The greatest challenge facing Christians in North America today is not external. It is not an action by the Supreme Court, or the threat of losing tax exemption, or the political and financial pressures to compromise basic Christian ethics.
It’s an internal challenge – the temptation to see yourself as part of a persecuted minority that finds its identity in being wronged.
What Is Ressentiment?
This is the challenge of ressentiment—the Nietzschean concept warned about by James Davison Hunter. According to Hunter, ressentiment is
“. . . grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged. The root of this is the sense of entitlement a group holds. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity.”
You can see ressentiment on display in the discourse surrounding some of our most pressing political debates, from the LGBT community, to gun rights advocates, to ongoing discussions on race relations. You can see the same approach among many Christians, who form organizations and set up media outlets to solidify support and rally the base around the protection of rights or the opposition of all kinds of injustices – some real and some perceived.
Please note that some of these injustices are real. There are legitimate grievances expressed by the LGBT community. I have spoken out on the real and enduring issues raised by African American brothers and sisters. We do well to recognize recent infringements on the religious rights of Christians who do not affirm same-sex marriage.
So, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is no injury against these groups. Nor am I equating these grievances. There are indeed issues of injustice, some more pronounced than others.
But ressentiment goes beyond recognizing and opposing injustice. Ressentiment is when the community thrives on its sense of being injured. The group rallies around its identity in being wronged.
Betraying Your Christian Hope
The political landscape in North America is heavily influenced on rights, wrongs, and a mindset of entitlement. Too often, Christians have fallen into, what Hunter describes as, a “discourse of negation”—a strategy for cultivating solidarity around a group that is afraid of further injury or that needs to mobilize against the newest threat.
The problem with ressentiment is that it is, fundamentally, a worldly way of addressing the challenges we face.
- It lacks faith because it assumes the worst in every person, casts opposing viewpoints as belonging to enemy oppressors, and takes umbrage at every perceived slight.
- It lacks hope because it assumes all is lost unless every injustice is corrected right now.
- It lacks love because all it can do is keep a record of wrongs.
- It lacks grace because it grows from the roots of entitlement.
Hope in Future Justice
So, what is the solution? Hope.
Christian hope is a sword that cuts through the marrow of ressentiment. Hope challenges our fear of injustice going unnoticed by reminding us of the future when God will right all wrongs.
This does not mean that Christian hope should lead us to a quietist approach to life and politics, as if all we should do is quietly endure abuse or injustice, without speaking for the truth. No, rejecting ressentiment does not mean advocating retreat.
But hope means that we keep ever before us the truth that any loss experienced is only temporary. Any political setback is just that – a setback, not a defeat. Pressured, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not in despair. Persecuted, but not abandoned. Struck down, but never destroyed.
Christian Hope and Cheerful Courage
Christian hope challenges ressentiment with cheerful courage. We betray our faith when we are united more by bitterness and grievances than by cheerful confidence in God’s good purposes for the world and our love for the people who may injure us. When we are united by outrage, we look and sound just like the world.
I recognize that what I am saying here applies primarily to Western cultures. In a society where Christians feel entitled to privilege, ressentiment is one of the primary temptations. In other societies, where persecution is rampant, and injustice has become an accepted reality of everyday life, the greater temptation for Christians is despair. However, even in those societies facing those circumstances, the darkest times are the moments when hope shows itself as a piercing light.
Missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin challenged believers to look back to the resurrection when facing discouragement, for
“the way we understand the past is a function of our whole way of meeting the present and the future. The community of faith celebrates the resurrection of Jesus as the ground of assurance that the present and the future are not under the control of blind forces but are open to unlimited possibilities of new life.”
Hope in the Darkness
Hope is what leads someone to soldier on, especially in the face of evidence that says the cause is lost. Matthew Lee Anderson is right to point out the distinctive vision of Christian hope:
“It was not their love which made the early Christians such an irrepressible force. In the midst of an over-stretched empire that had grown decadent and fat off of its own success, and which had ceased to see any life beyond its own horizons, it was the hope of the early Christians that allowed them to kiss the dying, to hold their own bodies in chastity, and to turn their martyrdoms into murals.”
To maintain faith when the signs indicate things are working out as one would like is not hope. To rest assured in in the coming victory is hope, even when all seems to be failing, and this is the hope that grabs the attention of a world that knows only false hope in the wrong future.