The Tithe #1,
Matt Hawkins, Rahsan Ekedal, Bill Farmer,
“Believe in me – send no money
Died on the cross and that ain’t funny
But my so called friends are making me a joke
They missed out what I said like I never spoke
They choose what they wanna hear – they don’t tell a lie
They just leave out the truth as they’re watching you die
Saving your souls by taking your money
Flies round shit, bees around honey.
Holy Smoke, Holy Smoke, plenty bad preachers for
The Devil to stoke
Feed ’em in feet first this is no joke
This is thirsty work making Holy Smoke
Jimmy Reptile and all his friends
Say they gonna be with you at the end
Burning records, burning books
Holy soldiers Nazi looks
Crocodile smiles just wait a while
Till the TV Queen gets her make up clean
I’ve lived in filth I’ve lived in sin
And I still smell cleaner than the shit you’re in” (Holy Smoke, Iron Maiden)
The way religion, showbiz and big money can come together in the US is something which can bemuse many on this side of the Pond, with even other religious people puzzled by this very American phenomena. The fact that on quite a few occasions over the last two or three decades these famous, multi-media preachers, who now control large business empires and wield considerable influence with politicians have been exposed as total hypocrites, fleecing believers of their money, living a high life, indulging in fleshly desires and a love of Mammon, about as far removed from the teachings of the Christ they stand up to espouse with a big game-show host grin on their face, promising you your own personal Jesus (and hey, we also accept credit cards). And that makes them a big, juicy target for Hawkins and Ekedal here, opening with a vast, modern, glass-ceiling church in California, vast pews, more like a giant theatre or stadium than church, massive screens and speakers projecting the telegenic preacher to the whole enormous congregation, who are rapturously swept up by his schtick as he works the crowd like a seasoned stage entertainer, happily throwing their money into the collection plates while singing “all to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give.”
But backstage a group in masks – masks patterned after the suffering Christ on the cross with his crown of thorns – are breaking in, deftly, dealing with the electronic locks, the security system, knowing where and how many guards there are and when they will be in position – this is a professional group. Swiftly taking over the back rooms they subdue all present without firing a shot, and when the collection money filters back to the counting room they are there to receive it. And such is the size of this glitzy glass church the taking run into the tens of thousands. But that’s not all they are after – they know there is more in the safe, much more. They force the church elder who counts the cash to open the huge vault which looks like something which should be in a modern bank, not a house of god (a deliberate nod to the money lenders in the temple chapter of the Bible?), ruthlessly strapping an explosive suicide vest to his body and threatening to detonate if he doesn’t stop lying about the time lock and just open it, or else he’ll get to meet his maker sooner than he anticipated. Unsurprisingly he acquiesces to their demand.
So far it all looks like a very professional robbery executed smoothly by a well-prepared crew that De Niro’s Neil in Heat would be proud of, while the Jesus masks put me in mind of the President masks in Point Break. But this is not all that it appears – sure they are robbing this mega-church, but they are taking vast sums from their secret safe, money that has supposedly already gone to worthy causes. Money that goes to finance a lavish – and rather sinful – lifestyle for the big cheeses of this church. And this group – Samaritan – are not traditional robbers, more Robin Hood style operatives, taking from the greedy, corrupt rich who prey on the less well off and redistributing the money to proper charities, while also hacking their systems; as the raid ends they trigger an alternative feed to the church’s massive screens showing their pastor with bikini clad women in the tropics, enjoying the fruits of his flock’s donations, now on screen for all of them to see. Some, as is the way, refuse to believe this evidence, must be a wicked plot, the pastor would never do that…
The FBI is following them, one agent, the tech geek Jimmy Miller, admires their methods, even though they still have to track them down, while the lead agent, Dwayne Campbell has a more jaundiced view of them as lawbreakers who are now escalating their activities to include armed robbery (albeit of a type where no-one is actually harmed). And there’s that nice, juicy moral quandry here for the reader – are Samaritan the good guys or criminals? Or a bit of both. That sort of morally grey area where good intentions clash with legal limits is terrific for drama. And of course it’s not hard to see this not just as an attack on those who bilk trusting believers for their own financial benefit and who condemn others for a lifestyle they are secretly enjoying themselves, but as being related to the them and us, rich constantly increasing their wealth and power through exploitation of the masses (and worse, frequently convincing large sections of the less well off to believe that this is the way the system is meant to be) which is much on the minds of many of us these days.
It’s not, though, a direct attack on religion or belief itself. In fact I detect a distinct sympathy by Hawkins for many of those faithful – they’re not the ones corrupted, fiddling the books, rolling on money, riding a Cadillac Camel around the eyes of needles, they worshipped and gave from conviction and belief. As he has Campbell (who tells his partner he is a Christian) comment, it’s not their fault that the pastor they trusted was corrupt, their own intentions were pure. It’s an interesting set-up for a series, an Anonymous style group (hey, back to masked people again!) targeting religious shysters to give back to real charities and trying to expose hypocrisy to both the population and to the authorities (our FBI agents are still after them, but they are also interested in the footage of the mystery millions Samaritan took from the church’s vaults), and as I said, that delicious dramatic tension between who is right and who is wrong, who is the good guy, who the bad? It will be interesting to see where Tithe goes with this.