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Giles Fraser: When slaves turn on their oppressors

02 July 2008

The charge made by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche against Christianity is that it is a religion of “ressentiment”: that is, it represents the revengeful hatred of the downtrodden. According to Nietzsche, in Christianity we find the clearest example of the bullied becoming the bullies.

His argument runs as follows. All was well until the people of Israel became slaves. Then the experience of slavery dramatically changed the very notion of God. Those in captivity inevitably came to hate their captors. But, because they were weak, they were unable to take their revenge physically. Instead, their hatred was incubated and intensified, until it came to be sublimated in the notion of the divine.

In their imaginations, slaves conceived of a God who would take revenge on their captors. Psalm 137 begins with the weeping of slaves, and ends up with a blessing on those who would murder their oppressors’ children. God came to be defined more and more by the slaves’ hatred. Nietzsche points to the glee with which early Christians described their enemies as burning in hell. I would add to that the retributive instincts that exist at the heart of penal-substitutionary atonement.

As far as I know, no one has applied Nietzsche’s argument to the African experience of slavery, or to the hatreds that will have been created by the despotic rule of the British Empire. But I find it perfectly plausible that that is the sort of theology that has been emanating from GAFCON.

The denunciation of heretical liberals and gays, even the insistence on hell, is not unconnected with what Nietzsche came to call slave morality, the hatred that is amplified by oppression. The denouncers might not see it that way, but some of those who are being denounced do. The question is: can the Anglican Communion cope with the amount of hatred that is now swirling around it?

I do not know the answer to this. But there is a glimmer of hope. Despite the hatred that I believe exists in the theology of conservative Evangelical Christianity, ressentiment is a weakened form of vengeance, not at all comparable with the real physical violence.

As the philosopher René Girard notes of Nietzsche: “He did not see that the evil he was fighting was a relatively minor evil compared to the more violent forms of vengeance.” Archbishop Akinola is clearly not President Mugabe.

Perhaps it is the job of the Church to soak up all this resentment, as Christ soaked up the hatred of his accusers. But for those liberals, homosexuals, women, and any others who are on the receiving end of any Christian hate-speech, the Church feels a nasty place to be.

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