by Mandy Blakeman
Messianism originates from the Abrahamic concept of the Messiah, or “redeemer.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, messianism refers to the coming of a future Messiah, a cornerstone of that religious faith; the Messiah is the savior of humanity and the bringer of new life, so his coming is anticipated and expected. It has historically been associated with studying religious texts for a Messiah-figure or clues about the Messiah’s coming, giving the term a distinctly Western and Judeo-Christian skew that some scholars protest (The Authors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). Messianistic terminology has been borrowed and adapted in more recent study to refer to revolutionary phenomena that inspire a devotion that echoes that of a religion. Walter Benjamin, and later Jacques Derrida, took the religious term and applied it to political and critical theory, placing emphasis on rapid or sudden movements that furthered history, much like the development of Christianity for Western history. Oftentimes, it is useful in reference to cultures touched Christianity through colonialism or missionary work and is therefore applicable in the realms of sociology, anthropology, and critical theory.
Negative Messianism is a term coined by Achille Mbembe in his study of necropolitics, a subset of postcolonial critical theory. Since messianism is associated with the coming of new life, redemption, and a savior, negative messianism is a reversal of these ideas; “it is about survival and the willingness to sacrifice or to be sacrificed” (Mbembe 106). Proponents of negative messianism have no faith that any kind of salvation or redemption is coming to this world, and so they preach violence and apartheid. This every-man-for-himself way of thinking aligns closely with the ideas of nihilism in that there is a rejection of religion and a belief in life’s meaninglessness.
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