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Issue 020

An Open Letter to the Community around this year's theme.

Issue 020: Wholeheartedness – “Ressentiment” by Dave Hillis

As Street Psalms enters its 25th year of forming grassroots leaders in vulnerable communities, we are inviting friends of our work to reflect with us on their own sense of vocation and call. This month Dave Hillis reflects on our guiding question:

When did your sense of vocation become real to you and what does it mean for you to show up wholeheartedly in your call when confronted with disappointment, failure, despair, and your own half-heartedness?

I want to begin my reflection with a hearty congratulations to you, the Street Psalms community, on your 25th anniversary. This is no small thing! I have had the privilege of having a front-row seat over these past 25 years and consider myself and Leadership Foundations (LF) one of your biggest fans.

I am also thankful to have the opportunity to, as Henrik Ibsen once stated about friends, “think out loud together” on this theme. I find that my own journey toward wholeheartedness  begins with my complicated relationship to justice and its association to the French word ressentiment, my discovery of James Alison and Rene Girard, and an encounter with “my monk.”

Justice and Ressentiment

Anaïs Nin famously declared, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” To reflect on how the grace of wholeheartedness came about in my life, I first need to describe how I saw and, as a result, who I was.

I walked into the Christian space through what might classically be described as the justice door. It was about—as I understood it at the time— what I took to be the patently obvious concept of fairness. The Old Testament’s description of Israel’s exodus from slavery, the roaring voices of the prophets, Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels, the ultimate resetting in Revelation, all convinced me that if you were serious about the life of faith it must include this idea of fairness. People and institutions being put right. The book of James sums it up in one statement: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). I inhaled these ideas and became a zealot for the social gospel. If you didn’t get with this program, then you didn’t belong, and at the end of the day, weren’t really Christian. And it was here, ever so subtly and without hardly knowing  I was doing so, that I opened the door to ressentiment.

Ressentiment is the reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority, shame, and failure which if not dealt with, inevitably creates an external victim. It is quite skilled at protecting the heart from any kind of rupture. As my work around justice began to face a dearth of fruitlessness—budget and board crises, kids being served by the ministry still failing school, getting pregnant, getting addicted, fading in comparison to my colleagues—I needed an explanation, an external victim or, as I would later learn, a scapegoat. My ego needed an enemy (or at least the illusion of one), that I could blame for my own sense of inferiority/failure/shame. And of course, there were a plethora of contenders that perfectly fit the job description. It was my suburban bosses who had no theology of justice, it was my board’s lack of prophetic imagination, it was my colleague’s insensitivity to my particular burden that was so much greater than theirs, etc. They supplied me with the scapegoats I needed to protect me from the root issue of my own shame. The primary casualty in this transaction was wholeheartedness. I could not afford to make myself emotionally, socially, psychologically, or spiritually available because I was convinced my artifice of justice and fairness would be found out, I would be taken advantage of, and worse of all, the shame that had haunted me all my life would come to the fore. 

James Alison and Rene Girard

My recovery began inauspiciously in a doctoral ministry class where I was introduced to James Alison and his chapter in the book “On Being Liked” called “Confessions of a Former Marginaholic”. This was my first taste of Rene Girard’s theory of mimesis (that we don’t have our own desire, but we desire according to the desire of others). In one moment, I intuitively sensed that in James’ work there was a way forward, a capacity and competency that was amply available if, and it was a big if, I was willing to let go of the scapegoats fueled so furiously by my ressentiments that had protected me all these years. There was a model for a new way of living.

James notes that historically there has been a three-step process of formation. Beginning with the “truth” one moves to “behavior” which, in turn, leads to the Gospel of forgiveness that is available because of one’s understanding of the truth and appropriate behavior. James’s simple argument is that while the scheme is correct it starts from the wrong place. What the Gospel testifies to is that first we are “forgiven” which in turn sets us free to “behave” in new ways, which allows us to comprehend the “truth” of something. The Gospel begins with forgiveness which opens us up to all truth. 

It is hard for me, even all these years later, to overstate the stunning sense of what the simple reworking of this particular scheme did to me and the unraveling in my life that began. Much of my life had been characterized by straining to come up with the right “truth” that would somehow lead to correct behavior that would miraculously manifest itself in the sweet spirit of forgiveness. 

What became increasingly clear to me was if I was going to move to a place of wholeheartedness it was going to require that the sacrificial mechanism itself—that principle that demanded sacrifice over mercy and which fueled all of the different manifestations of my ressentiments and scapegoats—needed to be removed. And this happened in both a remarkable and unexpected way.

My Monk

One of the graces of God in my life was being brought into the Westminster Benedictine Abbey community in Canada just north of Bellingham, Washington. It was in this context that I met Father Placidus who I affectionately deemed “my monk”. Each time I went to the monastery I would meet with Placidus. In our times together, he would often read a verse that he had been meditating on. On one occasion it was Matthew 5.16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” He was focused on the word good. He pointed out that there are two words for good in Greek: agathos and kalos. Agathos has to do with the inherent goodness of something. Kalos goes a step further and places the emphasis on the aesthetic quality of how something is enacted. In other words, Kalos states yes, do the good thing, but more importantly, do it in a goodly way. Placidus pointed out that Jesus surprisingly uses the word kalos in the text. In other words, Jesus encourages us to do the good thing, but more importantly to do it in a goodly way – a way that  brings glory to God.” This insight had a stunning impact on me. I was, as one says in the Charismatic/Pentecostal space “slayed in the Spirit.” My heart was broken and a wholeheartedness began to emerge. 

Placidus had put his finger on my wound: the sacrificial mechanism behind all my behavior.  In one fell swoop the sacrificial mechanism that had been the source of all my commitment to goodness collided with James’s reworking of an ancient scheme, and all began to unravel through the words of my monk. 

All of a sudden I could see, not only God’s inherent goodness, but the way in which God was good. I could see the beauty of God’s goodness. I could see the gracious, forgiving, benevolent, radiant, forthcoming, and merciful quality of God’s goodness. What emerged was my shame, which was, and had always been, held graciously by God. I was being healed without reproach, retribution, or retaliation and it was creating the conditions for me to do the same with those whom I was so eager to scapegoat, including myself. 

All I can say is that my heart is becoming whole, inch by inch, as I lay down my ressentiments and say yes to God’s forgiveness. Thank you, Street Psalms, for helping me and many others understand what this process can look like and what it can produce in some of the world’s most challenging places, including my own heart. 

Dave Hillis is the Senior Innovation Fellow at the Leadership Foundations Colangelo Carpenter Innovation Center. He is committed to the social and spiritual renewal of cities through the process of encouraging, developing, and sustaining leadership in individuals and organizations.