The Memory of Wounds

Over at Experimental Theology, Richard Beck considers the question of why some groups want to be seen as the underdog. He quotes from James Davison Hunter’s work To Change the World:

The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity. Understanding themselves to be victimized is not a passive acknowledgement but a belief that can be cultivated. Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be. Thus, instead of letting go, the sense of injury continues to get deeper.

In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury–real or perceived–leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. [This] ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.

Fred Clark, contemplating one of the current “war on Christmas” flare ups, links this directly to the Evangelical subculture:

The Christian candy cane legend has come to serve the same purpose as all that silly demagoguery about the “War on Christmas.” It is told and retold to foster a sense of grievance and victimhood. The Sunday school teacher’s object lesson wanted us to see candy canes and to remember Jesus’ birth. The Christian candy cane legend wants us to see candy canes and remember that the culture used to be ours, that it rightfully belongs to us, and that it is being unjustly taken away from us by secular humanists, activist judges, liberals, academics, evolutionists, radical feminists and homosexuals.

It reminds me of a famous quote from the Nobel Lecture delivered by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. After he spoke of friends who lay in mass graves courtesy of the Nazis, he apologized for “laying bare a memory like a wound” and gave us an incredibly provocative quote:

It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds. At least we are so taught by the Bible, a book of the tribulations of Israel. That book for a long time enabled European nations to preserve a sense of continuity – a word not to be mistaken for the fashionable term, historicity.

A memory of wounds can give us an identity and a sense of connection with the past. This solidarity is powerful, and it can be politically useful, particularly in a democracy where mobilizing a segment of the population can easily change the outcome of an election. And so we see demagogues manufacturing the memory of wounds, implanting the idea that something precious has been taken away so that they might ride the politics of resentment into power.

  • vasaroti

    Candy cane legend? This reference is whoooshing over my head.
    I was raised in a culturally Catholic family, and always heard that somebody in Koeln made sugar stick candy into shepherds’ crooks, and handed them out to keep kids quiet during services. Those Catholic Xmas services can run all night. The stripes came along after industrialization.
    They always reminded me a bit of barber poles, which go back to medieval barbers advertising bloodletting.

    • Matthais777

      There is an entire story that basically goes “These stripes me jesus blood, the white means jesus purity, the hook is either a shepard’s crook or a J, the pepermint is…. sorta a spice like the wise men brought.” You get the idea. Honestly, until just this moment, expite being ex-christian, i never even thought to check if that story was true or not.

    • vasaroti

      OK, maybe I should read the link before commenting. This “legend” is complete crap. I grew up around old German-American ladies who were nothing if not traditional bakers and confectioners, and never heard about this bogus symbolism. Ditto “hyssop” flavoring.

  • Sue Blue

    I grew up in a Seventh-Day Adventist family, and persecution – past, present, and future – seemed to be the underlying theme of nearly every sermon, “mission” story, and tithe appeal. The church was founded on a sense of separatism – the founders were former Millerites led by the supposed prophetess Ellen G. White who believed that there was a huge “war” between Satan (the RC church), and True Christians, and that Satan came in many forms. Her many books describe in loving detail the persecution and suffering of various Protestant or offshoot Christian groups such as the Albigensians in medieval Europe. She also wrote about how modern Adventists could expect to be persecuted for their beliefs, and that they should rejoice in such suffering, because it would be a true sign of “End times.” I remember how every little issue, whether it was having to join a union at work, having to work on the “Sabbath” (Saturday), being “surrounded by popular paganism” – i.e., Halloween, Christmas trees, and Easter eggs, was a form of persecution we had to endure. Every effort was made to proclaim how separate from the evil world we were – our vegetarian diet, our sabbathkeeping, our modest clothes and lack of jewelry, and our tendency to live in Adventist enclaves. The more attention we got for these practices, the more “persecution” we would endure – and the sooner Jesus could return.
    Adventism, like most evangelical protestant denominations, is all about paranoid, cultish xenophobia, even to the point of despising other Christians for minor differences in doctrine. This ridiculous paranoia, the idea that suffering and misery is somehow “holy”, and the constant yearning for disaster all highlighted the harmfulness of religion for me, and was one of the major factors in my becoming an atheist.

  • busterggi

    “Some of them want to abuse you. Some of them want to be abused.”

    Great song!

  • Kodie

    I was reading the article about the candy canes. The author seems to overlook starlight mints, I think they are called. A classic grandma’s-handbag candy. The thing that grown-ups know that kids don’t is those are really good after a big meal, not to freshen your breath because the sugar will rot your teeth, but as a digestive aid or gas relief or something. Another thing that was overlooked was the general store candy sticks. They come in a variety of flavors and like many other candies that are the same shape, have some standardized color codes so you know what flavor it is. Still available in any bulk candy shop or anywhere that sells “old-fashioned” penny-candy types. (See also: ribbon candy, saltwater taffy, that sort of thing). I don’t know how peppermint came to be white with red stripes. I was told it was shaped like a J to hang it on the fucking tree. You can’t hang candy on a tree unless it’s shaped like a hanger. Nor why peppermint came to be a “Christmas” flavor, perhaps because it is cool, or its digestive properties are a festive relief in the gluttony of the season, or both, or neither, or just by the festive color. If you were going to pick one stick of candy, shape it like a J so it hangs on a tree branch, you would probably pick the flavor that’s already colored like the holiday – red and white like Santa. If you go to the store now (I mean in modern times, at Christmas-time), they sell novelty packages of much better flavored candy canes, the variety-striped cherry, the two-tone blueberry, white with green stripes (spearmint), or even bubble gum or Jelly Belly flavors, Life Saver fruit flavors, and fake ones made of plastic or wood. Traditional people like my mom prefer the peppermint ones still, even though nobody can stand to eat one. They might try to start, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even as much as I like candy, and I can take a starlight mint if I need one, I can’t eat a whole candy cane. I wish it was cinnamon.

    That’s totally different than what I was going to say, which is: Christians crammed Christmas down our throat without a thought that anyone might have minded. Christmas is unavoidable for EVERYONE. I would be delighted if they take it back to their quiet midnight masses and family feasts so that unless one wanted to be there, it would not even bring notice that it was a special day, a specially annoying, unavoidable, inconvenience of a holiday*. If it wasn’t for the fact that they’re stealing candy canes just like they stole pagan festivals, I’d say they could have them. Candy canes are annoying. But they do make the tree look nice.

    *Not a big fan of Christmas. It makes people a little nicer or a lot less nice. It’s like a big mood swing, stress, but I love everyone, but I can’t find a parking space unless I jump someone for it, and the debt, and the generosity, and the obligations, and the sentimentality. I do like the nice parts of Christmas, and I wish if everyone stopped saying they wish it could be Christmas every day, because they obviously don’t mean it, it’s just a big hangover, and then they start jogging religiously for at most 2 weeks and gripe because people leave their lights up a little too long, just when taking them down reveals just how dreary winter is.

  • Revyloution

    Interesting article, but I couldn’t help but notice the parallels to our own atheist movement. The leaders of the secular movement often resort to the victim hood of our godless brethren. We’re forced to spend money with prayers to the Semite god, our children are coerced to pledge alegence not only to our nation, but the god were supposedly founded on. Our courts flaunt the Decalogue in our face when we pay our parking tickets, and the horrors we face when gazing upon a nativity scene on the court house lawn in December.

    In reality, atheists in the USA are wealthier, better educated and have longer lasting marriages than the average citizen. It’s only by playing this victim card that we can get our day in court to try and remove religion from the public sphere. I’ve often felt that this approach is a wee bit dishonest, but we really don’t have any other paths open to us. Our laws are based on victim protection, so if any group is seeking redress, it only makes sense to paint your followers as the oppressed, no matter how privileged they truly are.

  • Jessica Weaver

    I was just going to say that the victim card is one that can be applied to both theists and atheists…but that guy up there beat me to it. (Revyloution). Lots of Athiests feel wronged by religion and the hold it has on our country, and that spurs them to lengths sometimes similar to the ones they dislike so. I knew someone once who told me he thought religious people should be deprived of their children because religious indoctrination is child abuse. I don’t technically disagree with him in that I think teaching children to believe a myth rather than learn to think critically about the world and their place in it is wrong and sad…but taking people’s children away? A little far. And I hate that when I was a christian we talked openly about teaching non-religious people’s children about God against their wishes, and felt like we were justified. I hate that. I hate both things. I just think atheists have to be careful to never lose sight of the similarities between all zealots of any stripe.


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