For decades now, poor retail workers and minimum wage fast food employees have suffered at the hands of an elusive yet pervasive antagonist that has gone unnamed for years. As if on the tip of our culture’s tongue, finally the word for this unnamed enemy resounded across the internet: Karen. These women who we’d all encountered but never had a label for could finally be categorised by the pejorative Karen.
Now to all the Karens out in the world who are sincerely kind, loving, gentle and incredible people, we’re sorry your name had to be the scapegoat for this categorisation. In fact, I think those who use the term ‘Karen’ are most sympathetic to the actual Karens in their lives who are deeply loved and unlike these retail worker assaulters are the salt of the earth. But the labelling of a particular type of woman as a ‘Karen’ has been revolutionary in that finally a word has been ascribed to a very specific type of attitude and personality.
Defining a Karen
So, what exactly is a Karen? A Karen is a woman (typically white, middle class and middle age) who is frequently rude, obnoxious and selfish in their day-to-day interactions. Karens are also identifiable by distinct fashion trends of the middle class, such as the ‘Karen’ haircut as pictured below.
This selfishness is most well known to be expressed towards those working in retail, in which a Karen will escalate a situation and tell off an employee for either failing to do something correctly, or for a perceived threatening of her rights, freedom or even feelings and sensibilities. The ultimate finishing move in these encounters is her attack, ‘can I please speak to the manager?’
We’ve all encountered women (and men) who have this certain air about them, and I believe it can be summarised by one word: entitlement. Karens only become angry, obnoxious or play the victim when they feel the certain treatment they are entitled to is not given to them. From this sense of entitlement comes all the actions, behaviours and characteristics typical of a Karen.
Karens appear to be a recent phenomenon in history, but in reality, you can open your Bible and find an abundance of Karen spirited people throughout its pages. In fact, before we even created the pejorative ‘Karen’ the Biblical authors had another name for these entitled, obnoxious and selfish people: grumblers.
For example, the Book of Exodus recounts God rescuing his people from slavery and bondage in Egypt, and his promise of bringing them into the Promised Land. To get to this land filled with milk and honey, the Hebrews must make a relatively short journey through the wilderness, during which God provides food and water for them to eat daily. God has done everything in his power to rescue his people and provide for them, and has even prepared a Paradise for them, and how do they respond?
Then the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, ‘Oh that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you . . . and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, for he hears your complaints against the Lord. (Exodus 16:2-4, 7 NKJV)
The Israelites literally ask, ‘can we speak to the manager?’ Moses and Aaron are the underpaid, minimum wage employees who are getting harassed, and notice that God says ultimately their complaint was against him, the manager. They feel entitled to more than God has already given them, and they demand their rights and sensibilities be listened to by whinging and moaning.
That recurring word ‘complain’ is used 14 times in the Old Testament, and 13 of them are all in reference to the Israelites complaining to Moses and Aaron during the Exodus. They complain about a lack of water (Ex. 15:24; 17:3), a lack of food (Ex. 16:2,7,8), the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Num. 16:11; 17:5), and even the righteous judgment of God (Num. 16:41).
Self-Destruction of Karens
The sad reality of Karens or grumblers, is that ultimately, they are self-destructive. When Moses sends spies into the Promised Land, ‘those who returned made all the congregation complain against him [Moses] by bringing a bad report about the land’ (Num. 14:36). This is the final straw for the Israelites, and for the generation of adults who continually complained, they are condemned to wandering the wilderness for forty years, and never seeing the Promised Land.
The Grumbling Spirit
We might look at the Karens of today or the Israelites of the past and criticize their entitled approach to life, characterised by moaning, groaning and grumbling. But if we honestly reflect on our personal lives, we would find that same grumbling-Karen spirit in each and every one of us.
When we get cut off by traffic, or have someone insult us, or get a lower grade on an assessment than expected, or don’t get that promotion we felt we deserved, or the wi-fi drops out, we immediately slip into the grumbling spirit of the Israelites. We feel our feelings or rights that we are entitled to having be protected have been violated (regardless if that is true or not) and immediately become combative, angry, victims of our own stories, and ultimately self-destructive.
No one is immune from this spirit of false entitlement, and it is particularly damning for those of us who live in the most privileged time of history and in the most privileged countries in the world, and yet we still mumble, groan and complain.
The Solution for Recovering Karens
Scripture gives us the antidote to the grumbling-Karen spirit that we all wrestle with daily: the Gospel. The good news that Jesus died on the cross for your sins and has paid the penalty of death on your behalf, is the ultimate solution to self-entitlement. Why? Because the Gospel is built upon grace.
Grace is a gift freely given to you that you do not deserve. You are not entitled to it, and in fact, your sinful actions disqualify you from it, and yet God in his infinite love for humanity, gives each and everyone of us the opportunity to accept this gift of love so that we can have eternal life, and not have to face the consequences of eternal death.
In response to this loving sacrifice of Jesus, Christians are called to imitate his lifestyle, which was not just the absence of grumbling and moaning, but the proactive sacrificial love to others at the expense of rights and liberties one is actually entitled to!
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-11, NLT)
Christ gave up the privileges he was entitled to, so that he could give us the privilege of grace and eternal life that we are undeserving of. Paul implores his Christian readers to have this same attitude that Christ had, not a grumbling spirit of selfishness, but one which prioritises grace and the needs of others even at the expense of one’s own rights and privileges.
We all have the grumbling-Karen spirit that the Israelites had. It’s part of sinful human nature. So, we must choose what to do with it. Will we choose to be like the Israelites and let out anger and bitterness consume us till it eventuates in our own self-destruction? Or will we choose to follow another path, a better path which Jesus laid out for us through his life, death and resurrection.
Each one of us can choose to accept the Gospel message and be transformed by the profound reality of God’s love and grace, and choose to show that same humble and sacrificial love and grace to others. Let us follow the directions of Paul and not have inside us a complaining spirit, but instead a mind like Christ’s.
By Christopher Petersen