We Don't Need a Messiah (And Anyway, It Isn't Me)
Coincidence led to my being hailed as a prince of peace. But change will come from our own hard work, not a deity
The much arrested activist writer and Abahlali baseMjondolo member Raj Patel on why he is NOT the messiah.
Firstborn sons of British Asian families aren't so much raised as feted, and as a child I became quite comfortable being a little prince. At seven years old, I wanted the privileges of primogeniture to carry on forever. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded with the full spectrum of acceptable answers: Accountant! Dentist! Quantity Surveyor! Secretly, though, I wanted to be full-time royalty. From what I saw of the British monarchy – and I have yet to be disabused of this view – it seemed that if you were born in the right place and time, you could enjoy almost permanent adulation, free money and long hours of indolence.
I mention this first because earlier this year a trickle, and then a flood, of email asked whether I was, in fact a prince. Specifically, people asked whether I was Maitreya – The World Teacher – a prince of peace, the leader of a movement that might be able to save the planet from itself. Others wrote to ask whether I was the antichrist, the Prince of Darkness.
As the Guardian reported, the deluge began after a number of coincidences seemed to match me up with the man foretold by followers of a group called Share International, founded by Scottish mystic Benjamin Crème. I'd done little to earn the title of Maitreya, though I admit some parallels between my life and that described in the prophecy.
Have I lived in London? Yes. Am I interested in social justice and sharing the world's resources? Indeed I am. Do I care about feeding the world? Certainly. Was I on American television soon before Crème announced the arrival of Maitreya? Sort of. On 12 January, I appeared on a spoof rightwing talk show called the Colbert Report. I'd also been on BBC World, CNN, Democracy Now and al-Jazeera before then, but it seems you can't be a deity unless you do Comedy Central.
So what, according to Share International, does Maitreya do? Through a doctrine of sharing, fraternity, social justice and co-operation, he (and it does seem to be a he, not a she) brings humanity back from economic and ecological collapse through new forms of spiritual community. As it happens, I do think that sharing, fraternity, justice and co-operation are terrific things. I also think that prioritising the needs of the poor, hungry and oppressed is a non-negotiable part of a sustainable future.
Unfortunately, I think that's where the resemblances end. It frustrates me only a little less than it might disappoint those looking for Maitreya that, in fact, I'm just an ordinary bloke. Not that my protests of not-being-the-messiah have been heeded. I wrote a short piece on my blog suggesting that, like the hero of Life of Brian, I was the victim of a case of mistaken identity, and that "you've got to work it out for yourselves". This didn't fly. I was reminded by my correspondents that the Maitreya would deny divinity. And when I suggested that I wasn't the messiah, "but a very naughty boy", others pointed out that this was exactly what Lucifer would say.
Crème himself hasn't been able to help. He was recently interviewed by Mick Brown, the author of The Spiritual Tourist, and Crème suggested that I wasn't the messiah but, instead, more closely resembled "that chap who does the cricket on the radio" – possibly Jonathan Agnew. But that hasn't stopped the internet from churning out its particular brand of speculation, and for the media to amplify the frenzy.
In part, I suspect the reason the story isn't going away – the New York Times just ran a followup – is because it fits a narrative in which we're steeped from birth. From the Bible to Knight Rider to The Matrix, the story's the same: in crappy times, a single person will emerge to make all the difference and turn everything around. Although it makes for great viewing, it makes for a bad society. Ultimately, tales about messiahs are bedtime stories steeped in power. They're debilitating soporifics, inducements to be passive as we wait for social change because, some day, our prince will come.
Why wait, though? If the world is to transform, faith in politicians offering hope and change is a recipe for disappointment. Ask almost anyone who voted for Obama. Change happens through millions of acts of rebellion and mutual aid, not through faith in one great leader. What's depressing about this whole Maitreya thing is that it is a sign that we've given up on ourselves, that we need to depend on The One rather than finding the means to fix our own problems directly.
The thing is that there are millions of world teachers already. I've been lucky enough to report what they're teaching: from former petrol-pump attendants in South Africa to masked women in Mexico, leaders are subjecting themselves to democratic control, and messing with the boundaries of private property so that everyone gets to share the world's resources. Their vision of the commons looks a lot like what Maitreya might bring to Earth (and for which Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize in economics last year). And the good news is that it has been here all along.
This, at least, is the world I'm keen to live in: one without princes but with billions of world teachers, in which we live under neither God nor Master. It's a recipe for change that makes for poor storytelling but great politics.
The only problem is how to condense it so that someone can chisel it in stone.