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“You took something very precious from me,” said Nadine Collier, through tears. “But I forgive you. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Those words stunned the nation when they were spoken in a South Carolina courtroom in 2015. Days earlier, the man to whom they were directed—21-year-old Dylann Roof—had gunned down nine innocent people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. One of the slain was Collier’s mother, Ethel Lance. Other relatives of the victims immediately joined Collier in her unthinkable act. Without conditions, they pardoned Roof and prayed for him.
This true and moving story highlights one of the limitations of using a religious framework to understand modern “intersectional” identity politics: Unlike the monotheistic faiths, leftist activism today makes no allowance for forgiveness, atonement, or reconciliation. That’s a fatal flaw of the intersectional worldview itself—and one that goes a long way toward explaining the acute divisions that have plagued American society in recent years.
In her insightful essay “Sacrificial Politics and Sacred Victims,” Assumption College Professor Molly Brigid McGrath argues that the key to what she calls “contemporary Sacrificial Politics” is a belief in the sacredness of “victims of oppression,” which results from the suffering they (or, more accurately, the demographic group they represent) have experienced. The “Sacred” are thus members of an oppressed category; the “Pious” are members of a “privileged category (e.g., white, male, straight, or cis) who recognize, honor, protect, and avenge the Sacred”; and the “Blasphemers” are people who “commit acts of desecration against the Sacred…and are marked henceforth as perpetrators of injustice.”
Intersectionality renders some oppressed groups more sacred than others because they’ve been oppressed on more dimensions. A gay white man has fewer victim points than a black trans lesbian, for example—and those points matter, because they give the holder authority to speak while silencing anyone below him or her in the hierarchy.
“Intersectionality names the calculus by which the speaker’s voice is elevated more and more beyond criticism, argument, and other offensive and profane treatment,” McGrath writes. “The speaker is more set apart.”
This framework is a valuable tool for making sense of a leftist politics that can seem bewildering to those on the outside. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, blasphemy—an open violation of the respect that is almighty God’s due—is the great offense, in part because it’s a threat to the very foundations of the religious institution. Much the same, under identity politics, those deemed Sacred Victims “are not to be handled like other people.” Failure to abide by this norm amounts to a denial of the Sacred, which jeopardizes the stability of the whole arrangement.
Seen this way, the disproportionate reactions to even mildly offensive comments—reactions that often involve a sort of ritual humiliation and excommunication of the offender—come to make more sense. Yet the Judeo-Christian tradition pairs its belief that God is almighty with another belief: that God is “merciful and gracious,” and that forgiveness is therefore always possible.
Catholic and Orthodox Christians have formalized this reality in the sacrament of Reconciliation, during which a priest standing in for Christ absolves the penitent of his or her sins. Yom Kippur—the annual Day of Atonement—plays a similar role in Jewish life. And in the monotheistic faiths, a reciprocal obligation follows: As Nadine Collier and her grief-stricken peers demonstrated in an almost superhuman fashion, we are also required to pardon others when they wrong us.
“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” asks Peter in the Bible. “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times,” Jesus replies. The answer is meant to demonstrate the boundless, even extravagant mercy of God. But this crucial theological proposition is absent from today’s intersectional identity politics, wherein members of privileged groups can never hope to repair the damage allegedly inflicted by their demographic category against a victim class.
McGrath affirms that, in this framework, “there are no rites of forgiveness.” But her article understates the importance of this point. More than once, she invokes the idea of “atonement” to describe why, for the social justice–oriented left, all those with privilege (but especially the Blasphemers) deserve their persecution. “The idea is that sufferers of social mistreatment are sacrificial victims of a general human sinfulness for which we must all atone,” she writes. And later: “These humiliating spectacles do not merely punish or correct individuals. They are public sacrifices seeking communal atonement.”
This is not quite right. Properly understood, atonement—like reconciliation—connotes a restorative act. A sinner absolved during Confession is brought back into communion with God, and the church is made whole again. This is true even if the underlying harm that caused the breach cannot be reversed
In identity politics, there is no amount of atonement through which the Blasphemer—or even the Pious—can be put back on equal footing with the Sacred Victim. People with privilege will forever remain subordinated to those who represent an oppressed group. Whereas atonement is unifying, then, intersectionality is deeply, profoundly divisive.
The intensifying ugliness in American politics is, I think, at least partially attributable to this fact. Particular demographic subgroups—straight white cis men foremost among them—are not just relegated to positions of less power than they once held. They’re branded as guilty of sins in which they may have had no personal involvement and for which no forgiveness is possible. They are both voiceless and hopeless. Is it any wonder that some of them react with frustration?
There is little evidence of a rise in actual hate crimes in recent years. But there certainly does seem to be a fraying of norms around civility—a fraying that is both exemplified and exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s frequent unseemly utterances about women and minorities.
To return to McGrath’s framework, another way of describing this change might be that we’re seeing a swelling in the ranks of Blasphemers as more and more Pious defect. From a game theoretical standpoint, it’s hard to be surprised by that. If even the most committed, observant Pious knows she could slip up at any time and be banished forever into the realm of Blasphemers—and if the punishment meted out for mild or accidental blasphemy is the same as for truly appalling behavior—the social incentive against exploring and indulging one’s baser impulses is erased. When Mike Pence and Mitt Romney are summarily placed in the same bucket with Richard Spencer and Stefan Molyneux, you’re likely to get more of the latter. And so we have.
This is, to be clear, a dark and deplorable development—which is why it’s so important to understand what might be fueling it.
There is something dehumanizing about the intersectional insistence that certain intrinsic demographic characteristics make a person unworthy of participating fully in public life. That the activist left does not recognize this as an injustice points to a second way in which the new secular “religion” of identity politics is deficient compared to the real thing. One of the great gifts of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the revolutionary belief that every single human person, by virtue of our being created in God’s image, possesses equal dignity. By permanently elevating certain classes of people above the others, identity politics rejects this truth.
Of course, victims of oppression are no strangers to dehumanization. To point out the excesses of intersectional activism must not be taken as a denial of humanity’s history of perpetrating horrifying injustices—especially, in the U.S. context, against African Americans. Emanuel, a 2019 documentary about the Charleston church massacre, features a heart-wrenching, stomach-turning series of shots of the bodies of black men who have been killed by police. “When you feel that nothing you say is heard, that nothing you do changes the course of events, then what are you left with but lashing out?” activist Philip Pinckney asks in the film.
The allure of intersectionality is that it offers a plausible justification for inverting the power dynamic instead of dismantling it. But that’s like trying to drive out darkness with darkness. To end our toxic struggle, we need a politics not of sanctity but of dignity. Where the former hopes to turn the tables, the latter pulls up a chair.
Just as God’s abundant mercy obliges believers to be compassionate in their own relationships, a politics that begins and ends by recognizing the equal dignity of every human being comes with great responsibility. For members of historically privileged groups, that has to include listening humbly to those who have suffered, sincerely caring about their experiences, and looking for ways to make amends. For members of historically marginalized groups, it means resisting the urge to weaponize their oppression.
The past—to our dishonor—brims with instances in which entire subsets of people have been treated as less than fully human. Faced with such a legacy, it’s not enough to mouth pieties. The only lasting solution is in a genuine ethic of mutual respect.