The texts of Christianity have been slowly at work, under the power of the Holy Spirit for 2000 years now. If we could be magically transported back into the world of two millennia ago, modern Americans would be shocked at the cruelty of that world. There was no concern for the victim. Now things have reversed, and it is necessary to shroud oneself in the garb of victimization in order to have any aura of moral respectability. One can see satanic cleverness in the evolution of the modern world. As the victim has been rehabilitated, it is now possible to exploit very old fashioned possibilities from that position. The Gadarene madman of the modern world might have been able to use his life and experience as a platform for new acts entirely unknown to antiquity.
Fredrick Nietzsche, from a profoundly anti-Christian perspective, spoke of a “transvaluation of values.” His claim was that Christianity universalized and further developed what he saw as the perversions of Hebrew “slave mentality” and morality.
Nietzsche was a truly profound interpreter of the Classical world. His admiration of Greek and Roman Classical culture was quite revolutionary and is still appreciated. In his work, The Birth of Tragedy, he argued against the prevailing German intellectual ethos of the time and gave a new interpretation of the development of Greek art. It was commonly argued that the breathtaking beauty and freshness that was created was because the Greek world was the nursery of humanity. It was the freshness and precociousness of the world’s childhood. Greece represented the child prodigy of humanity and she created with unconscious effortlessness. Nietzsche challenged this and said that Greek art was not a result of a precocious child, but rather was the result of those who summoned all of their powers and became “overmen” or “supermen” overcoming the terror inspired by the cosmic chaos.
Greek metaphysics was based on an ontological dualism of form and matter. Form represented order imposed from the realm of the intellect onto the formless and chaotic matter of the world. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad represented the two classic forms of heroes battling the two great primordial kinds of chaos, and imposing order or form upon them. The Odyssey represented the sea with all of its formless terror, and the Iliad was the great story of the battlefield, and of the chaos of war threatening the city. The city-state represented the Greek masterpiece of ideal political order imposed on barbarian chaos by enlightened leaders and philosopher kings. Art and politics were closely intertwined. Art, particularly the sculpting arts, represented the imposition of form upon the chaos. The city-state was the human ethical form of statuary.
The power and terror of chaos cannot be overstated. The tsunami of several years ago illustrated the power of the unleashed sea to destroy civilization and order with peculiar clarity. Order is rare and unnatural. For the Greeks, in common with modern Darwinism, chaos is ultimate, and order within the cosmic chaos is but a speck, an island, imposed momentarily by the gods and by men who are heroes. Ultimately, the chaos will triumph, and there is no final hope. But momentarily, the heroes construct a dike and impose an order that is beautiful, orderly, and symmetrical. To do this is the ultimate ideal.
Now Christianity came along and attacked and undermined the ideal of the hero, and even saw it as the quintessence of evil and sin. The Greek hero is the incarnation of pride, which is the heart of original sin, according to Augustine. Christianity attacked Classical excellence, and exalted the mediocrity of the slave, and the weakling. Classicism produced excellence, and this human excellence was very well portrayed by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics which was intended to be a portion of his Politics. The excellent man, the magnificent man, who is also the proud man, is a man of beautiful form, and is the ideal citizen of the city state. Christianity, according to Nietzsche, exalted the weakling, the underling, the mediocre man, over against this magnificent man. It caused the slave to resent his superior, to envy him, and to wish to overthrow him with his own inferiority. Christianity exalted the sniveling victim, and gave honor to criminals, prostitutes, beggars, and the worthless throw-aways who clearly were enemies of the perfect order of the city-state. Christianity was the ally of chaos and a new class of underling barbarians who lacked both the strength and the intelligence to create anything beautiful or worthy.
Nietzsche noticed certain things in his own 19th-century Europe that he attributed to Christianity and he saw Christianity as sanctioning and promoting. He saw the rise of the envy of excellence, and the resentment of greatness by the small minded. He used the French form of the English word resentment—ressentiment—because the French word carries with it subtle undertones of persistent hatred rooted in feelings of impotence that the English (or the German) does not quite convey. This thesis has been very broadly explored and adopted by a number of thinkers, because it so clearly portrays very obvious realities in the modern world. Several of these thinkers are very profound and are themselves Christians. While Nietzsche attributes these modern realities to Christianity in a most complete way, one can as a Christian thoroughly appreciate his psychological and cultural perceptiveness, and yet in a modified and more indirect way relate these things to Christianity.
Max Scheler notes that Goethe already observes these cultural phenomena: “Christian ‘mercy’ (note the force and spirit of this old fashioned word) is replaced by the feeling expressed in the statement ‘it arouses my pity.’ As early as 1787, Goethe could question the kind of ‘humanism’ (Humanitat) Herder preached under Rousseau’s influence: ‘Moreover…I think it is true that humanism will triumph at last; only I fear that the world will at the same time be a vast hospital, where each will be his fellow man’s humane sick-nurse.’”
My own interpretation of the phenomena of ressentiment is that it is indeed a side effect of Christianity. There is little or no evidence of such psychic processes in the ancient world. Manfred Frings of DePaul University says in his introduction to Scheler’s very profound volume, Ressentiment, that such feelings and emotion do not exist “when individuals freely accept the social stations they are born in and where there is little or no competition.” He goes on to say that “The pervasive slavery of ancient Rome, for example, apparently did not generate ressentiment to speak of against Roman masters. To be born a slave at the time was felt to be a natural state. Neither Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, nor Plato in his Republic perceive an omen of possible upheavals when they touch upon the theme of social classes. Accepting the social bed one was born in was, right or wrong, was the order of the day, and contributed to some communal feelings of solidarity which modern societies are not prone to develop.”
On the deepest level of spiritual existence there is a transformation of fallen man’s sense of sinful rivalry with God. In the ancient, pre-Christian world, God was experienced as the Almighty, the Powerful One. The act of creation is an act of infinite power. Even in the crass idolatry of animism, or in the idolatry of monistic or pantheistic religions, the experience of the gods is one of terrible power. Therefore, man either in imitation or in rivalry of God or the gods is animated primarily by this sense of power. The ancient world everywhere idolized the mighty warrior. We see evidence of this very early in the Old Testament prior to the flood when there were giants and mighty men who filled the earth with violence (Genesis 6:4,13). Even earlier, Lamech boasts of his prowess by boasting that he kills for being wounded or hurt, and that he shall seek revenge seventy seven fold for all offenses against him. This is the gibbor, the mighty and fearful warrior. This is the hero who is animated by pride and is in rivalry with the power of God.
In the New Covenant, God comes in a different way. He comes not as the Mighty Warrior, but as the Humble and Meek One who is finally victimized in every way. Paul’s profound poem of the kenotic Christ in Philippians 2 tells us of this strange redeeming God who is so different from the ancient terrible warrior. He becomes of no reputation, becomes a slave, and dies a horrible death on a gibbet. He is a victim. Therefore, just as ancient men came into rivalry with God by becoming powerful oppressors and creating victims, modern man comes into rivalry with God by becoming a false Christ and transforming himself masochistically into a victim.
Now this is precisely the phenomena that Nietzsche noticed and wrote upon, and protested so violently. The tantalizing new possibility that did not exist in the ancient world, and still does not exist in non-Christianized parts of the world is the new possibility of the weak persecuting the strong by assuming the role of victim. The modern neurotic is a backwards upside down Christ. He is in effect, an anti-Christ. He is a mockery, an imitation of Christ. “If I cannot be happy, if I cannot actualize my fantasies, my hopes, if I cannot achieve or be given my utopia, my New Jerusalem, then it is the fault of the strong, the rich, the powerful, the excellent, the talented. I am victimized by them, I am made powerless by them, I am placed on a Cross by them, and it is their fault.” The degree of suffering that can be inflicted on others in this way is not to be minimized.
Let me here quote Karl Stern’s The Third Revolution: “Now there are living in our midst thousands and thousands of people (there is a strong possibility that they form the majority of mankind in our present civilization) who suffer, or produce suffering among those around them, in a most puzzling manner. They live in mortal anxiety, or they are unable to hope, or they are entangled in a mysterious hatred, they are out to destroy that which would give them happiness, they are incapable of trusting, or they are being oppressed by something which is best called insatiable remorse. They form a huge army of suffering, dissatisfaction, frustration, and assault. . . . If an observer could, at one glance, behold all the neurotic suffering and entanglement in the world today, he would get the impression of something quite infernal. Infernal is a good word for it. Many of our neurotic patients express the thought literally: ‘this is hell on earth.’ Those who live with them often say: ‘Life with that person is hell on earth.’”
Infliction of such suffering may be as terrible and as much an oppression as the old fashioned tyranny of the powerful. And, ressentiment greatly complicates our ability to judge the case of many peoples in the modern world. Many minority groups who have been historically powerless enter modernity and the possibilities that modern equalities afford. Their case then becomes a complex and sometimes indiscernible combination of being oppressed and victimized, and at the same time learning the powerful possibilities of assuming the role of victim and using this as a means of inflicting suffering on the older and established classes and groups. The persecuted become persecutors. It has been noted by various thinkers that destructive revolution almost always happens, not when people are at the nadir of being oppressed, but rather as oppression is lifting, and rising expectations give birth to hope. In the time prior to the revolution in 1917, Russia had freed the peasants, and had a rapidly expanding economy with more possibilities for upward mobility than anywhere in Europe at the time. The peasantry owned 80% of the arable land, while in Britain more than half the fertile soil was owned by large estates. “Life in Siberia around 1900 was no worse than in North Dakota or Saskatchewan at that time.” And yet the revolutionaries paid back in misery many times over those they deemed their oppressors. I have heard similar things in regard to the precursors of the French Revolution. Likewise, feminism did not arise in say, Islamic areas where brutal oppressions of women exist, but amongst the best educated and relatively wealthy women in the Untied States and Europe. A resentful feeling of oppression was the very strongest amongst the freest women in the world, or all of history.
Alcoholics Anonymous, in speaking about the power of alcohol to the alcoholic, says “we have a cunning and baffling enemy.” The book of Hebrews speaks of the “deceitfulness of sin.” Once sin is unmasked one way, it transmutes itself like a virus into a slightly different form that is immune to the old antidotes. We live in the very odd day when the Christian Gospels have done a great deal of work to unmask what was invisible to the ancient world in regard to the victim. But now in many cases the garb of victimhood can be donned in order to victimize others, in order to persecute. The persecuted have in many cases become the persecutors, and it is necessary to understand that victimhood is not an automatic ticket to righteousness or moral superiority. Several recent theological perspectives have granted to victims a special status and even an “epistemological advantage”, meaning that only victims really see the world as it is. In all of this thicket, it is essential to highlight the fact that Jesus was not in the final analysis a victim, and He did not pioneer the way to make victimization profitable, but he opened the way to overcome and create a new social order that is truly based on righteousness.
I once heard someone teach on the encounter between Jesus and Pilate. This man had worked with Intelligence Services 50 years before, and had seen many men who had been under torture. He said the invariable effects of torture were either: a) it breaks the man, and he will do anything, no matter how degrading or humiliating, to stop the pain–under this scenario, the personality just disintegrates; or b) a small minority of men cannot be broken but become fanatically defiant, and are held together by furious hatred of their tormentors.
In the case of Jesus, neither happened. Jesus before he was brought to Pilate, had been deprived of sleep, serially interrogated for many hours, and put to torture by professionals. By Jesus second interview with Pilate, His back would have been a bloody mass of meat. Not only has Jesus been tortured, but Pilate has all of the terrible powers of anticipation to hold out before Jesus. He can have Him crucified.
But Jesus’ behavior is uncanny. Pilate is undone in his presence, and at one point in the narrative in John it says of Pilate, “he was the more afraid” (John 19:8). He moves from being afraid to being more afraid. It is Jesus who has the princely bearing, not Pilate, and Jesus clearly is in control. Pilate seeks a way to release him, but is caught in the pincers of Real Politic. When He is crucified, the Gospel of John particularly shows the Cross as virtually a throne from which Jesus rules. “Woman, behold your son!” He says to his mother, and to the disciple John, “Behold your mother” as he transfers responsibility. He welcomes the thief next to Him into paradise, He prays for His tormentors asking for them to be forgiven, He makes known His needs in His thirst, and finally, He says, “it is finished” and gives up His spirit. Jesus chose the moment of His death. No one took His life from Him. One of the Roman soldiers seeing how He died declared from his own Roman perspective that this man was surely a god. Jesus suffering overcame victimhood and after His resurrection opened the way for all who believed in Him to likewise overcome all victimization.