Resentment and the Roots of Rage
If anybody can claim “white privilege” it’s me. I’m a middle aged, well educated white man. I was brought up in a stable home, provided with a secure foundation in life, the means for a good education and a strong work ethic. I’ve ended up being well off, well educated, well connected and well, to be honest, very blessed.
As a consequence I hesitate to write about the violence erupting in America. What do I know about black rage, poverty and the impotent frustration in the face of racism?
I do know a little bit. I’m the pastor of a church in a part of town that is challenged socio economically. Most of the folks who live around our campus are hard working, dependable citizens and good neighbors, but they do not have the advantages with which I have been blessed.
Homes and hearts and lives are broken. Many struggle with low income and high unemployment. There is a sub-culture of crime, low aspirations and high addiction. Prostitution and human trafficking simmer in the run down hotels around our church. The homeless wander in we wonder what we can do about it.
The demographers report that the population around our parish is predominantly African American. Hispanics come next, followed by poverty bound whites. In the high security prison where I minister the vast majority of the inmates are black. One of my fellow ministers observed, “For a white boy going to college is a rite of passage. For too many black boys going to prison is the rite of passage.” One of the teachers of a local high school laments, “We only see about 60% of our kids graduate. The girls leave early because they’re pregnant and the boys leave early to go to jail.”
The Circle of Resentment
I’ve struggled to get to know the people who are so different from me. We work with the pastors of the local black churches. One of them I’ll call Pastor Jackson, runs a “church without walls”. He goes to the poor folks where they are and on Sunday they “do church”. The pastor of our next door Church of Christ ministers to a burgeoning congregation of black folks who are holding on to strong values and aspire to better things for their families.
What I’ve learned is that beneath all the racial divisions is a sub-current of genuine resentment. When I say “resentment” I don’t simply mean the hard feelings because somebody else got a bigger piece of the pie than you did. I’m not referring to the superficial resentment we feel when the other guy wins the game. I give this Resentment a capital “R” because it is a deep poison within the human heart. It is a cornerstone of fallen humanity’s condition, and it does not recognize skin color.
Resentment eats away at the soul. There develops what I call a “resentment loop” in which we go over and over in our mind what went wrong. We blame someone else or some other group for our prob-lems. We go over in our mind how we’re going to get even with the other person, how we’ve been hurt, how bad the other person is and how much they are to blame. The Resentment loop burns away in our lives — haunting us until it becomes an obsession.
Eventually the Resentment flips. Instead of it being a dark monster haunting hearts we start to nurture it and we begin to feel good about it. The Resentment gives us an identity. It makes us feel better than the other person who is to blame for our problems. Before long the Resentment becomes the core of our identity, our culture and our whole being.
George was fifteen. An African American who was adopted by a white family, he was having problems finding his true identity. Already nearly six feet tall and heavy set, George had the strength and energy to be setting out on a professional football career. But he was lapsing into drug abuse, was surly and violent and mixing with a gang of black kids who were on the fast track to prison.
I asked George, “Tell me. What is it like when you go to the mall. Black men say they feel like they’re being watched. Do you feel that way?”
He nodded sullenly. “All the white people watch me.”
I said, “George, you’re a big guy and you don’t smile much. Maybe they’re scared of you. What would it be like if you went to the mall dressed in khakis, a button down shirt, shined shoes and smiled and said ‘good morning’ to everyone?”
George said, “All my friends would say I’m being an oreo.”
“Yeh. Black on the outside and white on the inside.”
“I get that, and I’m not telling you to dress like a preppy white boy, I’m just trying to figure you out. Do you think your friends are doing you any favors? In fact, your appearance matters whether you want it to or not. How you present yourself doesn’t have to be “white” or “black” it can just be polite and respectful of other people. No matter what color you are or they are, everyone deserves respect.”
George went on to track down his birth mother and father. Both had disappeared but he did find some of his cousins, and unfortunately, knowing he was brought up by a white family they said, “Get out of here. We know who you are. You’re too white.” That harsh rejection was the spur that helped George see that the racial issue didn’t have to hold him back one way or the other. He could move on and rise above it. He didn’t have to be “white” or “black”. He could simply be a strong, self confident young man with a future in his own hands.
A Culture of Resentment
George’s story revealed a culture of resentment within the black community that is hard to shift. It’s especially hard to shift since so much of it is justified. Yanked from their homeland and sold into slavery, the Africans were thrown into the very bottom of American society. The cruelty, injustice and deeply rooted racism has imparted deep ancestral wounds.
Who wouldn’t feel resentful being dealt such a bad hand to start with? Who wouldn’t feel frustrated and full of rage being born into a community so cursed with a history of oppression, injustice and violence?
Despite America’s great strides in abolishing slavery, legislating for integration and providing extra benefits and assistance for racial minorities, the culture of resentment continues, and all of us need to see that resentment hinders further progress. In the end, resentment hurts the ones who bear resentment more than anyone else.
Reconciliation and Responsibility
Lest anyone imagine that African Americans are the only ones nursing resentment, forget about that. Resentment is part of the human condition. When things go wrong, all of us fall into the resentment loop. All of us blame others for our problems. All of us sulk, nurse our grudges, plan revenge and simmer in our frustration and fear.
The only way for all of us to break the resentment loop is through three R’s — and I don’t mean Read-ing, Writing and ‘Rithmatic. First we need repentance. Repentance is simply the open mind and open heart to accept whatever part of the blame belongs to us. Someone else may very well be to blame, but repentance means we own up and see that we are probably part of the problem too.
Responsibility follows from repentance. Once we own our part of the problem we roll up our sleeves to do what we can to solve the part of the problem. The third “R” is reconciliation. Continuing a culture of resentment and revenge only ends in violence and destruction. Reconciliation means we extend the hand of friendship and forgiveness to the other side.
White Americans need to step up and take responsibility to work towards reconciliation, but African Americans need to be part of that same program. The end result will be for all sides to let resentment wither and die and for responsibility and reconciliation to take its place.
Then there needn’t be White Americans and African Americans. Instead there could simply be Americans working together build a strong, prosperous and diverse country.
Dwight Longenecker’s new book Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness examines the structures of resentment and revenge within the human condition. Visit his blog and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com