To Change the World: Part 3, Christianity and Ressentiment

In Part 2 of James Davison Hunter's book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World he begins to analyze the current relationship between Christian faith and politics.

Hunter starts with an overarching claim: Everything has become political. Every aspect of American existence has become politically contested. The family? It's a political concept with rival ideological visions. Reproduction and sex? Hotly contested. Morality? A political war zone. Marriage? Um, yes. Christianity? Sadly, faith itself has become political, with those on the Right and Left trying to wrest Jesus from the other side.

What this means is that modern Americans increasingly define who they are and what they believe through political power struggles. The tragic consequence of this is that the state becomes the final authority, the means by which we relate to each other. In light of this, the goal is to take the powers of the state away from the other groups so we can control the political process. Both the Left and the Right are engaged in this power grab. Hunter on this point:

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them.

In short, the state has increasingly become the incarnation of the public weal. Its laws, policies, and procedures have become the predominant framework by which we understand collective life, its members, its leading organizations, its problems, and its issues...
There are a number of consequences of this "politicization of everything." For example, ideology becomes increasingly important. Hunter:
Politicization is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments...Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of [our] moral significance; of whether [we are] judged good or bad.
I worry about ideology because it comes to trump the gospel. We read the gospels as Republicans, as Libertarians, or as Democrats. It is increasingly difficult for Christians to allow the gospels to read the Republicans, or read the Libertarians, or read the Democrats.

But it gets worse. Our ideological positions have an emotional tone, what Nietzsche called "ressentiment." Ressentiment is a feeling of resentment and anger. Hunter defines ressentiment as "a narrative of injury." According to Hunter, ressentiment has come to define American political discourse. That is, those on the Right feel "injured" and "harmed" by Obama. Just as the Left felt "injured" and "harmed" by George W. Bush. In light of this "injury," feelings of anger, resentment, and even hatred begin to boil up. Hunter on ressentiment:
The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person's and the group's identity. Understanding themselves to be victimized is not a passive acknowledgement but a belief that can be cultivated. Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be. Thus, instead of letting go, the sense of injury continues to get deeper.

In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury--real or perceived--leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.
The sad aspect of all this, as Hunter shows, is that Christianity--on both the Left and the Right--is now dominated by ressentiment. Christianity has become a "narrative of injury," anger at other political groups and other Christians who are driving the country into the ditch. As Hunter observes:
Christianity [has] embrace[d] certain key characteristics of contemporary political culture, a culture that privileges injury and grievance, valorizes speech-acts of negation, and legitimizes the will to power...To the extent that collective identity rooted in ressentiment has been cultivated and then nurtured through a message of negation toward "the other," many of the most prominent Christian leaders and organizations in America have fashioned an identity and witness for the church that is, to say the least, antithetical to its highest creates a dense fog through which it is difficult to recognize each other as fellow human beings...
According to Hunter, this is the current tragedy of the Christian faith.

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5 thoughts on “To Change the World: Part 3, Christianity and Ressentiment”

  1. Saul Alinsky used to say that the most effective way to organize a mass movement is to "rub resentments raw." The various vendors of political sewage on television and the internet, working 24 hours a day, are selling resentment and rubbing it raw. This is Hunter's "narrative of injury," which some kinds of Christians have adopted as a new gospel, devoid of good news.

    Christians cannot afford to hold other people hostage to our resentments. Let us pray for those whom we perceive as enemies and abandon all ideas of retribution.

    May God have mercy.


  2. I'm starting to think this book would work well in conjunction with Miraslov Volf's "Exclusion and Embrace". I dig the new template btw.

  3. This goes well with Hunter's book and the quote on conservatism, plus it's by Chuck Norris. Yes, THAT Chuck Norris.

  4. I recently read Orson Scott Card's "Empire". The plot is based on a hypothetical civil war in America breaking down along the liberal conservative divide. While the book is certainly fiction, an afterward by Card describes the vitriolic nature of American discourse as being similar to that prior to the civil war of the 1860's. As extremism moves into the accepted mainstream conversation it is more important than ever that we find effective methods of combating it. So, I find myself asking the next logical question: how do we best defeat the "discourse of injury"?

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