The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche identified a tendency in political life that he called ressentiment. As James Hunter explains in To Change the World, it embraces what we mean by “resentment, but it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as a motive for political action” . This definition is correct, but at first glance seems to name a vile affection that most of us could not imagine being true of ourselves. Yet, as Hunter correctly argues, ressentiment animates both the conservative Right and the progressive Left including the evangelical versions of both political stances.
“Ressentiment is grounded,” Hunter explains, “in a narrative of injury, or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged” . Slowly this sense of wrong begins to shape a group’s identity, and “is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies” .
The narratives or stories—or more accurately, the political myths—that are foundational to the mindset and worldview of both evangelical conservatives and evangelical progressives are shaped in large measure by a profound sense of ressentiment. This deep sense of injury is one reason why incivility, anger, and sharply worded attacks at perceived imbalance, unfairness, and danger seem to dominate the rhetoric in the public square.
The political myths of the Right and Left are quite different, but both animate their followers. As evangelical conservatives tell the story of history, America was founded as a Christian nation, but that heritage and culture has been stolen by secularists, and the liberals who dominate the press and the world of higher learning are trying to move us from freedom towards ever-increasing expansion of intrusive governmental power. As evangelical progressives tell the story of history, America was founded by marginalized people seeking freedom from injustice, but increasingly middle-class Christians have championed free market consumerism, and the conservatives who dominate the so-called Christian media have hijacked the witness of the church, proclaiming a message that is a perversion of the full gospel, conveniently forgetting biblical mandates about caring for the earth and the poor.
The result of this ideological captivity on both sides of the political spectrum is devastating. For one thing, ressentiment, like all forms of bitterness and anger, is like a deadly poison slowly working to kill our souls. That it has fostered an environment in which thoughtful discussion becomes impossible should be rather obvious. And, as Hunter points out, “rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by its rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of will in opposition to others” . Both myths involve a highly selective reading of history, the sense of injury that animates both sides is unbecoming to followers of a crucified Lord, and the angry identification of opponents that must be defeated if truth and justice are to prevail is a practical denial of grace and compassion. In the end, Hunter says, “many of the most prominent Christian leaders and organizations in America have fashioned an identity and witness for the church that is, to say the least, antithetical to its highest calling” .
Both the Evangelical Right and the Evangelical Left have evolved into political ideologies, or to use a more biblical term, idolatries. Animated by ressentiment, they claim to bring the gospel to bear on the public square while actually baptizing an ill-spirited will to power with a thin veneer of Christian religiosity.
It brings me to despair to realize how difficult it is for me to treat others as I would want to be treated. I do not plan incivility towards those with whom I disagree, but find it tumbles out of my heart unbidden. I am selective in my choice of evidence, am quick to argue, and often fail to listen with care.
Help me to remember that the enemies against which I struggle are the flesh, the world, and the devil. That my hope lies not in the political process but in the promise that you remain sovereign even in this world where nothing remains untainted by the fall. Cause me to demonstrate the love you have called your people to exhibit, granting grace to opponents as well as friends. Give me the strength to shed the easy idolatries on offer in the public square, choosing instead simply to be faithful to your gospel. Cause me to be civil, thoughtful, and fair even when those who disagree with me do not return the favor. Help me to motivated not by remembered injury but by an abiding gratitude for your goodness.
By your grace alone may your world see some small glimpse of glory in me because of Christ and come to believe.