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RHE & The Power Of Being Wronged

Is Christianity about celebrating one's victimhood, or overcoming it?
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On a previous post discussing why the late progressive Evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans inspired such intense devotion, a reader — a Christian academic who has studied her for years — wrote:

There is the power of knowing, in your bones, that you have been WRONGED. Being wronged removes a reason for guilt. Being wronged erases shame.

RHE said your parents were wrong. Your church was wrong. Your Christian college was wrong. They were all wrong and Jesus loves you just the way you are. In fact, you are gifted because of who you are.

Powerful stuff. None of that, “The church and the faith will change you” stuff.

Another reader e-mailed this comment this morning. I post it with her permission:

Your third reader update on your last RHE post has hit the nail on the head. You’re really digging into something interesting.

Here’s the thing: a lot of people aren’t even hearing that it’s Jesus that loves us unconditionally. For some folks it’s the feminist Goddess of Wicca, for others it’s Oprah or Neil Patrick Harris, for some it’s Jordan Peterson, for some it’s AOC or Bernie, for some Ron Paul and Trump.

Let’s face it: we’ve all been wronged to varying degrees. A friend betrays us, we were abused as a child, we come home to find our spouse left us, we discover our spiritual life is built on a lie. It’s not hard to find a way we have been wronged, and it is so easy for others to exploit that when we’re vulnerable.

I read RHE back in 2014/2015. To say I was lost was an understatement. I appreciated her charm, honesty, and the feeling she was really grappling with what it meant to be a liberal Christian. I found her refreshing in the face of Christian apathy. The idea of her being a super-peer really resonated. I actually stopped attending a church I had been visiting because a pastor evaded answering when asked point blank what the church’s stance on LGBT issues was. Neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. Bleh.

I think we’re starving as a society for raw sincerity. For something real. I came to disagree with RHE on several counts but I never doubted her integrity or sincerity.

When we live in a world where James Martin can stand right at the edge of doctrine and lean way over and wag a finger singing “I’m not crossing the line!” Well… is it any wonder that authors willing to stand up honestly for their convictions are basically worshiped? We’re so tired of coyness, spin, and political correctness. We really are…

If someone can convince you that you’ve been wronged, and that isn’t hard to do, then it’s really easy to turn them on to the affirmation gospel, get them to Sedona, convince them the occult can solve their problems, or that if everyone celebrated gay people all our conflicts would dissipate. Or convince them that becoming a white supremacist or jihadi is the answer.

The older I get the more wary I become of anyone trying to convince me that I’ve been wronged. Jesus didn’t tell people “you got a raw deal” but to have faith and sin no more. He told us not to be angry that we were wronged but forgive constantly. He didn’t tell us to cut our family out of our lives over political or doctrinal or social issues but to love others as ourselves.

RHE was a brilliant woman, but she played religious sportsball despite it all. She was honest about her struggle to discern truth, but she was another sign of the sickness, not the cure.

I’m honestly tired of straight women moving heaven and earth to show how pro-gay they are, especially when it doesn’t really cost them anything. There’s real poverty, abuse, and neglect in our neighborhoods and waving your rainbow flag doesn’t alleviate that.

I’m beyond tired of LGBT issues taking the forefront in churches. I’m tired of churches that lack crosses but have celebrate diversity statements. I’m tired of lobbyists pushing for LGBT affirmation and ignoring everything else in the church. I’m tired of the rainbow gospel. We are saturated in it, even in conservative traditions.

I just want Jesus and the Bible and salvation despite being a sinner who keeps failing at holiness. Honestly, I want the Benedict Option just to have one place free from Christians like RHE. I’m a sinner. I’m the worst sinner I know because I’m the sinner I know best. I need help learning how to stop sinning and how to be a better person. A person who loves God, loves others, and can forgive.

Lord knows that’s what I need and it’s a tall order. Can’t Christianity just focus on what Christ asked of us? Is that too much to ask?

I just feel so done with the culture war. So tired of it all. It’s like Christianity has been besieged for a couple of decades and we’re running out of the energy and will to resist.

What do you think? Let me invite you right now to exit the conversation if you believe that it is disrespectful to talk critically about Rachel Held Evans’s work. I hope and expect that everyone, even those who strongly reject her beliefs and activism, is praying for her and for those who loved her. But she was a public person who took public stands for and against certain things, and in this public space, we are going to talk about the meaning of her work.

I have not read any of RHE’s books, only some of her journalism, so I’m not in a position to say. I do know more generally, especially from reading Rene Girard, that we have degenerated into a culture that worships the Victim, and that grants moral status based on victimhood. In this pseudo-religion, the marshaling and expression of grievance is the chief form of piety.

We are all tempted by that. I’ve been wrestling with a form of it in my own life, in various guises. On the four-hour train ride from Bratislava to Prague last week, I read an English translation the prison memoir of the late Dr. Silvester Krcmery, who spent years in torture and confinement in  Czech communist prisons, for his Catholic faith. I can’t stop thinking about that man, in fact, and the thing that stays on my mind are these passages from his book (which, please God, some US Catholic publisher should re-issue). Krcmery talks about how he reconciled himself to his unjust suffering without surrendering to bitterness.

After his arrest, in 1953, he sat in the police car with secret policemen:

But then it came to me. Suddenly I realized that there could not be anything more beautiful than to lay down my life for God.

Krcmery burst into laughter. His captors were not amused.

Dr. Silvester Krcmery (d. 2013) (Slavomir Zrebny/YouTube)

Here is what happened after one of his first prison beatings, which he received from interrogators for refusing to sign a false confession. He eventually signed after being reduced to a bloody pulp, but regretted it, because, Krcmery writes in recollection, “the smallest compromise may bring about the most cruel consequences and may very well prepare the way for further and more important concessions!” He goes on:

Even though this was my first experience with this level of violent physical assault, I actually did not feel anything. Perhaps I was in such a state of shock that I was not fully conscious of the pain.

I considered the whole thing a very valuable ordeal. For hours I repeated, “Lord you didn’t disappoint us. You always promised that you would be with us, that you would never abandon us. What could I now possibly bring you as a sacrifice? nothing hurt me. I really have nothing to offer you as a sacrifice.”

Despite everything, in a sense I cherished those wounds. This was after all the only tangible, although insignificant evidence I had that I had offered Christ something.

After this interrogation I found that I had two broken ribs. I was not allowed to see a doctor but in the course of three or four weeks they healed, apparently without consequences.

In prison, he disciplined himself against despair and hatred. Krcmery compelled himself to focus by faith on belief that he had been sent to endure all this for a reason, that his suffering had meaning. He decided to accept it as a form of spiritual purification, and also to dedicated himself to helping others who suffered with him, using both his medical knowledge and his knowledge of prayer and Scripture:

Therefore I repeated again and again: ‘I am really God’s probe, God’s laboratory. I’m going through all this so I can help others and the Church.’

From the official transcript of a statement he made in his 1954 trial, referring to himself and his fellow Catholic political prisoners:

We will not allow ourselves to be led to hate, to rebel or even to complain. There are already hundreds of people who can testify to that. That is where our strength and superiority lie. We know how to return good for evil and we know that all our brothers will work harder and more selflessly than others (just as Christ taught us). After all, we are following an old tradition. The first Christians who were persecuted under the Roman empire, though imprisoned by the hundreds, tortured and crucified, were the most self-sacrificing workers, even after they were imprisoned and sent to hard labour in mines. There is no record that we know of which states that they organized any rebellion.

The thing you get from reading Krcmery is that early on in his prison experience, he realized that he could not resist on his own, that faith in God, and obedience based in faith, would be his only hope. Jesus told His followers to bless those who persecute them. Krcmery regularly prayed for his captors and torturers. He said, “The more I depended on faith, the stronger I became.” His communist captors wanted to reduce their prisoners to a state of total fear, total loathing, and total isolation, because that’s how they could be controlled. Krcmery knew that if he gave in to that temptation to hate those hateful, wicked men, that he would fall into a hole from which he would never escape.

Here, from the appendix to his memoir, is a Litany of Humility that Krcmery and his fellow prisoners prayed daily. This is a familiar Catholic prayer that they adapted to their prison circumstances:

Can you imagine praying this every single day, while you are living in prison on false accusations, and being beaten and tortured for your faith? I find it discomfiting to pray that now, even though I live in total freedom and comfort, even luxury. And yet, like everyone else, I have been wronged in certain ways, in ways that hurt (though not as much as broken ribs from a prison interrogator’s boots, I’m sure). These inner wounds fester within me, paralyze me, preoccupy my thoughts more than I care to admit. Far too often, I am their prisoner. I never write about it, but it’s there. Most of us have things like this, I would wager.

The prison experience of Silvester Krcmery is something that happened in another universe, it seems … but there is deep, deep wisdom there. Krcmery told the communist court that convicted him: “You have power in your hands, but we have truth!” Reading him, I realize that I too profess to believe in the same truth that Krcmery confessed, but I don’t live that truth, not like he did, even though my own circumstances are infinitely more favorable than his own.

Reading Krcmery is a call to deeper conversion. I need to start praying this litany, as if they were magic words that could cause this prison door of self-pity to fling open.

One more thing: he said that communist ideology construes the entire world as a total struggle of Us versus Them, and that ultimately, the only way to escape the threat of Them is to eliminate Them — even physically. Similarly, the Polish dissident writer Czeslaw Milosz wrote that so many intellectuals accepted communism because it gave them a sense of moral order in a world where belief had disappeared, and it sanctified their resentments. “The intellectual’s eyes twinkle with delight at the persecution of the bourgeoisie, and of the bourgeois mentality,” Milosz wrote. It doesn’t take much to see in that the pleasure that the alienated middle-class American feels when, from a position of wokeness — even Christian wokeness — he or she contemplates the Deplorables.

Let’s return to the words this blog’s reader sent in this morning:

If someone can convince you that you’ve been wronged, and that isn’t hard to do, then it’s really easy to turn them on to the affirmation gospel, get them to Sedona, convince them the occult can solve their problems, or that if everyone celebrated gay people all our conflicts would dissipate. Or convince them that becoming a white supremacist or jihadi is the answer.

The older I get the more wary I become of anyone trying to convince me that I’ve been wronged. Jesus didn’t tell people “you got a raw deal” but to have faith and sin no more. He told us not to be angry that we were wronged but forgive constantly. He didn’t tell us to cut our family out of our lives over political or doctrinal or social issues but to love others as ourselves.

I think she is on the path that Krcmery walked, which is the only way out of this world with your soul alive. I dawdle too much, like Belacqua at the foot of the mountain of repentance in Dante’s Purgatorio. I invite you to read, from years past, my short reflections on Cantos I, IIIII, IV, and V of Purgatorio. They take place near the beginning on the pilgrim Dante’s journey up the mountain of repentance. At the base of the mountain, Dante meets sinners who were saved from the Inferno by last-minute repentance, but who had to wait for the strength to come to them to give them the ability to move forward spiritually, to be ready to bear the full weight of God’s glory. Belacqua was notoriously lazy in life; here in Purgatorio, he is having to dwell at the foot of the mountain to have that laziness purged out of him.

The first canto of Purgatorio starts with penitents who have been saved by God’s mercy arriving by ship at the base of the island mountain, singing praises. From my (well, Alan Jacobs’s) commentary on Canto III:

As Alan Jacobs commented on yesterday’s thread, compare those who just debarked from the angelic boat, who came across the waters singing a Psalm of thanksgiving for God’s mercy and their deliverance, with the damned crossing in Charon’s boat to Hell (Inferno, Canto III); they groan and curse and blame everyone for their miseries except themselves.

So: the power of being wronged, versus the power of refusing to give having been wronged power over you. Discuss.

UPDATE: A powerful comment by Jonah R.:

There’s no worse poison than being addicted to dwelling over the ways one has been wronged.

A few years ago, someone who had once wronged me very badly reappeared, wanting nothing more than a chance to plead for forgiveness. More than 25 years had passed. I thought about the matter for a long time. My life had turned out well, the wronging had put me on a good path in the long run, and the person who wronged me had suffered in live far out of balance to anything the person had done to me.

So I forgave, and was amazed–naively, in retrospect–by how much peace the forgiveness brought to my soul.

But it also brought something terribly, scorchingly humbling: Once the veil of my own resentment had been lifted, I saw the previous 25 years of my life with a new, humiliating clarity…and I saw for the first time all the many small, selfish ways I had wronged others but had not, in my self-righteousness, known I was doing so.

Wallowing in Having Been Wronged is terribly seductive. I think we see it often at the national level, in groups like the Palestinians and the Serbs, who are too invested in the exhilarating sense of Having Been Wronged that they’re stuck in some Dante-esque punishment of their own making, where Having Been Wronged is justification for doing even greater evil.

This is what’s driving many of us now, like a demon loose in the land, whether we’re looking to charismatic religious figures or following politicians whom outsiders find offputting and unloveable…and this discussion dovetails nicely with the other post, because wallowing in Having Been Wronged is one of many ways of refusing to see the world as it is.



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