by Deacon Jason Ketz
I was in college in 2003 when the USA went to war with Iraq. There was a sense of unrest amongst a large section of the student body, and a group of students somewhat predictably decided to organize a protest. After a few weeks of planning, a group of about 1,000 students (about 4% of the student body) protested in front of our student Union building for a few hours one afternoon. I watched an hour of it from the cafeteria window, while planning a longer route to my next class.
At the time, I was taking a course in Social Geography, and when we met a few days after the lackluster protest, our professor, who had been a peace activist during Vietnam, declared to all of us that “your generation [the Millenium generation] has no idea how to protest something! One day and you expect the government to even notice you, let alone respond? It took us years during Vietnam. Years! You can’t even imagine holding onto an idea for so long!”
My professor’s observations have haunted me for nearly a decade now, as I consider my response to any number of political, social and even ecclesial controversies. Mostly, I find myself sitting on my hands – I don’t have the stamina to dedicate my whole identity to many of these causes. One thing that I wonder more often lately, though, is whether my college professor had correctly stereotyped a character flaw of those of us born after 1980, or whether our protracted civil angst in the early 2000s was an early manifestation of a greater social problem: Outrage Fatigue.
Outrage fatigue is a completely different phenomenon from whatever we might term a generational failure to understand the perseverance required for political activism. Outrage fatigue is that combination of exhaustion and despair that we sometimes feel when we’re overwhelmed with issues that assault our various sensibilities. The origins of the term are not entirely clear, but the expression outrage fatigue is quickly breaking into the American vernacular. It is listed in online dictionaries, shouted ironically by news pundits, used by DJs and bloggers, and nearly eight years ago, the expression appeared in the headlines of the satirical newspaper The Onion (“Nations Liberals Suffering From Outrage Fatigue” The Onion 40:27 July 7, 2004. www.onion.com).
So when and where can we find outrage fatigue? The various hot-button issues raised by politicians during an election year can leave us all feeling overwhelmed and despondent. The housing market, various atrocities in the corporate world, and any type of injustice that has no foreseeable relief in the future can leave us too numb and dumbstruck to even be angry anymore. My favorite example this year is gasoline. Remember when gas first went over $2.00 per gallon? I was incensed. The entire country was just livid, which even drove the media to run a smear campaign against big oil and some shady forms of speculative trading in the oil market. But this year, when gas topped $4.00 a gallon? I just stand there, staring at the pump as the numbers keep climbing, too numb to feel anything about it anymore.
And this outrage fatigue is not limited to the political arena. It is a form of burnout – a very specific response to our sense of justice. Anytime we perceive injustice, outrage is one of our possible responses. And once we’ve become desensitized to this injustice – once we realize that it isn’t going anywhere, that we can’t change things – then we’re in serious danger of feeling outrage fatigue.
So where is Christ in all of this? Did he have outrage fatigue during his ministry? Should we turn to him for shelter from injustice? Or for inspiration in fighting to introduce God’s justice into the world? And how has the Church handled outrage fatigue in past generations? Thankfully, there is a great deal of help to be found in the teachings of our Lord, and by the traditions of the Church. While the term outrage fatigue is new and trendy, despondency and despair have been discussed in the church from its earliest days.
The difficulty at the heart of outrage fatigue is the exhaustion of victimhood. To some extent, we have a sense of captivity, a sense of powerlessness. Maybe “I can’t change the world,” or maybe “‘the Man’ is keeping me down.” In any case, we feel helpless. Meanwhile, we have all been taught that we have the power to make our own destiny, that we’re in control. So we experience an acute frustration when we realize that this may not actually be the case, say, for the plummeting value of my home. Once we’ve gone through all of the emotions and actions that we can muster to counter our sense of injustice, and to no avail, we start to despair, and eventually stop trying to change things. We’re too exhausted to feel like victims now, and we develop a callousness to protect ourselves from these feelings of frustration and impotence.
Despite a number of criticisms to the contrary over the centuries, Christianity does not offer a coping strategy for victims. Instead, Christ, through his own death on the cross, completely obliterates the familiar categories of victim and oppressor. Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams, in his reflection on The Resurrection, discusses this at length in his first chapter. Not only is the victim (Christ) justified in the resurrection, but more importantly, we are no longer required to relate to each other, and to Christ in terms of victim and oppressor. Christ is the victim for all eternity, but also the ruler of all. This paradox nullifies all of our familiar social relationships that are based on power differentials. Although the victim/oppressor binary relationship obviously still exists in society, we are free from believing that our social worries have any relation to God’s justice or his saving plan for the world.
Does this logical shift make being a victim any more bearable? It certainly can, but not because the experience of being victimized by the state, of being wrongly accused of crimes, or of being crushed by the inertia of a political or ecclesial entity is any different in light of the cross. Rather, the experience of our own victimhood has been transformed into an opportunity to witness to Christ and his conquering victimhood; his voluntary suffering.
The Church has long recognized the centrality of martyrdom as a noble death that witnesses to Christ’s own death on the cross. The martyr’s death has all of the trappings of a victim/oppressor, and yet in our memory of the martyrdom, the true relationships are entirely reversed. The martyr is at once a victim and an anti-victim, and the state’s sentence of execution is rendered powerless by the martyr’s faith in Christ and in the resurrection. In this great reversal, the martyr’s identity is destroyed, and they serve only to point to Christ, to show the authority of the Lord over his creation, and to show the victory of live over death.
So one might be led to wonder: did the martyrs ever have outrage fatigue?
I would venture to say no, the martyrs did not have outrage fatigue. They did not despair of the state of the world, because they were not powerless. The greatest threat in the world (both then and now) was physical and social discomfort and ultimately death, but the martyrs understood that accepting suffering and death for the sake of Christ witnesses to the good news of our incarnate Lord. This was a choice, and a difficult one, but once the choice was made, there was room for neither outrage at the state of the world, nor fatigue from beating their heads against metaphorical walls.
Furthermore, the fathers of the church have always been reluctant to express too much outrage at the state of affairs of the world in which we all live. This is the world that God created, and this is the world that Christ came to save. Are we prepared to question God’s creation or his willingness to save us? I think not. Therefore, the experience of outrage fatigue, as familiar as it may be, is a dangerous position for the Church or for a Christian.
A second danger of outrage fatigue is its frame of reference. Very often, it is a concern for our own well-being, and certainly a sense of our own inability to effect change, that leads us to despair. But martyrdom is a forgetting of the self, in the interest of Christ. In the accounts of their deaths, the martyrs’ identities are obscured and erased as thoroughly as their human bodies. Nothing remains of the martyr except the iconic image of a human being whose life and death points entirely toward the crucified and risen Christ.
The emotions of outrage fatigue are still to be encountered, processed, and occasionally expressed. Our sense of justice and injustice is intimately related to our understanding of God. We should be bothered when we witness injustice. Some of us will be saddened, some of us will be outraged. But the proper expression of such frustration is martyrdom. Martyrdom, but only after careful, prayerful discernment of when and where self-sacrifice can even be perceived as a witness to Christ. There are any number of political and religious matters today that we all might have strong feelings about. And for any of them, we have the opportunity to be social heroes. But if I give my life over to a cause, will people see an impassioned, concerned person, or will they glimpse a living icon of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Our call is to witness to the gospel, not to be heroes. Accordingly, as each of us awaits our own trial and our own martyrdom, whether in the Roman arena or through the arena of our daily lives, we can combat our outrage fatigue by introducing the message of Jesus Christ into all of our frustrating experiences. No despondency can withstand the joyous message of the resurrection!