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Jesus and the Politics of Resentment, 4


4. How It Is Working (final post in this series)

I have it on good authority that resentment is fueled by a combination of fear and contempt with, at its onset, a dose of shame triggered by a painful sense of loss. For some, the loss is a way of life. “Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end.” With that loss may come also a sense of being diminished, made less – less powerful, less important, less secure, less well regarded. If pushed by someone stoking resentment, that sense of loss can be turned into a belief in having been cheated or robbed by some enemy or invader. Then, the demagogue has only to identify that enemy to manipulate some of the resentful into hatred and perhaps violence.

To play upon people’s resentments effectively in the pursuit of power, the politician or television opinion talker must enhance and inflame the crucial factor: contempt. The demagogue focuses disgust and scorn sharply upon some group to be despised, and it helps to project some representative individuals of that group for special scorn and hatred. Hence the apparently electrifying chants of, “Lock her up!” at Trump rallies and the snide, ‘Let’s go, Brandon!” It is of course, important, for the manipulator to continue stoking the resentful people’s fears as well, but that job can be done in whispers because few like to admit to fearing people they scorn, and contempt feels much stronger.

It seems somehow important to human beings that they have someone to exclude from their circle of acceptable humanity, someone for whom it would be wrong to feel sympathy, empathy, or compassion, someone it is right to despise. The successful demagogue plays upon that perverse sense of rightness. The trick is to convince the targeted followers that anyone who speaks in favor of the despised group is thereby hating and denouncing them, working against them, and replacing them as the right people. For example, the cry, “Black lives matter,” is twisted so the demagogue’s followers hear it saying they themselves no longer matter and the despised are shoving into line ahead of them. For the demagogue’s purposes, the followers must not hear simply that what has been denied and trampled for centuries right into the present time (the worth of black people’s lives) must now be affirmed and supported, because if they let themselves hear that positive, reasonable message, they may no longer resent it, and then the demagogue will lose power over them. They may stop falling for the demagogue’s lies.

What has Jesus of Nazareth to do with this foul art of manipulating people by their resentments? Plenty, but centuries of misinterpretation have hidden from our sight his particular parable that challenges his own people’s contempt for the group they believed they rightfully despised. This parable has been defanged and declawed for so long that we hear it as nice. Jesus’ parable is not nice. Wrongly, we call it “the Parable of the Good Samaritan.” How pleasant, but, no, this parable was perhaps his most offensive because it not only pictured the potential hypocrisy of the officially pious but also elevated the despised figure to the position of humble, faithful, admirable hero.

The Gospel of Luke sets the scene by having a teacher of the law (Torah) pose a mean-spirited question to Jesus. The question itself is fine, but the intent here is to entrap him and use Jesus’ answer against him. “What must I do,” the man asks, “to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what is written in the Torah. “What do you read there?” So Jesus gets the man to answer his own question: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

No doubt it would be embarrassing to pose a question meant to confound the teacher and then find yourself answering it and being told by that teacher you were hoping to trip up that you got it right. “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” There it is, the question that reveals the rot. This question is not looking for someone to care about, to treat fairly, to welcome as a brother or sister, to accept as a friend and equal. No, the question really asks, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” Whom may I rightfully and piously exclude? What kind of people may I leave outside the circle of my sympathy, empathy, and compassion?

Jesus deliberately places the already despised and excluded front and center, not merely as one who should also be treated well, but as the good guy, the true neighbor, the one who does what God commands. Back then, in that land, Jews and Samaritans despised each other. Contempt of one for the other was assumed and accepted as fully justified. Don’t you remember what they did to us? Because the name Samaritan triggers no negative feelings in us, inflames no smoldering hatred, evokes no disgust or scorn, we miss the point easily. Indeed, without even thinking, we associate that name with the word good – the Good Samaritan – and so with hospitals and a the kind of person who goes beyond the norm to help people in distress. To Jesus’ original audience, the name Samaritan meant nothing good. For the extremists, perhaps we may say, with a nod to General Sheridan, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan.

Jesus makes it clear that there is no circle that can be rightly drawn to exclude disliked groups from the command to love our neighbor. In the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7), he includes specifically the enemy within the range of that command. He is revealing the God who breaks the world’s cycles that move us from offense to resentment to exclusion and to revenge. And the cycle keeps repeating itself.

In the name of Jesus Christ, politicians and their media chorus are playing upon people’s resentments to gain power, and they are stoking fear and contempt that subvert democracy. Because a minority cannot often triumph fairly in a democracy and keep control, those seeking power are manipulating that minority into rejecting and derailing democracy. By lying about the stealing of an election, they are trying to steal elections, to gum up the mechanisms of democracy so badly that people will no longer trust democratic elections. The demagogues are promoting an anti-Jesus form of belligerent Christianity combined with an anti-American form of false patriotism. Those who fall for the scam, however, come to see themselves as the real Christians and true patriots. We are living in a perilous time.

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Jesus and the Politics of Resentment, 3

  1. A Tough One for Us

This parable from Jesus (Matthew 20:1-15) is hard for us to follow and accept, for some of us maybe even impossible. We have called it the “parable of the eleventh hour workers,” but that name misleads us into the later Christian preoccupation with getting people saved and into heaven without caring much about earth and God’s love for the world. The parable is not about deathbed confessions or efforts to slip through the pearly gates at the last minute before they close the person out. The issue is here and now, but how can we — who have so much of wealth, comfort, and insurance and who without much thought accept competition as the right and proper driving force of human life and necessary engine of progress — possibly grasp the meaning of this parable?

Now wait a minute! Wealth? I have wealth? Since when? I turn from the computer screen before which I’m typing this draft to look out my study window at our backyard on the three tenths of an acre we own. Our home is off-handedly called a starter house which sounds funny because it is the first my wife and I have owned and the one into which we moved after we both had retired. The house is also the first we’ve occupied that included central air conditioning as well as the modern marvel of central heating we’ve never lived without. We each have a car. I could go on, but I hope the reader gets the point. Yes, by any measure against most people who live today or have ever lived, we are quite wealthy, even though by this society’s standards, we are not.

In worship services, we pray, too often casually by rote, “Give us this day our daily bread,” or in some versions of Luke’s gospel, “our bread for tomorrow” not realizing that petition is the urgent prayer of the day laborer. He goes each morning to the market hoping to be hired and so to trade a hard day’s work for a denarius, a coin worth enough for him to purchase one day’s bread and oil for his family. Just enough. If he is not hired, no bread for tomorrow. Please, God, grant me a solid day’s work in the hot sun so my family may eat. Bread, just bread. Maybe sometimes a fish, if I can get one, maybe two small ones.

How can we enter the world of the long-ago day laborer? But is he or she a specter of the long-ago and far way? Go the parking lot of, say, a Home Depot some morning early, and you may just see them: the day laborers hoping to be hired. Sometimes they work construction, sometimes they pick produce for our veggie trays or crudités.

The urgent prayer of the day laborer is the background music for Jesus’ parable of the generous landowner and the resentful workers. The story unfolds simply enough. The landowner needs day laborers to harvest his crops and so goes to the market to hire them. A bumper crop requires the landowner to keep returning to the market to seek more workers. The final time he goes leaves only one hour before sundown for those hired last to work, but he needs them. The parable’s cutting edge comes when he pays all the laborers, starting with those last hired to whom he gives a denarius, the day’s wage. Seeing his generosity, those who worked in his fields all day expect more money, but they too receive only the agreed upon amount, a denarius each, no more. Here comes the resentment.

Their expectation of extra pay, cut off by the experience of being handed only a denarius, triggers shame affect because they have been denied the extra money they expected, believe they deserve, and still desire. Soon disappointment gives way to the components needed for resentment: anger and contempt. The disappointing experience translates to them as unfair. They feel cheated. They deserve more. Or the latecomers deserve less. But how would the hunger next day of the latecomers’ families benefit the disappointed all-day workers and their families?

I suspect this parable offended people even among Jesus’ original listeners, unless they had experienced the fear and desperation of not being hired and the shame of returning home with no denarius. Imagine the relief and even joy of those who stood around almost all day, hoping desperately for some work and some small payment, maybe even just the chance of making enough of an impression to get hired the next day. But this employer cares about them and so provides for their families. So, he asks the ones grumbling why they resent his generosity which, from the viewpoint of their resentment, they see as stinginess.

The politics of resentment succeeds by redirecting anger and contempt onto the vulnerable — the immigrants and undocumented workers, the women who have taken men’s jobs, the outsiders brought in to do the promised temporary jobs while locals remain unemployed and watch their old way of life crushed under the weight of development, the others who (like the last hired workers) are desperate for their daily bread — or the elites seen as looking down their noses at the “ordinary people” who are told by those seeking to capitalize on their resentment that they are the real Americans. With the proper encouragement from a demagogue, the resentful are easily manipulated.

Then-president Donald Trump remarked that one good thing about COVID-19 was that he no longer had to shake hands with “disgusting people.” In accidental and clueless honesty, he spoke his contempt for the very people who supported him, voted for him, and screamed their resentments at his rallies. Hillary Clinton foolishly and obnoxiously referred to Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” But Trump was the seasoned con artist, and his slip into uncharacteristic honesty seems to have cost him nothing.

Resentment is complex. The fire lit by disappointment and fear bursts into the flames of anger increasing into rage, and contempt intensifies into hatred. Resentment drives people to fight for revenge and pride even if their fighting burns their lives and even the nation’s life to the ground. The antidotes to resentment are sympathy and compassion. Can the all-day workers sympathize with and feel for the desperation and fear of the overlooked day laborers willing to work in seeming futility for only a single hour’s pay?

We are so marinated in our notions of the fairness and rightness of competition and judgments of the comparative worth and relative deserving of people that we cannot easily appreciate this parable, let alone make the jump from recognizing the employer’s generosity and compassion to appreciating God’s compassion for the fearful, the desperate, the disappointed, the shamed, and, yes, the undeserving. But there it is, and what we do with it is up to us.

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Jesus and the Politics of Resentment, 2

  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

  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.