Monday, November 30, 2015

The Culture of Martyrdom

It feels like every few weeks that American Christians find something new to get angry over. Some examples from this year: the false allegations against Planned Parenthood that it sells aborted fetal tissue for profit, Kim Davis, the Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, the recent absurdity over Starbucks changing their cup design to not include generic symbols of winter, the more general perception of a "war on Christmas", and the perennial controversies over states/cities/schools not supporting public prayer or public endorsements of Christianity (as distinct from cracking down on the private practice of religion).

Why is this Christian outrage so common? Some degree of pharisaic self-righteousness, of wanting to be (or feel) vindicated over against the sinful "world" probably has something to do with it. It is always far easier to identify and deplore error than it is to repair it, to proclaim the truth and embody the love with which we have been loved. There is also (as I pointed out in the context of the allegations against Planned Parenthood) a failure to love those one considers one's enemies, and an eagerness to believe the worst about them—and then get outraged over it. The capability of modern media, news and social, to spread a source of outrage like an epidemic well beyond its original scope to infect people who have nothing to do with it also has something to do with it. (Conversely, the media's role in amplifying and making visible the resulting outrage should not be underestimated) But I'm going to focus on and try to correct a reason for Christian outrage that arises from being aligned with the world, instead of overly hostile or self-righteous towards it.

I'm referring to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind and co-author of the influential article The Coddling of the American Mind) calls the "moral culture of victimhood". That post on Haidt's blog is his summary of a paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, which posits the culture of victimhood as a new "moral culture" that influences how conflicts are handled, after the cultures of honor and dignity well-known to sociologists. In a culture of victimhood, individuals or groups respond to relatively minor slights not on their own but by calling for the intervention of an influential third party (in America, collegiate or governmental authorities). This requires the collecting of evidence or campaigning to convince the third party that they are being oppressed, denied equality, "victimized", or socially marginalized, and that this party's help is needed to end the injustice. This culture carries with it an elevation of victimhood as something desirable and virtuous; the authors wrote, "Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights."

This culture, as Campbell and Manning write, is most entrenched in college campuses where it encourages people belonging to groups seen as underprivileged to be hypersensitive to "microaggressions" directed against them, but a version of it has become influential in American Christianity. It is often referred to (by non-Christians) as the "persecution complex". As they point out in a response to comments on Haidt's blog:
But we certainly see manifestations of [victimhood culture] elsewhere, and many of our readers have, in person or online, pointed to various examples of conservatives, evangelical Christians, or others complaining about minor slights, portraying themselves as oppressed, or in some other way claiming victim status. This is something we point out in our article – that if victimhood confers status, then all sorts of people will want to claim it.
In a Christian context, then, victimhood culture means calling out a perceived slight, injustice, or instance of oppression for one's faith as "religious persecution" or a step away from it and campaigning (the louder the better) for a powerful third party (often the government, or maybe sometimes the general public?) to step in and protect one's civil liberties. Feeding into this is a narrative of Christians as a socially marginalized and disadvantaged group in America, reinforced by all the ways in which our society is "rejecting God": acceptance of abortion and gay marriage, declining church attendance and increasing nonbelief, the secularization and pluralization of culture, and incidents like the ones I listed above. Every instance of "persecution" strengthens this narrative, and with it the influence of victimhood (or perhaps martyrdom) culture in American Christianity.

As you may have guessed, I do not think victimhood culture is compatible with the Christian faith. Most of the time the persecution being experienced and causing the outrage is totally imaginary, as non-Christians can usually see pretty clearly. This wolf-crying has cost Christianity a lot of credibility in the outside world's eyes. America may not be a "Christian nation", but Christianity has long been woven deeply into its moral framework, and still occupies a relatively privileged cultural position. Considering Christians a persecuted minority because of a loss of cultural clout is doubly wrong and shows callous ignorance of what real religious persecution is (as any older Russian Orthodox could remind you). But even if the persecution is real, buying into the culture of victimhood is not an authentically Christian way to respond to it.

The elevation of "victimhood" as a desirable (and yet negative) status strikes me as an inverted parody of the Lord's teaching: "But many who are first will be last, and the last first." (Matthew 19:30) In a moral culture of victimhood people compete to be seen as "last" or "least"—last in the social pecking order, least privileged, most defenseless and victimized—because "last" is the new "first". It is exactly the same worldly, self-seeking logic, only turned on its head. There is the same kind of competition, striving against one another to get yours (in this case, the power of being seen as a victim), because as Campbell and Manning explain, "while everyone can have dignity, not everyone can be a victim", just as not everyone can be the most powerful, the most influential, the richest. But this is not at all what Jesus meant. Victimhood culture encourages a show of false humility painted over deeper anger, fear, and self-centeredness, but the Lord commands true humility. "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3), not in order that you might be vindicated against them through the exercise of this-worldly justice, but to love and serve them.

St. Paul more fully defines this love in his famous chapter in 1 Corinthians: "Love suffers long [and] is kind; ... is not provoked, ... does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (13:4-7) The contrasts with the pattern of fear, outrage, and offendedness we see in victimhood culture are obvious. Being thick-skinned is a Christian virtue, not at all meaning insensitivity or callousness, but patience and resistance to being angered, able to overlook offenses except for how they harm the offender, just as God is always willing to do for our sins. Elsewhere he puts it in the form of two baffling questions: "Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?" (1 Corinthians 6:7) The Lord teaches us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), to be as patient and compassionate toward their wrongs as we are towards those of our friends and loved ones. I know from abundant experience that it is a virtue and a sign of Christlikeness not to be offended easily, and that this virtue is not developed without a godly, uphill struggle. Let us reject every human philosophy that tries to dissuade us from fighting to become more like Christ.

St. Peter writes words that speak very relevantly to Christian outrage at modern-day "persecution".
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed [are you], for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people's matters. Yet if [anyone suffers] as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.(1 Peter 4:12-16)
The caption reads "Martyrdom of the holy hieromartyr
Polycarp of Smyrna"
Remember that the pre-Constantine Church faced persecution far worse than anything faced by most American Christians even on our worst days. Yet Peter counsels the churches not to be surprised or shocked at this persecution when it comes but to "rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings". We are to rejoice when we are persecuted. Could anything be more counterintuitive? Yet it is just what we see in the early Church, for example in The Martyrdom of Polycarp. This echoes what Jesus himself taught in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed [are] those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake." (Assuming it is said falsely, and for Jesus' sake!) "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great [is] your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12) St. Paul describes the Christian's response to his persecutors, namely to return love for hatred: "Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat." (1 Corinthians 4:12-13)

The modern elevation of the status of "victim" (in desirability, and yet not necessarily positivity) does seem similar to how the early Church held its martyrs in high honor and even desired to imitate them. How are they different? For one thing, the early Christians honored their martyrs without expecting or demanding that the world (or any institution within it) also do so. Why would it? The way of Christ was clearly seen as contrary, diametrically different from and opposed to the way of the world. Martyrdom does not convey "dignity", prestige, or a privileged status in some objective, universal sense that we can appeal to and expect the world to recognize, but the crown of life in the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25, James 1:12, Revelation 2:10), which is foolishness to the world. (1 Corinthians 3:19) Martyrs look for justice not from civil authorities here and now, but from God, the true judge who is above every created power. Martyrdom is not the key to justifying your selfish demands for protection and status, but the ultimate renunciation of self as a witness to Christ. Christians buying into victimhood culture in response to real or perceived persecution are not witnessing to Christ, but to their own worldliness.

When persecution comes (and the fact that most "persecution" in America is in the eye of the beholder does not make real persecution impossible), let us face it as martyrs, not "victims".

Postscript. Fr. Stephen Freeman, who has a seriously uncanny knack for writing eloquently and insightfully on whatever I am trying to think on at the moment, has recently written two posts related to this subject. Do You Care Too Much? critiques our tendency to get pointlessly outraged via the media over situations that don't touch on us at all, for the sake of "caring". Such "caring", or having sufficiently strong sentiments about various "issues" (as a normative sentiment, apart from actually doing anything) is, he argues, one of the "passions" that try to master us and keep us from properly ordering our feelings in the Christian life. Living in the Real World focuses on the power of media to distract us from the real, particular world at hand, in which we actually engage and interact, in favor of "things in general": a passive response to vague sentiments over things that have nothing to do with us and which we can't do anything about. Both are far more worth reading than anything I could write (which is why I waited until the end to direct you to them).

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