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Why protests are often selfish

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.


Rex Features via AP Images

It often seems as though protesting perceived injustices, even those that don’t directly impact our lives, is required in order to be considered a good person in our culture. But why is it that so many people today are quick to take up fights that don’t necessarily concern them? Is it altruism? Evidence that we’ve progressed as a society? While those might be valid explanations in some instances, a new study suggests that the real reason is often a bit less noble.

Psychology professors Zachary Rothschild and Lucas A. Keefer found that “third party concern—what social scientists refer to as ‘moral outrage’—is often a function of self-interest, wielded to assuage feelings of personal culpability for societal harms or reinforce (to the self and others) one’s own status as a Very Good Person.” Essentially, we rail against the offenses of others to make ourselves feel better about the problems we refuse to deal with in our own lives. We build ourselves up by tearing others down, especially when the “others” comprise a large, faceless entity perceived to have all the power, aka big corporations, political parties, etc.

Rothschild and Keefer found that when, for example, they gave people articles that described America as the driving force of climate change, they showed significantly more anger and resentment towards big oil companies than those who were given articles that claimed Chinese consumers were most to blame. Moreover, those who were given the opportunity to express their anger towards those larger corporations reported feeling significantly less guilt than those who were not given that option. And as‘s Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes, “These findings held true even accounting for things such as respondents’ political ideology, general affect, and background feelings about the issues.

It would seem that it’s simply part of our fallen nature to find peace in blaming others rather than ourselves. That’s hardly revelatory, but it does help to explain why so many in our culture have become almost addicted to championing social causes and fighting against perceived injustices, often times demonstrating a greater level of offense than the people actually suffering from those problems.

It makes sense, though, given that, as David Brooks recently described, “people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption. The only reliable way to feel morally justified in that culture is to assume the role of victim.”

So of course we play up the moral failings of others and point out the myriad of ways in which they are responsible for the struggles we face. It’s either that or come face to face with the reality that we are a fallen people in desperate need of a savior that, as a culture, we have already decided doesn’t exist.

And even those of us who know better, who have found the freedom that only a personal and redemptive relationship with the one true God can provide, still fall prey to that temptation. After all, there’s an admittedly fine line between sharing our Lord’s heart for the oppressed, seeking justice on their behalf (Matthew 25:31–46), and doing so to try and atone for mistakes that only he can remove from our ledger.

Ultimately, God judges the heart and knows when we seek to help others for their benefit and when we do so for our own. The problem is that, often times, we can’t tell the difference in our own lives, and it’s vital that we know which is our driving motivation.

The primary reason that Jesus had so little patience for the religious leaders in his time was their inability to see that they cared about adherence to the Law more because it was something they could do better than others than because it genuinely got them closer to God. They dedicated their lives to the sort of self-righteousness that necessitates highlighting the problems of others, even when that criticism is legitimate, as a way to avoid dealing with our own problems.

Do we really think that God will simply dismiss with us that which infuriated him with the Pharisees? No, he hates that sin just as much today as he did two thousand years ago.

So how will we choose to react to the injustices around us today? Will we join the chorus of voices shouting in self-righteous anger or will we stand alongside the God who desires justice simply because it’s the right and loving thing to do? He knows the difference. Do you?