The Nemesis Complex

Sometimes, us Christians can behave like we’re living in an Avengers movie.

Except, instead of Iron Man fighting off Loki, it’s Rachel Held Evans battling against Mark Driscoll. It’s Roger Olson vs the evil Calvinists. Shane Claiborne vs the Western Church. Maybe a superhero just needs a nemesis?

It’s a tempting thing to define our own identity by what we’re against, or at the very least, by what we’re not. I’ve done it many, many times. And I’m not saying that this is what the above people consciously set out to do. I like and have read them all. Often it’s their followers and fans who fuel that narrative. As well as that, there are occasions when calling out something or someone as just plain wrong is appropriate.

But, however it happens, it just seems to me that so little is argued or stated in Christian circles, without a subtle (and often far from subtle), jab at the nemesis. Maybe I feel it more acutely, because as a dyed-in-the-wool moderate, I never quite fit any tribe enough to want to wholesale condemn another tribe. Increasingly, when I see this happen, it bothers me, and a recent book has helped me to understand why.  

The book is To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter. There is so much worth thinking over in this book, but one thing which struck me was Hunter’s contention that many – he has the Christian Right, Left, and Anabaptists in his sights – construct an identity out of resentment, frustration and bitterness towards the other side. They have a nemesis.

(I will say, as a left-leaning person, I would have liked this not to be true. It’s so easy to see in the Christian Right, isn’t it!? But Hunter shows, through extensive quoting of Jim Wallis, no less, that often the nemesis complex is just as strong on the Left).

One of Hunter’s arguments is that in engaging in this way, Christians – Right, Left, and Anabaptists – legitimate the existing political structures in a way that we shouldn’t. We unconsciously give them more credit than they deserve.

It has me wondering if we do the same, not just in the realm of politics, but when we construct our own theological identity partly by defining ourselves by what we aren’t. Raging against the machine is sexy, but it’s not always healthy. I even wonder if it’s possible to develop real spiritual maturity if we become too addicted to the rush of making ourselves feel smarter, hipper, or even more doctrinally correct than everyone else.  

Hunter’s solution – or part of it, at least – is what he calls “faithful presence”. It’s a kind of mixture of humility, faithfulness to God, and a desire for everyone’s flourishing.

I find that so compelling.

As a pastor I get to spend time with a bunch of young adults. I know from my own experiences that people in our generation have a ton of questions about the way we do church, many of them very good ones. I’m not suggesting that we avoid these questions, or that we try to pretend everything is fantastic in the church today. But I am thinking about a different kind of engagement in solving these things; one that is more about faithful presence and humble engagement. I think this would be so much more healthy and helpful than the kind of hipper-than-thou nemesis-bashing that often seems to take place.

We have some really amazing young adults in our church, and one of the biggest blessings in ministry has been seeing many of them engage with their questions about church in just this way. It’s a maturity that I find inspiring. It’s something I pray will catch on.


7 thoughts on “The Nemesis Complex

  1. It’s not hipper-than-thou nemesis bashing (which, by the terms you’ve used, implies a passive aggressive jab at a certain type of group – your nemesis?), it’s the DNA of the Protestant arm of Christianity. It was born with a nemesis and has always needed one to keep surviving, dividing and justifying those divisions.

    That said, I love your paragraph that begins “It has me wondering…” – especially the second half. I think there’s gold in that. It’s almost Nouwen’ish in its approach. The whole ‘love your enemy challenge’ applies to theological divisions as well and the call to embrace the ‘other’ does indeed include Southern Baptists 😉 To truly live this out requires humility, wisdom and a maturing that comes with both of those. Sadly, I’m a long way off that and have much to be transformed within me so I embody that. I’m very guilty of ‘crusading’ for my perspective far too often.

  2. I think you’re right to an extent, about it being in the DNA of Protestant Christianity. That’s kind of what Hunter gets at in the book. He challenges the posture as having been ineffective and even damaging.

    The book is so worth reading. PW has a really good breakdown of it here:

    Oh, and there’s no intentional passive-aggression in the post, I’m trying to present my thoughts in a pretty straightforward way. Of course, I have my blindspots, but I’m a left-leaning, coffee-drinking, indie-music listening Christian with Hauerwas on my bookshelf, so if anything it’s a reminder to myself as well as anyone else.

  3. umm I haven’t read the book but I’m just reacting to the ‘raging against the machine’ v moderate thing, and thinking about it in the light of Hunter’s ‘faithful presence’ thing. Raging against the machine can sure be pretty dumb sometimes, like when it is rage for the point of rage or rage largely just to try to make yourself seem different or better than others. Moderation can be equally dumb (it is like raging against the machine and moderation are two sides of the same coin), people can be moderate for the sake of being moderate and they can be moderate for the sake of not rocking the boat and trying to fit in (so an equal an opposite thing to the rage example). Considering the objective of ‘faithful presence’, surely part of the the goal should be faithfulness (rather than rage or moderation) and then if in the act of being faithful you appear to be ‘raging against the machine’ or appear to be moderate then so be it. And if someone appears to be raging or being moderate and if you want to judge them, then you judge based on faithfulness rather than whether or not they are raging or being moderate, or perhaps more practically if someone is talking to you about how awesome some dude is who rages against the machine then you point out the less obvious underlying faithfulness (if it’s there) rather than focusing on the rage aspect and turning it into a rage v moderation thing.

    • Hey Stephen! Good to hear from you.

      I agree with you that tipping the scales towards always being moderate (or at least, inoffensive) is just as unhelpful as always critiquing. Hunter doesn’t argue for everyone to become a moderate, but as you say, for a faithful presence which will on occasion have good reason to provide challenge and critique. But the point is, when this is done, it’s not done to score points, or our of resentment and frustration, but out of a place of engagement that looks for the “opposing” party’s flourishing and good.

      That’s what I’m saying inspires me when I see it, and what I want to see more of.

  4. All good stories need an antagonist though! Haha.

    “But the point is, when this is done, it’s not done to score points, or our of resentment and frustration, but out of a place of engagement that looks for the “opposing” party’s flourishing and good.”

    But in light of THE point of this post… I’m always interested in what ideas look like. So to get a picture of what you are saying, is it in someway an extension of “the log in my eye, speck in my brothers” train of thought. That’s what it would look like for me, the antagonist is in ‘here’ (pointing to my heart) as much as it is out there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s