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Jesus and the Politics of Resentment, 4

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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.