A man went to his lawyer and asked him, "My neighbor owes me $500 and he won’t pay up. What should I do?"
"Do you have any proof he owes you the money?" asked the lawyer.
"Nope," replied the man.
"Okay, then write him a letter asking him for the $5,000 he owes you," said the lawyer.
"But it's only $500," replied the man.
"Precisely. That’s what he will reply and then you’ll have your proof!"
This joke showed up in my inbox yesterday. It's funny (at least to me) on so many different levels. But it also, to me, highlights a fairly human tendency: exaggerate in order either (a) to make a point, or (b) to get what one wants. Both of those "reasons" suggest that the "exaggerator" feels somewhat helpless in his/her situation.
I've been thinking about that phenomenon--dealing with helplessness--over the last week. I had reason to re-read some ancient gnostic texts, and re-do some background checking. Gnosticism was a philosophical/religious movement that arose in late antiquity (and some would stay still exists today). it took on several different forms, on of the main tenets was that there was some kind of esoteric knowledge that, if one was initiated into the fold, would "save" the believer from a future/afterlife peril. When I looked back at the background of gnosticism, and who was most likely to be attracted to it, one of the answers (of course, scholars won't always agree!) was the folks who were already marginalized, mostly socio-economically. Finding refuge in "being in the know" gave them some comfort that their "betters" would not be better off in the age to come.
The same phenomenon, although spelled out differently, is found in apocalyptic literature in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. "Apocalypticism" presupposes a set of "hidden" facts that are revealed (the root meaning of apocalyptic) to believers, especially about the end of the world. Anyone who has read the biblical books of Daniel or Revelations will recognize that the "underdog" (primarily a religious minority in a repressed situation) will come out the "winner" at the end of the age, and that the oppressors will get their just desserts (usually burning in hot lava forever). Again, believing this way provides some comfort for those found in trying situations.
It seems to me that we're seeing the same phenomenon playing itself out again. Only this time rather than appeal to some special, or recently revealed, hidden knowledge, we're seeing exaggeration to make a point. And here I would point to conservative Christians in the U.S. who are claiming that they are the most persecuted group in the country. Alan Noble, in an article in The Atlantic, "The Evangelical Persecution Complex", points out many of the problems of this position. One of the "results" is that "Being a 'loser' in the world's eyes for Jesus [is], paradoxically, cool". They may believe that to be the case, but, as is/was the case with gnostic and apocalyptic beliefs, it does little to change realities. Or, as Valerie Tarico points out, "When we cultivate the sense that we have been wronged, we can’t see the wrong that we ourselves are doing. We also give up our power to make things better. If people keep being mean to us through no fault of our own, then we’re helpless as well as victims, at least in our own minds. You can’t fix what you can’t see."*
I've had all of these thoughts swirling through my mind this week as I've been teaching my interterm course "Angels in the Architecture", where I take a group of students to a dozen different places of worship, from Buddhist to Orthodox Christian, New Thought to Krishna Consciousness, Protestant Christian to Jewish. The students always come from a variety of backgrounds, but few have ever been into the kinds of buildings we visit, or talk with members of those congregations. As they do, barriers of misunderstanding are clearly broken down. My hope is that they, once the class is over, will not have to find refuge by fabricating a false truth, or a false hope, but that they'll seek out diverse points of view in order to find a common, better, solution to the problems that face us all.