The Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment

- an Essay  from Tom Spencer's Soul of the Garden

In his brilliant book, The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch offers an insightful critique of the American Progressive movement. In a chapter largely focused on the rise and fall of the Civil Rights Movement, he talks about one of the keys to the early success of Martin Luther King and others, a bearing and attitude that the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called, "The spiritual discipline against resentment."

Lasch writes, "Self-righteousness and resentment, as Niebuhr understood the latter term, went hand in hand. Victims of injustice, whose suffering entitled them to resent it, had all the more reason to renounce resentment, lest it confer the sense of moral superiority that allegedly excused them from retaliating against injustice with injustice of their own. In order to undermine their oppressors' claim to moral superiority, they had to avoid such claims on their own behalf. They had to renounce the privileged status of victims. They needed "repentance" no less that their oppressors.

Lasch continues with his analysis of the near miraculous success of the civil rights movement in the South when he quotes Leslie Dunbar, a white participant in the movement who described civil rights activists as "Strange revolutionaries," who "come as defenders of the land and its values. They come, as one prominent white Southerner once put it to me, to give us back our country."

What I fear most in America's current "culture wars" is the lack of an organized opposition to the radical right that truly speaks to our values, that actually believes in the country that needs to be reclaimed, and that isn't deeply resentful and self-righteous.

As a gay man living in a state that recently passed an anti-gay marriage amendment by an overwhelming margin I understand the temptations of resentment. When I travel from the little blue island that I inhabit out into the wider red sea of Texas I run into my own self-righteousness when I encounter them -The Wal-Mart shopping, Bible and gun-toting, W voting Americans.

I try to remind myself that red-staters are not universally motivated by hatred or ignorance, but largely from a very real and palpable fear. For many, especially those living paycheck to paycheck, America in 2006 is a truly frightening place. News reports lead with what bleeds, jobs are being outsourced, wages are stagnant, healthcare is nearly out-of-reach, our culture turns ever more vulgar, and enemies seem to lurk around every corner of the globe.  Some of us  might claim that these dangers are exaggerated, and indeed they are often exploited by the fear mongers of the right, however, they are by no means delusional.

The self-righteousness I struggle with when traveling in red state suburbs or small towns also reminds me that the individuals who inhabit those places feel that self-righteousness, if not directly through me, they sense it in our culture - they know that the latte sipping urban sophisticates look down on them. And, as much as the leadership of the Democratic Party and liberal interest groups talk about looking out for the little guy, the little guys sense that the boundary between genuine concern and condescension gets a little blurry in the blue archipelago.

I had a disturbing epiphany about all of this during the first showing of Brokeback Mountain that I attended. During the scene when the character, Jack Twist, is passionately reunited with Ennis Del Mar, many of the gay men in the audience let out a loud and Simpsonesque laugh, HAAAAH-HAAH! I was horrified because they were laughing at the fact that Alma Del Mar, the wife of Ennis, witnessed Ennis and Jack's passionate kiss. Her world had come undone. They laughed. Their callousness translated as, "Stupid bitch, he's one of us!" A tremor of discomfort radiated out from several of the straight couples in attendance. Here we were together in a theater showing a beautifully acted and directed film that positively glows with real compassion - shouldn't that compassion flow in both directions? Of course not every gay man in the audience laughed, and some may have simply been releasing pent-up tension from a highly charged moment, but still...

The Civil Rights Movement that Christopher Lasch was writing about was the last real success of the progressive "Left Hand of God." (To steal a phrase from
Rabbi Michael Lerner.) After the signing of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act the movement drifted into resentment politics and victimhood was elevated to a status akin to sainthood. Today, the scattered remnants of the left seem more concerned with political correctness than with actually making a difference in the lives of everyday folks and the Democrats don't seem to believe in anything. Many of my friends, straight and gay, are hoping that the current troubles of the Bush Administrations signal an end to the rise of the right, however, I think they are sadly mistaken. Fear isn't going on vacation even if Karl Rove and Cheney are "frog marched" out of the White House.

What is needed to counter fear is hope - not a foolish optimism, but a genuine hope that despite the darkness of the evidence; the light of dawn will come. What fuels that hope cannot be proved by the march of history or our current state of affairs, but rather the undying and maybe even unreasonable conviction that the light is what matters.

I do not claim to be a Christian, but Jesus had it right when he advised his followers, "No man, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a cellar, nor under a basket, but on a stand, that those who enter in may see the light." A resentful, self-righteous heart is shrouded - its light cannot be seen much less shared.

Hope lifts our eyes and strengthens us for the work that it must inspire. Hope is the best antidote to the spiritual nature of the crisis that threatens our democracy. But our hope must be bound to that "discipline" that Niebuhr pointed to. We cannot  win hearts and minds if we carry resentment, much less callousness and self righteousness to those we seek to convert.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." - Martin Luther King, Jr.


Excerpted from the January 2006 Edition of  The Daily Muse

All material 2000-2006 Soul of the Garden. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.