victim — a martyr. A martyr is a hero and victim at the same time. I once skimmed through a book with stories of Catholic saints and martyrs (the two work closely together). Mostly it was an extended contest to see who could have the most gruesome death. Fortunately, we Protestants weren’t so big on martyrs…although there was a girl in our college fellowship who was sure she was going to be one — apparently she had special revelations about the End Times that people weren’t going to like. We thought she was nuts. It never occurred to us that we might be as well.
My Lord of the Manor shtick avoided martyr envy. I did it not to be dead but to be great. That’s what the Bible said would happen. I never saw the irony, never noticed the looming narcissism. It does seem like some people actually can do good things for the rest of us without being in it for greatness. Me? Not so much – hypocritical, sympathetic but not empathetic, the emotional intelligence of the super-annoying kid who tries way too hard. I grew up in Minnesota, so maybe that’s where I got it. But I wasn’t just Minnesota Nice, I was Minnesota Christian Nice. Thinking about it now, it makes my skin crawl.
Lately I’ve been wondering what my life might have been like if I hadn’t been so hypocritically self-effacing in the name of doing what Jesus would do. I find myself thinking I should try to be less likeable, less agreeable, less “no you go first.” I don’t know if I can pull it off. I’m not sure I want to. But suppose I could — what would I be?
Maybe just show up, do my best, help out when I can… but check the pretense at the door.
Doesn’t sound so bad.
For more: on the complex:
The Savior Complex | Psychology Today
Narcissism and the Hero and Victim Complex | Psychology Today
Messiah Complex: What Exactly Is Savior Complex? (scienceabc.com)