This is the second in a series of posts interacting with James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. You can find the first post here. These posts are part of a larger discussion on Hunter’s work that is happening in the Global Missional Leadership cohort of George Fox University’s Doctor of Ministry program. You can join in the discussion at www.dmingml.com and by using the #dmingml tag in your tweets and facebook status updates. I should note that all citations of Hunter’s book will make reference to a Kindle location, not a page number, by using the format “loc. #”.
Hunter’s second essay is, “Rethinking Power.” In it he moves from criticizing the way Christians typically overstate the scope of their ambitions by focusing on too much on individual agency, to dissecting how Christians typically view and use power. The essay looks primarily at three Christian camps: the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. He devotes a chapter to each and explores how they all define their identities, frame their goals, and seek to exercise power.
He contends that all three of these groups find their identity formed, largely, through “ressentiment.” He borrows this term from Nietzche, noting, “His definition of this French word included what we in the English-speaking world mean by resentment, but it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive for political action” (loc. 1442-3). This is an important concept for the reader to understand because all that follows in Hunter’s second essay is based off of his claim that ressentiment is the central element in which the narratives that follow are grounded. Ressentiment uses the language of injury past, present, and the future threat of, and leads to claims of entitlement. Let’s take a brief look at how Hunter sees this at play in each of those three Christian groups.
The Christian Right
This group is motivated by a desire for a rightly ordered society that is based out a particular understanding about how America was founded. This functions as “the point of reference against which the present is measured” (loc. 1513). Emphasized in the retelling of America’s founding is an emphasis on the Christian values and motives of the founders. At the very least the founding fathers were informed by a shared Christian tradition, and some in this camp go so far as to assert that it was the intent of the founders to establish America as a Christian nation. There is a perception that America is an extension of the people of God mandated in the Bible. Following this line of reasoning, America’s prosperity is tied to it’s faithfulness to it’s identity as the people of God.
The harm to America lies primarily in the growing deviance from biblical morals and values. Increasing secularization, growing acceptance of homosexuality and abortion, and the removal of the traditional family as point around which society is built, mark the moral decline. This is resulting in the marginalization of Christians that is quickly headed toward legalized “anti-Christian bigotry” (loc. 1588) and efforts to disenfranchise the Christian voice in America.
The perceived sense of injury is centered in the very Christian way of life being threatened. The enemy is the liberal media, the political Left, and special interest groups with anti-family and anti-Christian agendas. To combat this active hostility, the Christian Right turns to politics. Their strategy is two-fold: prayer and action (loc. 1624).
First, believers are urged to pray for those in the country’s leadership, that their hearts would be turned to God and they would act to rescue America from this moral decline. Second, the believer is urged to vote their beliefs and values. The most powerful thing and individual Christian can do to rectify the moral decline is to elect people to representative government who believe like they do so that they can change the laws and compel people back into right living.
There is great hope in politics as the solution. Much hinges on the Christian Right’s ability to mobilize voters to elect the right candidates in order that those politicians will be in place to nominate and confirm Supreme Court justices to the bench who will codify and reinforce the values and beliefs that will return America to it’s roots as a Christian nation.
The Christian Left
This group is motivated by a desire for equality and community for all people that is based out of a biblical prophetic tradition that emphasizes God’s desire for all people to be free from oppression and injustice. This is rooted in “the future vision of the eschaton itself – the realization of the kingdom of heaven, where justice, peace, equality, and community exist in their ultimate state of perfection – that is the abiding ideal” (loc. 1816).
The perceived sense of injury is centered in the “harm done to the weak and disadvantaged of our society and world” (loc. 1876) through which there is appeal to prophetic threats of judgment for a nation who does not provide for its most vulnerable citizens. The enemy is the Christian Right who have harmed the faith by not fully representing the whole of Christianity. They accuse the Right of forsaking biblical faith in favor of political power through co-opting Republican neoconservative ideals.
Their strategy for righting these wrongs is to seize back power from the Christian Right. At this point the outworking of the agenda of the Left is almost indistinguishable from the Right. They also urge believers to vote the right candidates into office so that legislators can craft policy that will attend to the injustices that their faith compels them to address.
At the outset this group shares some points in common with the Christian Left. They, too, are grieved by injustice and poverty. They also hold a contempt for the Right. Their view of the State, however, marks a sharp departure from the Left (loc. 2042).
The neo-Anabaptists are compelled by a vision of Christianity that looks to the early Christian church of the apostolic age for it’s ideals. In terms of a stance on politics, the early Christian church was forming in a hostile political environment that was opposed to this new faith movement. This hostility and opposition to Christianity remains a key component of the neo-Anabaptist outlook and shapes how they view political engagement.
They decry the civil religion of both the Right and the Left, seeing both groups as trusting too much in the power of the state as the means to maintaining faithfulness. They accuse both the Right and the Left of perpetuating a neo-Constantinianism that is powered not only by a too cozy relationship between the State and Christian politics, but by American capitalism as well.
The power is manifested most clearly in the manipulation of desire through marketing and the inequitable and often exploitative power exercised by corporate management over workers. The Constantinian error here is that American Christianity has whole-heartedly and uncritically embraced its logic and practices to its own detriment and the detriment of the detriment of the world it seeks to serve. (loc. 2097-99)
The result is that Christians have conflicting allegiances to both Christ and democratic capitalism.
Their hope and solution rests in a renewal of a Christological ecclesiology. Only by recognizing the complete lordship of Christ can Christians begin to find their way out from under the thumb of the political and capitalistic machines. The meaning of lordship begins with understanding the role of suffering in the Messianic story. There was a willing submission to injury and insult by Christ, and this is reflected by the neo-Anabaptist commitment to nonviolence and pacifism in matters ranging from war to market coercion.
This is encompassed by a broader resistance to the State, in any form. Implied here is a sense that the call of the church is to be set over against the aims of the State. The church should not seek to garner the power of the State (as the Right and Left seek to do) but should actively resist the State’s exercise of power of their communities. The church should offer alternative communities that are centered on an identity of worship, preaching the Word, and observing the sacraments.
Yet for all their talk of resisting political involvement, the neo-Anabaptists are engaging in politics, nonetheless. Their attention to more and better ways to subvert the State in the name of alternative community is still a political play. It is one of disengagement and separatism instead of voting and power grabbing. Indeed, “their identity depends on the State and other powers being corrupt” (loc. 2240).
Now for my two cents.
Hunter’s framing of the Christian Right, Left, and Neo-Anabaptists in the language of ressentiment is an important one because, I think, it holds some truth to it. Especially in the realm of political engagement, but elsewhere as well, Christians are prone to define what they are for in the language of what their counterparts are against. If I’m pro-life I’m implying that those who disagree with my stance are anti-life. If I’m pro-choice, then my counterparts are anti-choice.
Even more distressing than using the language of negation as the vocabulary for posturing is the spiritual and psychological damage that is caused when a group of people are using injury and victimization to define themselves. Their very identity then becomes rooted in what has been done to them. This is not an identity rooted in redemption or the hope of restoration.
The Psalms can teach us much about how to respond to wrongdoing. There are numerous examples of how the psalmist turned from grievance to praise. Psalm 22 is an excellent example. David enumerates the wrongs that are being perpetrated against him: mockery, insult, physical threat, and fear. But he doesn’t stop there. He reframes his identity as one who will declare God’s name and praise him in the midst of suffering. Why? Because
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him –
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn –
for he has done it.
When Christians only look to the wrongs that have been perpetrated against them as their raison d’être, they miss out on the hope and glory and power of the resurrection. Good Friday is only good because of the Sunday that followed. Paul expands on this in Romans 8, in what is, arguably, the culmination of the most important passage he contributed to Scripture,
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, ho have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. – vv.18-25
It is this “hope for what we do not have” that needs to define our actions as Christians instead of the injuries that we do have. And we musn’t be too surprised when our efforts to change the world into the Kingdom fall short. “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?”
So, how have you (or have you?) seen ressentiment in the Christian camp you identify yourself with? It’s all too easy to talk about what “they” are guilty of. What are you guilty of?