December 3, 2019 10h00-11h00
“Why is there so much bitterness in our society?” Mr. Ramsden has heard this question in Canada and in every place he has spoken in 2019 including the United Kingdom, the Ukraine, Australia, Hong Kong, and Nigeria. He says, “Global culture seems to have converged on a very negative aspect. If the cry for justice is based on bitterness, even when you get justice, you are left with bitterness.” Is there an alternative? Come hear and interact with Michael Ramsden.
President of RZIM, founder of Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics
Michael Ramsden is International Director of RZIM and one of the founders of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. He spent most of his childhood in the Middle East and later moved to the UK, where he worked for the Lord Chancellor’s Department investing funds. Michael went on to teach Jurisprudence at the University of Sheffield, whilst doing research in Law and Economics.
His passion is to engage with people of all backgrounds and cultures about questions of faith, which he has been doing for over twenty years. He speaks in business, academic, political and other settings across the globe, ranging from Europe and the Middle East, to Asia and the Americas. Michael helps oversee the international team of RZIM speakers based in sixteen offices worldwide, and he lives in Oxford with his wife, Anne, and their three children.
Presentation Notes: Reconciliation in a Divided Culture
What I am going to try and do for you is give you a big global picture of what I think is the single greatest challenge facing global politics right now and, if I am correct, it is the framework every single debate, issue and struggle we have fits within.
I should say just a couple of things about me, because I have travelled to a lot of countries around the world. We are a group that seeks to promote peace and understanding, to help answer questions about the Christian faith. It is not our position to get involved in politics. I have spent most of my life trying to avoid getting involved in any of the internal politics of any country I visit. That is simple because we are guests in so many places. What we try to do is to listen everywhere we go.
Let me give you a narrative back drop to help explain what I’ll be talking about. About five years ago I began to notice something happening in the UK and the US. At that point I thought we were looking at an Anglo-Saxon problem. Everybody was angry, everybody was bitter and there was a lot of upset. People seemed to lose the capacity to disagree well with each other anymore. The hallmark of any great civilisation is not how we handle agreement, it is how we handle disagreement. It seemed that we were losing the capacity to handle disagreement well. Everybody felt that if someone disagreed with them, that the other party hated them; all disagreement was received and interpreted as hatred.
A couple of months after that I was speaking in Asia at a conference with 17 political leaders from different parts of Asia, and then a group of 50 businessmen, all of whom were either family owners or CEOs of multibillion-dollar businesses.
While I was speaking to them, I gave an illustration about what was happening in the UK and the US. Then I got invited by the government of every single country that was represented at that conference to come speak to them about why their own countries are so divided. I can remember thinking, ‘wow, this is possibly now a UK, US and Asian issue.
A few months after that I was back in Oxford meeting with one of the University’s largest single donors, an African businessman. We were meant to meet for half an hour, we started at 8am for breakfast, we finished at 1pm for lunch. At the end he said, “We have just taken Tony Blair and a few other political leaders on a tour across Africa and I would like to take you. What you’re talking about is the most fundamental thing that is affecting Africa right now as a continent.”
From there, I went to the Middle East and it was the same. At this point, I found myself asking the question,
“How is it that on every continent of the world we are all wrestling with the same basic struggle, because we do not have any common history?”
“In terms of intellectual history, how do we all end up in the same place at the same time?”
This is something I have stumbled into, it is not just something I figured out. It is just something I shared in different places and you could simple see the response. When I spoke to the European Parliament about this issue four year ago I was given praise I did not deserve. They felt I was much more intelligent than I was because their conclusion was that I had spent so much time researching France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and every member state of the EU that I was some kind of genius who was able to figure out what was common across all of them. But that is not what happened at all, it was just an observation from 50,000 feet.
What am I talking about? Well I’m going to be talking to you about something using a word I really do not like and I will explain why I do not like it. It is increasingly being referred to as Global Victim Culture. If you were at the meeting last night you would have heard me quote from the book of Amos 6, where it says, ‘you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness.’ What the prophet is saying is that if the quest for justice becomes bitter, even if you get what is righteous it tastes like poison to everybody else. The cries for justice in our world right now are very bitter and we are facing this global phenomenon.
This is what His Excellency Solomon has said so eloquently and so well just now in his opening remarks. But it is not just the fact it is a global problem. Our global heroes are now also victims. In most cultures of the world, classically speaking, whether you are looking at African culture, Middle Eastern culture, Chinese culture, European culture, it doesn’t matter. The heroes of our culture were very often people who had suffered greatly, who have been through hardship, who have overcome, and somehow were a uniting force to their people and in their country to a hopeful future. We like people who have overcome the circumstances in which they were born. But now, all of our superheroes are not like that anymore.
I do not know if anyone has seen the original “Superman” movie, 1986 Christopher Reeves. If you have seen that movie you will remember, if you think what were his weaknesses? He did not have any apart from kryptonite. Superman had no weaknesses. Rationally-perfect, morally-perfect, ethically-perfect, kind, considerate, understanding, generous, handsome. He reminds me of me every time I think of him. That is why he was a superhero. He was perfect.
But have you seen “Man of Steel,” the 2011 millennial remake? How does that movies start? Superman is lost on a boat in the fog struggling with his sense of identity, struggling with his sense of worth, emotionally unable to cope with the weight of expectation put on his shoulders. He feels cosmically lonely, cosmically abandoned, hurt, isolated. Superman, the modern-day superman, is a victim.
I don’t know if any of you watch Marvel Superhero movies. But every Marvel Superhero has been used, abused, betrayed, abandoned, they are all victims. We are living at a time right now where all of our heroes have not been able to overcome the tragedies in their past, they are defined by them. This is what we mean when we talk of Global Victim Culture.
Now at this point I need to make a distinction between the legal code and the psychological term. My own background, like Abdu Murray, is in law. I studied law, I used to teach law, I used to teach jurisprudence, which is the moral theory of law. When in law we talk about a victim, what we mean is there was a perpetrator of a crime and then the person who suffered that crime. Perpetrator, victim. In order to restore justice, you have to fight for the right of the victim. When justice collapses in a society, hope collapses with it. It is always very important to figure out how do we do what is right. That is a very healthy dialogue. But then there is a very unhealthy side to it which is psychological, not legal. It is the psychological word, victim culture, which was developed by social psychologists in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and that we are talking about now, and it is fundamentally unhealthy.
Let me give one illustration, why is it that classically, if someone has been raped you train them to say, “I am not a victim. I am not a victim.”?
What are you training them to do? You are not training them to deny the past, that is not healthy for them or for anybody else. You are not training them to say it doesn’t matter, that is not healthy for them or anyone else. Here is what you are doing, you are trying to say to that person, “this event should not define you. You are more than this, you are more precious than this, you are more valuable than this. If you allow this most terrible thing that happened to you to define you, the person who did this to you in the past, also has control of your present, and they will also have control of your future. In other words, you will become a prisoner to hate.”
So, you now need them to reject that victim mentality, not to be defined by that historical trauma. Otherwise they continue to suffer the ongoing consequence for something that was never their fault. It is why when we talk about victim culture psychologically, we are dealing with something very different and very dangerous. That is why Amos talks about not making justice bitter.
When we have been robbed, let me give you a day-to-day example to try and connect the dots. I am sure all of you have seen friends who are close to you get a divorce. Let us say it is a very messy divorce, and you are friends with both the husband and the wife. When you talk to the husband you conclude that somehow, he managed to married the witch of Endor. When you talk to her, you somehow conclude that she married the spawn of Satan. Here is the thing, when you sit with them, and they are telling you all the terrible things that happened, what does that person want you to do? Take their side. To hate the other party. If you do not hate the other party in the same way they hate them, they will say, “I thought you were my friend. I thought you cared. How can this not bother you? How can you not understand it?”
This is what happens when two sides are locked in a dispute, it is not enough that you to agree with party A, they also want you to hate party B. That is how you signal your virtue and your agreement, by you hating the person they also hate. If you say to them, “Do you think the marriage collapsed because you were so busy you never talked to them?” They will accuse you of betraying them. This is where the psychology becomes very infective, very important, and very dangerous because you cannot communicate. But it is not just about personal communication.
If you want just a historical example. In the early 1400s there was this series of running battles around the city of Kosovo. I am not going to unpack all of that history. Some of you around this table may know enough about that region to know how dangerous that would be. But during those running battles, the prince of Kosovo, a man by the name of Prince Lazar was killed. Now one side claims he was killed in the battlefield, the other side claims he was stabbed in the back in prison. For the sake of this illustration, that is not important, he died. The people of Kosovo wanted him buried in the city, but because of the advancing army coming through the gates they moved the body outside of town and they mourned the death of Prince Lazar. School children were taught songs about it. On the year of his death the anniversary is marked. The nation defined itself as a nation in mourning. Mourning the death of Prince Lazar. That continued for hundreds of years.
As the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Lazar approached, the Kosovans asked the then Austro-Hungarian Empire to return the body to the city so he could be buried there. The Austro-Hungarian Empire refused so, on the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Lazar, a young Kosovan man set off to avenge himself against this historical injustice and assassinated the Emperor’s nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, starting the First World War.
These historical, traumatic events are allowed to define us as individuals or nations, they can provide a powder cake that can literally bring the whole world to its knees. As the 600th anniversary of the death of Prince Lazar approached, the then new leader of that area, Slobodan Milošević, promised the people that if it was the last thing he did, he would have the body of the Prince returned to Kosovo and they would bury him. The body was returned, everybody came up to mourn, a massive statue was erected, and on the 600th anniversary of the death of Prince Lazar the genocide began.
Global Victim Culture, when we allow ourselves to be defined by the traumatic events of the past, has the capacity not just to destroy us personally because of bitterness in our own hearts, it can destroy families or even a nation. It can actually bring the whole world to its knees. That is what we are talking about right now.
Historically, Victim Cultures always end up in civil war or in war with their neighbours; without fail. The fact that almost every country in the world right now is trying to define itself as a victim is of exceptional concern.
In the victim narrative, if I am the victim, here is how it works. Everything I say is motivated by love, but anything you say, if you disagree with me, is only explicable through hatred. Which means that all forms of disagreement and dissent become impossible because you are now part of a hate group. Now this is affecting the West, as much as it is affecting the East, as much as it is affecting the Northern Hemisphere, as much as it is affecting the South. We are constantly moving to denounce ourselves in these ways.
Now it causes us various problems. Now various people have written some books on this but there is a problem with most of the analysis I have read. The analysis tends to only make sense of it within one particular country. In England, you can explain Victim Culture through class wars. When I was in South Africa speaking to political leaders it was explained through colonialism. If you are in Asia, depending on what part of Asia you are in, you can explain it through various other factors. However, if any of these narratives were completely correct they should explain why we are in the same place at the same time. But we don’t all have those same historical narratives. As important as those narratives are, how can we all be in the same place at the same time if we have had such different histories, what has converged us?
Let me just suggest a couple of things, just to think about.
Number One: The history of every nation is one of conquest, marriage, intermarriage, you name it, that is the history of every single country on the face of the planet. Now most of us our trouble is we cannot deal with our history. We cannot deal with our past. When there is a strong enough vision and strong enough hope in the future everyone in a nation can pull together to get it. When we feel that there is no hope to move forward, everybody is looking over their shoulder wondering who to blame. Right now, in most countries around the world people are looking over their shoulder saying who do we blame for this mess, and that is when discrimination begins.
Number Two: in the past, to create a Victim Culture, you needed the microphone. If you read all Adolf Hitler’s speeches in 1936 and 1937, that is exactly what he did in Germany. All of our neighbours hate us, the elites in your country are exploiting you, nobody really understands you, you are the victim and now I come as the hero to rescue you. It was very powerful, but in this day and age, everybody with a mobile phone has a microphone and a camera.
What we are doing is we are trying to get people to listen to our story, which is why we have what is called competitive victimhood. Now please forgive me, half of my family is from the Middle East, but most of you will all relate to this, how does competitive victimhood work?
“Of course, I hate you, yesterday one of you threw stones at our children.”
“Yes, that is because last week one of your soldiers shot one of our kids.”
“Yes, but last month, one of your guys drove a bus into a school.”
“Yes, but one year ago, one of your guys put a bomb in a shopping mall.”
“Yes, but ten years ago, one of your guys did this.”
“Yes, but a hundred years ago, your army did that.”
“Yes, but a thousand years ago…”
Now we are all out-bidding each other to see who has the biggest competitive victim narrative.
I was in North America recently, and someone was saying to me, “Michael, look you have to understand how we think because we have three hundred years of this victim narrative.”
I smiled; this is when it is an advantage to have a mother from Cyprus. “Well, in my country we have three thousand years of victim narrative, we have been conquered by the Assyrians, the Arabians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Medians, you name it. Marc Antony gave it as a lover’s gift to Cleopatra. Imagine giving a whole country away as a love gift. What is wrong with diamonds? But he gave the whole country away. As a matter of fact, it is the last divided capital city on the whole earth. We have a three-thousand-year history of victim narrative.”
He went very quiet because my three thousand years of victim narrative makes me more of a victim than his three hundred year; now I have the ascendancy.
Is that really how we are to settle our historical grievances and disputes? I mean it is a crazy way of doing it, but that is exactly what is happening right now.
We are all in competition to see who has been hurt the most. This is where I find what Jesus Christ said in response to this very fascinating. He told a deceptively simple story,
“The Parable of the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). That story is about tribe, race, religion, language, geography, all of the things in which we as victims on a national scale latch onto to justify our hatred of the other.
“A man fell amongst thieves,” Jesus said, “He was stripped of his clothes, and left unconscious on the side of the road.”
Jesus is telling this story as an answer to the question, “Who is my neighbour?”
A question Jesus Christ refuses to answer. Who is my neighbour and Jesus tells this story? What is the problem? You will all understand this, if I were to come to whatever country you are from, I don’t need to ask people where you are from. I can look at their clothes and it will tell me if they are from the north or the south, or if they are rich or poor. From the moment I entered the room you looked at my shoes, my jacket, my watch, my hair cut, my glasses, to figure out what kind of background I have. Which is why I would not strip all of those things away. In the story you can’t tell; he was stripped of his clothes.
The guy is also unconscious. We listen to accent. Abdu Murray made this remark himself as he introduced me. In every country you are from when you open your mouth, they hear your accent, and they assume how well-educated are you, how well-connected are you, how powerful might you be. Jesus now creates a scenario in answer to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’, ‘Who am I obliged to help?’ and he creates a moral situation in which you cannot tell from a person’s clothes what tribe they are part of, nor from their mouth because they are unconscious, and they are lying face down in the road. Jesus says, “When a priest came by, should he help or not?”
It is a fascinating moral dilemma and there is no easy answer to that question. That road runs through the middle of nowhere. When I was in Nigeria recently I illustrated it by saying, I just came from Abuja, we drove down one of three roads, the one we went down was a shorter road but very dangerous. Imagine your son or daughter was driving down that road and they rang you and said, “Mamma, Papa, I have just seen someone naked, lying face down on the road unconscious. Should I stop the car, get out and help?”
I said to the leaders in the room, “What would you say to them.” And they all spoke out loud and it was going out on live national TV, being broadcast to the nation, so I don’t know if the people on the TV sets heard the answer, but they all went, “No, keep going, don’t stop.”
When Jesus said the priest passed by on the other side of the road, nobody would have passed condemnation, because that road runs through bandit territory, and to stop is to die.
When the next guy comes and passes by, same problem.
Then Jesus takes a Samaritan, the sworn enemy of the Jews, and the Samaritan stops. The Samaritan treats the guy by the side of the road. The Samaritan puts him on his horse and the Samaritan takes him to an inn. Then the Samaritan says to the innkeeper, ‘here are two gold coins and when I come back in two weeks’ time if there is any money owing, I’ll pay more.’
This story is used to illustrate the fact, by many Western thinkers, that we should help the poor and we should give to any mission that helps the poorest of the poor. But that is not the main part of the story at all. Every settlement on that road is Jewish. If a Samaritan stopped to help a Samaritan, there is no way he takes him to a Jewish town. Therefore, the Samaritan has helped a Jew.
The next question comes, when the Samaritan walks into the inn of this town, into a Jewish settlement. We can put this into a modern-day scenario, I have no problem with it. You’re an Arab, and you say to them this is one of yours and clearly some of your people did this to him. And you say you would like to pay to look after him and you turn to leave. So as Jesus was telling this story he says the guy handed over the coins and I’ll come back, and then *snap* the story stops.
Now do you ever watch those movies where you get to the end and you’re about to find out the end and then the credits just start rolling up. What do you want to know? You are sitting there going, “I don’t believe it, these crazy producers that want my money are not going to tell me the end of this movie I paid for, so I have to pay to see the second movie just to see the end to the first movie.”
Well that is what this story is like. The guy turns to leave, what is the question you want to know? Well the question is, does he get out alive? And we do not know. It could cost the Samaritan their life to help this guy, and that is the challenge of that story.
Jesus asked the question, who was neighbourly to this other person? Now we live in a world where we constantly want to ask who are we obliged to, who is our neighbour. Jesus is talking about something much bigger. Who acted in a neighbourly way? Who treated the people around them as if they were their neighbours, regardless of how we think about it?
Right now, in the bitter context that we are in we have a huge problem. When justice becomes bitter, even if you get justice the bitterness remains.
Which is why even Hollywood used to know this. Every time you watched a revenge movie and the person finally killed the bad person multiple times, they would always have a side kick, and the sidekick would always ask them the same question, “Are you at peace now?”
And the person would always give the same answer. “It is not enough, I thought this would settle it for me, but it is not enough.”
Revenge is never enough to bring that kind of peace. There has to be something different. Is there a different way of doing this?
Here is my fear, because we seem to live in such an emotionally, and spiritually literate global cultural time.
When we do not understand that bitterness is driving so much of the agenda, we are not responding correctly. When someone is bitter with you, the first thing you need to do is deal with the bitterness before they can hear what you are saying.
For example, if you have ever offended someone and they really hate you. I am sure you are all such lovely persons that nobody has ever taken exception to you. No one has ever treated you with contempt for no reason.
Here is the hard thing, so long as they hate you, even when you try and do something nice for them, what happens? They still interpret it as some kind of attack.
“I cannot believe this person sent me chocolates at Christmas. The last time I met them they made fun of me because they thought I was fat. Now they are sending me chocolates to humiliate me even more.”
Even when you try and do something which is kind, it is received with pain. It is not going to overcome the problem that is actually there.
Now there is this huge issue of how to help people who are processing complex political problems. I do not know the politics of all of your countries, but you take any big political dispute right now and play it through the victim narrative. Does it help make more sense as to why everything is so much more complicated right now than it used to be?
It is not without hope. The last time I spoke on this issue to a group of political leaders they said, “Can you give us any historical examples where bitterness has been overcome?”
I said, “Let me give you three.”
First of all, England and America. England and America should hate each other. England was the colonial foreign occupying power to the American people who forcibly rose up in arms and threw them out. And yet, they have enjoyed a special relationship for a couple hundred of years. Why?
More recently, Germany and Israel. Two countries who should hate each other with a passion, but they do not, why?
Third, Rwanda, you would think that given what has happened in the last twenty years that that place would be a mess right now. Yet in terms of where it is economically and everything else, it is remarkable, why?
One of the things that is common in all three of these situations is the influence of the gospel. The challenge of the Christian Gospel is that it commands…(video stopped for a few seconds).
Now to forgive does not mean you stop pursuing justice, that is not what it means at all. But to forgive means you let go of the bitterness and hatred and the anger within. So that when you respond you are not responding in hate.
The hardest thing about being a diplomat is when someone says something to make you angry and you respond out of that anger. As soon as you respond angrily, what do you wish you had done? You would pay a million dollars to buy back five seconds of time to undo what you just said. It never contributes well to that situation.
The question is how do we learn to forgive in that kind of way?
To let go of the root of bitterness so that it does not control our actions. Once that has happened, then the way we respond externally to everybody else is very different and you can start to become a peace maker in this world.
There is such a need to bring peace, not through some kind of external force, this is the sad thing in terms of where we are in our international global diplomacy. So much effort trying to force things from without, and so little time to actually build relationship and moving people from within.
In the story, Jesus Christ was advocating and talking about the fact that he himself would pay the ultimate price to bring about forgiveness. But in the parable of the Good Samaritan he is saying there is a need for people to walk right into the most dangerous situations with nothing but love and concern; even for people who traditionally would be considered their enemies. This is a way to begin to try and affect a change of heart.
It never happens when someone is pointing a gun at your head, even if you comply the heart still has not changed.
A few other things that I think affect the global change.
One: The Global financial crisis around the world has made most middle-class families in every major city around the world feel excluded from their political future. If you are middle class and you live in any major city the thing that keeps you awake at night is trying to answer the question, how will my children, even if they get good jobs, ever be able to afford to buy their own home?
If you feel you have no economic future in your own political economy, the middle class are excluded in that kind of way as well as the working class. You will get a revolution every single time.
I am sure none of you come from cities, I am sure that every city you are from in your country homes are eminently affordable and nobody has a problem buying anything. All I can say is that in Oxford, even if you have the highest paying job in the city of Oxford, which would be head of the research hospital, you still would not be able to buy a one-bedroom apartment, let alone a small family home. Therefore, they feel there is no future in their own political economy.
Two: The Global Financial crisis, all that did, the trillions of dollars that were printed to bail out the global economy, you have to ask yourself, where did it go? Now it didn’t go into my bank account. If it went into your bank account I would like to meet you, you are my friend, we need to talk about something important. But it has caused a huge dislocation and there is this underline sense of injustice behind it all that most people live in the reality of every day. Which is why you see so many protests in parts of the Western world right now.
Three: The more pain we have been through and the more grievance we have had, the more status we have. That is how we become a superhero. Which is why everybody with a Twitter account tries to exaggerate the amount of pain they are suffering. The more injustice I have had, the weaker your position, and the more I can get from you and complain about you. Think about it in your country. What old story told in your country talks about a great King, who became a great King by constantly complaining about everybody else and all the pain they were in?
It is a very strange situation to be in but that is not going to work. The media and technology have taken on a huge thing, objectification. The use of pornography has become a global phenomenon. Right now, the problem with it is that it makes us treat other people as an object.
Let me finish with this and one last thing. If you were to say to me, “Michael, what is it like working for this organization? You have been working with this guy Ravi Zacharias for 23 years what is it like?”
And I say to you, “You know what, he has been using me all of this time.”
If that is my response, he has been using me, I have said something seriously wrong because none of us like to be used. When we feel we have been used, we feel angry.
The relationship between you and an object is one of consumption. You consume it to meet a need that you have. The relationship between you and a person is one of connection, in one sense one person to another. That is the difference between a relationship between objects, and a relationship between people.
Our world has now so objectified other people we use them. We connect with them to meet a need that we have. That is what happens with pornography and prostitution. When we reduce someone as an object they exist to meet a need that we have. Well, at that point we lose relationship.
We live in a world right now where this has become so common that we actual talk about using each other. We talk about human resources, we do not talk about personality. Humans are a resource to be used. We have lost that contact with people.
I am so glad I am not involved in politics. I feel sorry every time I read a story where a political leader will be asked the question, “When you meet so and so will you shake their hand.”
I am sure none of you have had to live through this particular nightmare. When all the cameras are there will you shake their hand?
The idea is, if I come and shake your hands and we are enemies, that means that if I am being kind to you, it means I affirm you, I agree with you. But that is not what that means.
I sometimes get to meet some very militant leaders around the world and I normally start by embracing their hands or embracing them for at least two reason. Number one, they generally tend to be armed and carrying weapons and I am not. I have no desire to walk into that room and simply be shot.
Secondly, I want to treat them as a person. If I think of them as the enemy, as pagans, as animals, as any of those things, I am dehumanizing them, and I am going to relate to them as an object. I want to relate to them as people. Therefore, I will embrace them, I will hug them, I will shake their hand, I will sit down and will drink as much tea as necessary, and then, when it is appropriate for me to start to talk, we talk. We have to find a way to rehumanize the people we put outside of the spectrum. Otherwise we will just simply end up using each other and there is no end to the spiral.