The perpetrators of the last three mass shootings had different ideologies, it turns out–a white supremacist in El Paso, a leftist in Dayton, a social Darwinist in Gilroy. But what they have in common is that they were all white men under 25 described as “loners.”
How does the Church do in reaching and ministering to individuals like this? Youth Groups tend to be oriented to fun-and-fellowship for joiners, rather than introverts and troubled brooders. Can churches do anything for them, not just potential domestic terrorists, but the much-more common angst-ridden youth at risk for suicide and misery. In light of these concerns, Christianity Today hosted a podcast entitled What Mass Shootings Mean for Loners and Youth Ministry.
In the conversation between Morgan Lee and Lutheran Seminary professor Andrew Root, an expert in youth ministry, a useful term emerges, one that accounts for much of today’s polarization on every side. In the course of a perceptive discussion that I urge you to listen to or to read the partial transcript of the podcast, Prof. Root says this:
What I think is a toxic recipe that we’re dealing with is loneliness coupled with what Nietzsche actually called ressentiment, this French word for resentment, which is deeper, which is these deeper grievances. And so when you’re all alone, and no community of face-to-face interaction, but you can go online and just be taken into kind of a pseudo-community reverberating grievances, I just think it’s corrosive to the human soul. And so I think there really is something endemic about what it means to be a modern person that we live with this at least baseline sense of grievances or that resentment for other people or resentment for the way the world is.
This inspired me to delve into the concept of ressentiment. From the Wikipedia article on the subject:
Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed toward object which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority complex and perhaps even jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. This value system is then used as a means of justifying one’s own weaknesses by identifying the source of envy as objectively inferior, serving as a defense mechanism that prevents the resentful individual from addressing and overcoming their insecurities and flaws. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability. . . .Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be “blamed” for one’s own inferiority/failure.
The article discusses what various thinkers have done with this concept–from Nietzsche’s silly argument that Christian morality comes from slaves finding a way to make their masters feel guilty to Christian appropriations in Kierkegaard and Rene Girard.
But the psychology of ressentiment rings true, and it helps account for much of what we are seeing today–not just mass shooters but also Islamic terrorists, incel (“involuntary celibates) hatred of women, anti-semites, racists, etc., etc.
It works like this:
- I am unpopular; therefore, popular people are EVIL.
- I don’t have much money; therefore, rich people are EVIL.
- I didn’t live according to my faith; therefore, Christianity isn’t TRUE and the church is EVIL.
- My side lost the election; therefore, the other side STOLE IT.
- I broke up my marriage and abandoned my children; therefore, family values are OPPRESSIVE.
- I can’t get a good job; therefore, it’s the fault of immigrants/blacks/Jews/fill in the blank.
So what is the role of ressentiment in today’s politics of both the left and the right?
To be sure, some groups have genuine enemies–not just the “illusion of enemies”–and some “scapegoats” do have responsibility for a person’s troubles. That is to say, some “resentment” can be justified. But ressentiment is self-justification by demonizing others, which can certainly be toxic, whether mixed with loneliness or politics.
Can you think of any antidotes? In the church? The nation?
Illustration: Graffiti in Shoreditch, London, photo by MsSaraKelly [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] via Wikimedia Commons