“Should I feel bad that I feel good when bad things happen to other people?” That is a paraphrase of friends’ inquiries in recent weeks. “Other people” here does not refer to just “any people.” If it did, feeling thus would be a big sin over which one should certainly feel bad. “Other people” here means those with names like Abramoff, Bennett, Brown, DeLay, Frist, Lewis, Lott, Rove, etc. Or “other people” refers to groups like “the people who gave us the Iraq War” or “those who botched the response to disasters” or “those who saw their economic programs set back.” The list includes some presumably innocent, some guilty, and some embarrassed folk, all less free now to be as triumphalist as they had been.
This column is more about framing issues than about framing people, so I now put on my “sighting” glasses and my “framing” mien. And with them, I don my academic theologian’s gown and my retired confessor’s robe, because we are talking about “sin.” To the point: “SHAHD-n-froy-duh” is “a malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others.” The adjective “malicious” forces us to call it “sin.” Now we enter the sphere of confession.
Before going too far in that direction, it is important to give counsel. Remember, friends, your satisfaction, even joy (freude), arrives during your half of a long inning. They had satisfaction when names like Clinton were in the embarrassing headlines. You interrupt: “But we reciprocated at once with Schadenfreude in the moment when the main accusers of the errant President were immediately exposed as first-class adulterers.” That moment lasted only a moment, and they soon won some elections and trumped your Schadenfreude with theirs, in their long half of an inning. And should you come back to power some day, they will be ready to play the Schadenfreude card in spades.
Returning to theological and not prudential concerns: The sin that goes with “malice” is “envy.” Before long we will rack up Seven Deadly Sins associated with your feeling momentarily good. So we can’t get past the reasoning of the Germans, who have a patent on the word in question: This is some sort of sin of some sort of size. But to be the victim of Schadenfreude expressions you have to a) have a near-monopoly on power and b) boast and swagger and tromp on others while asserting it. Any ironist knows that this is a set-up for a downfall.
I too often quote W. C. Fields, who said he’d spent years studying the Bible, looking for a loophole. Theologically, I can’t find a loophole that says Schadenfreude isn’t a sin. Relishing and expressing it, however, does not hurt those against whom it is expressed; he or she or they brought their misfortunes on themselves. So, aware that letting us — I’m in this company too! — off lightly is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” I’d say that the sinners pay a price for their sin.
But admit it, enjoying Schadenfreude is so delicious, the impulse to express it so irresistible, that for the moment one has to hope that God is not looking, or is at least winking, knowing that guilty mortals will find a way to endure. And those enjoying Schadenfreude now are waiting for the time when they will once again be the victims of those who are presently squirming in their own embarrassment.
The Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, Dr. Martin E. Marty taught there for 35 years, chiefly in the Divinity School, where the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion was founded and to whose weekly column Sightings he contributed. Ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1952, he served from 1956-2013 as a columnist and senior editor at the Christian Century and authored more than 60 books including Righteous Empire, for which he won the National Book Award; the three-volume Modern American Religion; The One and the Many: America’s Search for the Common Good; The Mystery of the Child; Building Cultures of Trust; The Christian World: A Global History; Martin Luther (in the “Penguin Lives” series); and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography.