Jeremiah and Horizontal Hostility

June 25, 2017

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 94


I’ve been reading Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, a profoundly challenging and eye-opening text about the need for sustained resistance to capitalism, industrialism, and climate change (the authors specifically name the need for an end to “civilization,” which doesn’t mean an end to humanity, as I might’ve first assumed, but an end to a particular way of living predicated upon endless growth, a way of living which is destructive to life). I would absolutely recommend the book: it’s incisive and brutally straightforward. It names truths that most of us fear but need to name.

I’m writing on the reading from the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 25 (yes, I’m behind), and when I look at the first reading, the struggle for cohesion on the left is the first thing that comes to mind.


Jeremiah said:
“I hear the whisperings of many:
‘Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!’
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
‘Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,
and take our vengeance on him.’


In college, I was a budding activist/organizer. I was involved in the movement to divest my school from fossil fuels, turned out to protests against police brutality, organized for greater accountability and transparency in the school’s bureaucracy, led trainings about people of faith in political movements, stuff like that. And I witnessed the vicious backstabbing and pettiness that pervades left-leaning spaces on college campuses in the U.S. Interpersonal nastiness comes in. Someone decides that someone else is bourgie and fake and decides to talk about them behind their back. Someone decides that their old friends aren’t cool enough and that they’d prefer to smoke with the radder, edgier people. All kinds of ridiculous stuff comes up.

Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet names horizontal hostility[1] for what it is: toxic and destructive. It brings movements down. I’d never heard the term before, but when I read it, I thought, yes! This is the problem!

As Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet also names, youth-driven political movements are too-often short-sighted and hot-headed. That’s what I was witnessing in college, of course. We were all riled up with idealism and fervor, trying to figure out how best to do this “activism” thing. Even those of us who claimed to be sophisticated had gaping blind spots (especially frustrating for me was the normative secularism of leftist spaces, which were often flatly hostile toward religion despite their vague commitments to standing against religious persecution).

So I read the first reading and thought, yes! Jeremiah is talking about horizontal hostility! His former friends/comrades are turning against him. Maybe they once shared (or still share) the same noble ideals, but the group is breaking up. Infighting is taking over and they’re trying to call out and bring down the member whom they’ve labeled “problematic.”

I used to think that the right had invented the left’s nasty “call-out culture,” but that was naïve. The left is full of it. The real problem is that while the religious right is open about its religiosity, the left isn’t. The left holds certain ideas as articles of faith. People who question get excommunicated. People manipulate those ideals to target those they don’t like (like Jeremiah’s former friends watching for any misstep). Left-leaning groups are no more exempt from things like reification of personal/individual purity, hero worship, or groupthink than any other culture, but when you’re in those groups, this issues are harder to name because of the ways we understand “secularism” and “religion” on the right and left. So while many college leftists don’t want to talk about religion (and ostracize religious people), they replicate many of its most toxic elements.

Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet presents a better explanation of horizontal hostility than I can, and other writers have surely explored more fully how to combat it. The passage from Jeremiah gives me a bit of comfort, though. I too often feel caught between my faith and my politics, with no real community on either side. People don’t know what to do with me: I’m not Catholic enough for the Catholics but not radical enough for the radicals. I think that people who give me a hard time are wrong. Obviously I think I’m “just”; I’m a young idealist, aren’t I? I think I’m firmly in the right, so it’s tempting to be soothed when Jeremiah goes on to say:


But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion:
my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.
In their failure they will be put to utter shame,
to lasting, unforgettable confusion.


But… is lasting, unforgettable confusion a good outcome for anyone? Of course not! I want my former friends to see the error of their ways, apologize, and make alliances with me, not for God my protector to wreak vengeance upon them. I don’t think my “enemies” (those with similar or shared political goals with whom I quarrel) are evil, per se, I just think they’re… wrong? Maybe this passage would be better applied to the global elites, someone I can more justly name as an enemy, not to the former friends who try to trip me up? Because in the end, a lot of the left-leaning people with whom I’ve fought have more in common with me than not. But I don’t think that the passage refers to the faceless evils of power and oppression. It names Jeremiah’s former friends. It refers to horizontal hostility. And it names vengeance.

Vengeance is a problem. Wouldn’t reconciliation be better?

I don’t know how to deal with the LORD’s vengeance. It seems that Jeremiah is saying that his former comrades should be excommunicated and sent to suffer, just like they were trying to do to Jeremiah. And how is that sustainable? How is that any way to build a movement? Maybe this is just his wishful thinking, his certainty that he is right, his idealism and pride reassuring him that the LORD will back him up.

The end of the passage does give me hope, though, the kind of hope that I can cling to without guilt or confusion. This is good stuff. This is something I already understand, as much as any of us can understand it. This is what the authors of the book I’m reading name. This is what I hope to live, the rescue of life from power:


Sing to the LORD,
praise the LORD,
for he has rescued the life of the poor
from the power of the wicked!”


This makes me take a deep breath and say, hey, okay, maybe God isn’t really a partisan in our petty squabbles, after all? Or if and when she is invested in our interpersonal disputes, she’s really trying to get us to focus on the bigger picture?



[1] Quoting Denise Thompson, the book states: “Horizontal hostility can involve bullying into submission someone who is no more privileged in the hierarchy of male supremacist social relations than the bully herself. It can involve attempts to destroy the good reputation of someone who has no more access to the upper levels of power than the one who is spreading the scandal. It can involve holding someone responsible for one’s own oppression, even though she too is oppressed. It can involve envious demands that another woman stop using her own abilities, because the success of someone no better placed than you yourself “makes” you feel inadequate and worthless. Or it can involve attempts to silence criticism by attacking the one perceived to be doing the criticising. In general terms, it involves misperceptions of the source of domination, locating it with women who are not behaving oppressively.”


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