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Jesus and the Politics of Resentment, 2

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  1. Unanswered Questions

Resentment is toxic and can poison the mind of an individual, spoiling that person’s sense of self and ability to relate to others. Likewise, resentment can poison the public mind of a nation, turning that nation’s people against each other, uniting individuals with shared prejudices into hostile sub-groups with belligerent pride in their shared identity. Here in America, a demagogue in chief has fanned the smoldering embers of resentments and prejudices into flames, dividing “we the people” into hostile camps that will not listen to each other or try to sympathize with the other’s plight. The demagogue and his acolytes encourage a cult of resentment whose members see the others – the outsiders, the resented ones – only as types (elitist liberals, brown skinned invaders, Muslim terrorists, spoiled women, etc.) and not as human persons. Absurd lies are woven into so-called “conspiracy theories” which are not theories at all but malignant fantasies. A true theory is developed from evidence and designed to be tested, then modified or discarded. These conspiracy fantasies deny validity to any evidence or reason that would reveal how absurd they are, and their true believers hold on to them no matter what because the fantasies justify the precious resentments that unite the group and falsely ennoble their anger. So they are able to name themselves patriots even as they pursue insurrection and subvert democracy.

America is burning with resentments. Important to note, I think, people defend their resentments with a passion that overrides sense, sympathy, honesty, and decency.

The ancient model for resentment comes in the biblical story of the brothers Cain and Abel. God accepts the sacrifice of Abel the shepherd but rejects that of Cain the farmer. We are not told why. Does God despise farmers? No, there is no reason given for God’s acceptance of one and rejection of the other, and God encourages Cain not to feel any bitterness, for he himself has not been rejected, and he can still do well if he resists the urge to resent his brother. Instead, Cain murders his brother, and so Genesis shows us the cycle of resentment and revenge in which humanity continues to destroy itself.

But what does Jesus have to do with the politics of resentment? In this post, we’ll start looking for the answer in his famous parable popularly called, “the Prodigal Son.”

The parable has two parts; it is the tale of two sons, both lost but in very different ways. Part one tells the story of the younger son’s shocking disregard for his father and subsequent descent into misery represented by the utter shame of a young Jewish man caring for pigs and even wishing he could share their food were he allowed. The self-disowned son eventually sees as his only hope a personal turnabout of Israel’s history of liberation from slavery: he will return to his disowned father and beg to made a hired servant.

Then comes the problem, the stumbling block for conservative humanity, and, yes, we are all conservative, I think, though in different ways. We will fight to preserve our sense of self, our identity, our way of life, even against change for the better.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is found in the Gospel According to Luke, chapter 15, where it follows two shorter and simpler parables that invite Jesus’ listeners to nod their heads in agreement with the rightness of uncontroversial human behavior. Yes, a faithful shepherd will secure ninety-nine sheep and go out to search for the one that has wandered away and is in danger; he will not say to himself, “What’s one missing sheep when I still have the rest?” A single sheep matters to a shepherd. And yes, a poor woman will sweep her house in search of a lost coin worth a day’s wage even though she still has nine more. Of course she will. What else would anyone expect? A coin matters to a poor woman.

But will a father welcome home, forgive, and reinstate the son who has so shamefully mistreated him and then degraded himself to a depth of uncleanness where he’s on the level of pigs, the very symbol of the filthy in his culture? Maybe not, and especially not without a probationary period. No, not unless this father loves and misses his son in the extreme. Seeing the lost son far off, the father runs to meet him, and as commentators point out, in that society dignified middle-aged men did not run.

Yet, and here is the pointed question of this first part of the parable, if we can conceive of a father’s loving his lost son so deeply that the son’s return overrides all bitterness, all possibility of resentment, punishment, or even probation, how can we not conceive of God’s joy at the return of one who has been lost and self-degraded beyond all perceptions of “what’s right”? Does God love less that even the most scandalously forgiving human father?

But the cutting edge of the parable comes in story of the elder son, and that is where Jesus challenges our resentments, whether they are personal or public. He is the obedient, hardworking, steadfast son. Here is his grievance:

“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 15:29,30 NRSV)

It ain’t right! It’s not fair! Why is he rewarded? It’s a slap in my face!

It is important to note that the elder brother denies relatedness to the younger. Speaking to his father who comes outside to reason with him, he refers to the returned, not as “my brother,” but as, “your son,” or as some translations put it, “this son of yours.” Resentment turns most toxic when it denies relatedness. “What am I, my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks God. “Jews will not replace us,” chant the white supremacists in Charlottesville. Refugees are called invaders. Children are caged as though they were dangerous animals. Not us. Not our kind. Not to be treated as sister and brother human beings. Empathy becomes for the resentful a bad word calling them to recognize relatedness where they do not want to see it.

Will the elder brother relent and join the celebration? Will he share in his father’s joy? Will he embrace his brother? We are not told because the deeply pious had not yet made their decision to share in God’s joy at the return of the lost and outcast. Soon, the religious would make that choice and turn Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified.

Will we allow resentments to take over our politics, national and local? Will we allow them to divide us as a nation, as states, as neighborhoods, and as families? Will we drink their poison? These questions remain unanswered.

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Jesus and the Politics of Resentment

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  1. How It Works

Mitch McConnell’s now infamous remark that student loan forgiveness, which he labels as socialism, comes as a “slap in the face” to working families and all who have paid off their loans, provides a blatant example of the effective use of the politics of resentment. Both the left and the right sides of our politics make use of resentment to arouse their bases, but while the Democratic Party (especially its progressive side) more likely fosters resentment of the ultra-rich, extremists in the Republican Party stoke the fires of white working class people’s resentment toward the poor (seen as lazy), immigrants (pictured as invaders), the educated (regarded as privileged, snooty, and out of touch), “people of color” (perceived as “not us”), and the young (smeared as whiners).

Politicians and their acolytes on television, radio, and white supremacist web sites are also fanning the flames of Christian nationalism. Here in Pennsylvania, we have a candidate for governor who claims to want to make PA a “Christian state.” Reportedly, that candidate has assured us that Jews will not have to leave the state, which may sound (falsely and arrogantly) benevolent but really identifies a targeted enemy. Not surprisingly, his opponent is Jewish. So, this viciously fake tolerance fits right in with the extremist chant from Charlottesville, “Jews will not replace us!”

Resentment is an insidiously effective motivator for bringing together people who feel they are being wronged and driving them toward contempt, not only for the vulnerable they see as threatening their way of life, but also for the political party they are persuaded is to blame for the alleged unfairness. What is this outrage being stoked, and where does it come from? It is based upon the belief that people should have to deserve what they get and should get what they deserve. To the resentful religious mind, God should be in charge of seeing to it that such a system of rewards and punishments works and keeps working. The idea is that people who suffer should deserve their suffering, and those who prosper should deserve their prosperity. Further (and crucially important to the power seekers who fan the flames of resentment), a person’s condition should be taken as a reliable indication of what that person deserves (unless someone, such as the opposition party or the unworthy “other,” has treated that virtuous person unfairly). In short, if I don’t get and keep what I believe I deserve, someone is being unfair to me.

Resentment comes as an angry response to shame. The psychiatrist and theorist Donald L. Nathanson gave us a “compass of shame” indicating the four reactions of people to the shame affect they experience when the good they expect seems cut off or denied. The four points on the compass are (1) withdrawal, (2) attack self, (3) avoidance, and (4) attack other. The politics of resentment encourages the fourth response. It’s a shame that those lazy, no good, freeloading people are having their debt forgiven after you did the hard, responsible, upstanding work of paying yours off! That kind of thing. Notice that anger toward those people now to be resented is intensified by disgust for them. In his first presidential campaign, Donald Trump frequently and vehemently called “disgusting” whatever groups of people he wanted his audience to resent and come to hate.

I suggest a self-testing in steps. When listening to politicians or the media political talkers who promote them, ask:

• Am I being encouraged to resent a group of people and, if so, what group?
• Is this group truly responsible for my situation that “seems a shame,” or are they merely being given something I’m supposed to think belongs to me but not to them? Is it even something I don’t have, or just something I’m supposed to believe I deserve but they don’t?
• Is this group powerful in our society, or are they vulnerable and so easy to attack?
• Am I being encouraged to think or just to get angry?
• Would denying this resented group the help, benefits, respect, or rights they seek have a positive effect upon my life and the life of the nation, or is my anger being used to benefit someone seeking power?
• Is the politician or media speaker urging me to support a solution to a problem of human suffering or deprivation, or just trying to make me angry and resentful and so gain my support?

I paid off my student loans when doing so was much easier and the interest lower. My education opened the doors for the career I was pursuing in addition to teaching me to think and keep learning for the rest of my life. Should I now resent student loan forgiveness? Am I supposed to adopt the toxic attitude of, “Nobody gave me anything. I made my own way and worked for everything I got!”? Those statements would both be lies, self-deceptions. I received a lot of help, and back then the path toward a career was much clearer and much more likely to lead me into that career. Should I now allow myself to be controlled by a hate-preaching demagogue? I would be letting myself be degraded into a bitter. resentful person, and I might very well find myself getting angry at any friend or family member who dared suggest that helping or even just respecting the people I had been led to resent might be the right thing to do.

In my next post, I’ll start to ask what Jesus has to do with this issue of the politics of resentment. Two of his parables, including his likely most famous (the Prodigal Son), speak to this issue and call upon the resentful to open their minds and hearts. Resentment is a poison. Politicians, media talkers, and preachers who call forth our resentments and play upon them to turn us against the vulnerable in our society are toxic, and their ways are evil. Resentment makes us weak and bitter. It robs us of empathy and so degrades our humanity.