The political scientists tell us we are living in the age of resentment. This is the story of searching for a word that defines our age because “resentment” doesn’t really fit the bill.
In an alliterative journey through the “Rs” in the dictionary, I tried resentment and revenge. All along I knew we didn’t reside in the Age of Aquarius, but the one word, the perfect word that fits us is a French word, ressentiment. We live in the Age of Ressentiment.
The trail of resentment
Jeremy Engels has traced the subject of resentment from Aristotle to Trump in The Politics of Resentment. Aristotle fretted that this emotion was unstable, unpredictable and ultimately ungovernable; in fact, resentment was the only civic emotion he treated as unqualifiedly negative.
Katherine Cramer has documented the rural/urban resentments that now complicate politics in Wisconsin in a book with the same title. Cramer relates the story of her liberal Democratic friend, Tom, who drives a Prius. Tom stopped for gas. A vintage convertible pulled in as well. The man got out of his car, looked at Tom, looked at Tom’s car, and said, “I don’t talk to people like you.”
Cramer notes: “It has gotten downright nasty around here. People, in casual conversation, are treating each other as enemies. And this is in a place in which people are notoriously nice. Seriously nice. But times change.”
“Resentment fails to account for this much felt hatred.”
Resentment fails to account for this much felt hatred. Engels traces this dark cloud to Nixon’s rhetoric. According to Engels, Nixon misused the principle of “enemyship,” once applied by American presidents to any enemy that threatened the United States. He applied “enemyship” to fellow Americans.
Others have pointed to the rise of Newt Gingrich and then the Tea Party. Dana Milbank proposes that shift in politics came on Sept. 27, 1994, when Gingrich, “the rising bomb thrower” became speaker of the House. Milbank says, “Gingrich set a course toward the ruinous politics of today.”
There have been so many writers to place the blame on Donald Trump, a convention of these authors would require a medium size city with adequate hotel space. Paul Johnson argues Trump bounces back and forth between strength and victimhood like a Mexican jumping bean. Trump claims he is very strong, very smart and very powerful and the best dealmaker in the world. Then he claims he is the most persecuted president in history, even more than Abraham Lincoln.
The “cruelty rhetoric” of politicians and preachers has opened the door to violence as acceptable expression of the political. A new study released by the University of Virginia shows 42% of Democrats now believe violence is an acceptable response to Republican opposition. Even Democrats have swallowed the poison pill.
Next, I tried the word “revenge.” Surely revenge dominates our politics.
In popular culture, nothing says “America” like revenge. Our movies have produced an entire genre of revenge plots. Kill Bill, Kill Bill 2, Memento, The Crow, Gladiator, Man on Fire, Payback, Oldboy, Taken, Cape Fear are considered in some circles as the “Top Ten Revenge Movies.”
My interest in this project originally began as an analysis of revenge motifs in movies and television shows. I confess that I originally became interested in understanding revenge as a persistent and now accepted cultural structure after watching and enjoying “fictional” television programs with themes of revenge. These shows felt unusual because of their encouraged identification with violent antiheroes.
My own mind felt stripped of its gears as I binge-watched the Netflix series Fauda. Fauda (meaning “chaos”) is an Israeli television series. It tells the story of Doron, a commander in the Mista’arvim unit and his team; in the first season, they pursue a Hamas arch-terrorist known as “The Panther.”
Fauda felt “American” because of its encouraged identification with violent antiheroes. Watching the episodes, I found myself gasping at the absurd violations of protocol, law and humanity, but was horrified that I enjoyed the show in late-night binge-watching marathons. I wondered, “Am I actually rooting for all this death and revenge?”
Then came the realization that I was participating in the subtle and insidious power of revenge — “prime-time” revenge. I drew the connection between my horror at the chaos between Jews and Palestinians and the chaos in our politics — horrific episodes of cruelty, hatred, anger and violence.
“Our viewing habits have invaded our minds, and our acceptance of violence grows exponentially.”
The two genres mixed as one scene of political reality. We all have become terrorists or the killers of terrorists, and we are convinced the methods of terrorists are somehow acceptable. This is the power of revenge. Our viewing habits have invaded our minds, and our acceptance of violence grows exponentially.
Politicians use revenge because it works. One reason, of course, is that a significant portion of the American public has been trained to believe revenge is a necessary part of life. Heroes get even with enemies. Call it the American trope.
Meanwhile, the caldron of revenge spills over into every area of our political culture. As the U.S. House of Representatives disintegrates into a middle school “food fight,” Jim Jordan’s allies spent days “threatening retribution’ against GOPer’s refusing to elect him speaker.”
Revenge is in the air we breathe. People are catching it by osmosis. Revenge has become a key word in the vocabulary of American politicians. But this is not sufficient to determine the cause of what appears to be the terminal disease of democracy.
Then I discovered a French word that pulls all the other descriptors together in one: ressentiment. The definition: A psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement.
Ressentiment, like an endless thirst, never can be satisfied. The evil genius of the demagogue produces an emotional-moral framework in which feelings and affects such as anger, rage, malice and revenge are never at rest, and no one act of vengeance can dissipate the nation’s desire for more.
Ressentiment turns us all into Sisyphus. Hades punished Sisyphus by forcing him to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. How odd that the followers of the God who rolled the stone away and raised Jesus from the dead have become the disciples of ressentiment.
“Somehow angry people never run out of reasons for being angry.”
Somehow angry people never run out of reasons for being angry. Max Scheler, in Ressentiment, called such a person “the man of ressentiment,” or an audience who is seething with righteous anger and envy yet also suffering from the impotence to act or adequately express frustration.
Friedrich Nietzsche gave us the inside scoop on the meaning of ressentiment. He viewed it as imaginary revenge. The only contribution made by ressentiment is negation. Ressentiment is an empty, dry well. It is the essence of nothingness. There’s no reward waiting.
Ressentiment produces a closed world of war between enemies. It is in its essence a negation of everything “outside” and “different,” of what is “not oneself.” Everything outside the circle of the “righteous” is a hostile world. Nothing matters but feeding the fires of ressentiment every day as an evil replacement for daily prayer.
Ressentiment is a sequestration of every positive human virtue: empathy, compassion, mercy, grace, love, kindness. The people of ressentiment keep all the virtues within the group, a form of closed intimacy.
Ressentiment is a self-poisoning of the mind. The person of ressentiment is consumed by emotions and affects such as revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract and spite. The imagined audience of the fearmongers is angry. They are angry because they suffer. They suffer because they are powerless. They are powerless because they are virtuous. Ressentiment leaks its pollution into the river of living water and poisons the evangelical churches with its rancor.
Ressentiment provides an endless loop of anger, hatred and the need for revenge. The need for revenge is never satisfied but remains the active power that motivates the consumed.
Ressentiment combines misdirected enmity and hatred with righteous indignation in pursuit of stopping social justice for gays, immigrants and minorities. This is evangelical ressentiment at its worst. It provides a moral framework — a biblical support — with an identity formation as “God’s faithful suffering people” and turns it into being a righteous victim. This gives evangelicals a steady diet of grievances, a flowing river of ressentiment that is constantly renewed with every example of what they consider an abomination. This is the essence of ressentiment.
The Age of Ressentiment defines America, and we see it on display every day in our religion and our politics.
Ressentiment is not Christian
Nothing can be more opposed to Jesus, more anti-Christ than ressentiment. Faith fueled by ressentiment is not in fact Christian. Jesus clearly says, “Turn the other cheek.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says quite clearly, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. But leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
In the first epistle of John, Christians are severely chastised for thinking that hating a brother or sister is acceptable Christian behavior: “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”
Rowan Williams’ study of basic Christianity, Tokens of Trust, explores the agenda of God as peace and praise, not resentment, revenge, and ressentiment. Will Campbell concluded the essence of Christian faith is reconciliation. Stanley Hauerwas examines reconciliation as the shaping of justice for Christians to be a people of peace in a world of violence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. modeled how reconciliation makes us ministers of nonviolence. John Howard Yoder observed that a church of reconciliation and nonviolence must exist as an alternative to the politics of anger and fear.
Scripture is clear. Christian theology is clear. If you are a Christian who harbors resentment, seeks revenge or lives in the spirit of ressentiment, you have a problem.
We live in the Age of Ressentiment as a culture. This is not Christian. As Christians we have to find ways to live in the new age begun in Jesus Christ: “Be reconciled to one another.”
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor and writer in New York state. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy.