Victims, Victimisers and Cross-Shaped Victory
We all love a good Hero story, don’t we?
It’s all the better if it’s a story of an unlikely hero. Maybe they were born in disadvantaged circumstances, lost their parents at a young age, were oppressed or abused. Then they rise up and break the shackles. Perhaps they discover a power or strength they never knew they had, or they bring together a community of freedom fighters to strike a blow against the oppressors.
It’s a narrative we recognise. We read, watch and tell those stories all the time. And all along we root for the underdog, the victim.
It’s also a story we connect with at a deep level. We resonate with the hero with a longing to make something of ourselves, break through barriers, and throw off oppression where we or others experience it.
But of course, it isn’t just a story we tell is it? Recent days have starkly reminded us that it’s one we live too. Our world is riddled with injustice, violence and oppression. Many have lived through traumatic and horrifying experiences.
We rightly rejoice when victims rise up, when individuals and minorities who have been crushed and unfairly treated speak out and raise their voices to fight for recognition and freedom.
I wonder, though, whether our love of these heroes also has another effect. Along with those heroes who speak out as victims of attitude and action, comes the increasing rise of the identity of victimhood. If I can present myself as a victim of a particular oppression, especially one in some way linked to a traditional cultural trend, then I have a platform. I can gather followers to my cause.
As a result, the narrative and dialogue of our culture has become more and more stridently one of dark and light sides, of wicked empire and virtuous rebel-freedom-fighters. Many of us become cheerleaders, urging victim-heroes on. Meanwhile, some find themselves able to rally to the cause and join the heroic movement. With a thrill they can unite their voices in the powerful roar of the virtuous rebellion against the oppressive tradition.
Now don’t get me wrong. So much of this is so good. After all, this is precisely what Jesus came to do isn’t it? To free victims? He identified with the oppressed and marginalised. He ate with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and showed the kind of love towards outsiders which turned cultural norms and expectations upside down, and had others scratching their heads in bewilderment. He welcomed those with little or no status in the society of his day. He touched lepers, spoke with, ate with, and loved the most down-trodden outcasts.
Meanwhile, he had the harshest of criticisms for the elite, the establishment, who ‘devoured widows’ houses’ while congratulating themselves and one another for their uprightness. These are the victims and victimisers of the gospel stories, and it seems Jesus was firmly fighting for the victims.
And then of course, at the centre of this great story is an ultimate victory. Humanity itself was ruled by sin, captive to destruction, enslaved to death. So, Jesus allowed himself to be overcome by death itself, so that he could win the ultimate victory, and offer new life to all who come to him.
This is the story of the archetypal righteous rebellion-freedom-fighter.
Except. If we insist that society is made up starkly of victims and victimisers, we will run into problems when it comes to Jesus.
For example, what do you make of Paul? He was no victim. First, he was one of those very Pharisees who ‘devoured widow’s houses,’ then he began travelling from town to town to round up those who didn’t believe the right things so that he might imprison and kill them. Here was a typical victimiser, and yet Jesus met him and offered him the forgiveness which utterly transformed him.
Which has to get us thinking. Could it be that the gospel isn’t just good news for victims, but even good news for victimisers too? Could it even be that the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for victims because it’s good news for victimisers?
That sounds like an outrageously insensitive thing to say. Perhaps I'm even at risk of colluding with so much of the societal oppression that’s such a problem. But bear with me a moment longer.
When you think about it, we seem to spend so much effort separating society into these two groups don’t we? Victim and victimiser. They become identities, labels with which we dismiss some and insist that we attentively to others. In the end we feel we absolutely have to know who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys. Then, when the good guys speak up, we know who to listen to.
Again, there's much good in that. For so long our culture simply silenced victims out of hand. We should celebrate the shift which has given more voice to the previously voiceless. But there’s also a danger which I'm not sure we’re noticing as much as we should.
So many current definitions of victimhood are rooted in the perception that victimisers are those who have systematically obstructed victims from expressing themselves and their identity. We live in an era that makes outright autonomous self-expression the highest good and calls on each one of us to heroically ‘be yourself,’ whatever the (victimising) establishment might say.
Yet it is not ironic that these identities of victim and victimiser are co-dependent? The one cannot exist without the other.
No one can claim the identity of victimhood without identifying others as victimisers.
Which means that if someone wants to maintain a victimhood status, so to hang onto the power to have a voice which that can provide, they must insist upon and maintain the victimiser status of a group of others. There's no room for the members of that group to turn and ask for forgiveness, let alone to change.
That has two damaging effects.
First, it means victimhood is an inherently unstable identity. Since societal views can shift so rapidly there is nothing to stop today’s oppressed minority becoming tomorrow’s oppressive traditionalists. Ask the traditional feminists who strove for so long against so much genuine injustice in androcentric culture, but now find themselves cast as victimisers in ideological sex and gender debates. When all is said and done, if the freedom-fight progresses and victims are actually able to throw off oppression, we all run into difficulty. Unless new identities can be found, new victimisers will always be needed.
Second, this turns victimhood itself into a prison. If we make victimhood a primary identity and are encouraged to do so by the voice that can give us, we have no escape. We cannot live in any other way than to constantly revisit and re-inhabit the experiences which have made us victims. In effect, however hard we may fight, however heroic we might be, we cannot escape from the identity-shaping power of victimisers.
And that is why it is so good to know that Jesus offers good news to victims and victimisers. Because the call of Christ is not only a call to liberation, though it is certainly not less than that. It’s also a call to transformation. It’s a call which is not afraid to call sin, sin, and to speak of the serious consequences. Which means it is also a call which can speak of the genuine repentance, which acknowledges, recognises and turns away from the wickedness of oppression to find the freedom of a new identity in relationship with the God of other-person centred love, in whose image we were designed.
In other words, the death and resurrection of Jesus takes the sin of oppression seriously even as it brings together justice and mercy. Here is a salvation which offers both freedom from an entrapping victimhood and freedom for trapped victimisers.
It seems to me that this is the better story our culture needs in these days. Rather than the boundaries of victim and victimiser which characterise so many current conversations, we need the redemptive story which might provide both groups with new roles to take up. Restoration on the one hand, repentance and redemption on the other. Dare I say it, the possibility of grace-wrought reconciliation in the middle. If all we have is underdog heroes fighting the establishment, we will never actually make the progress we all need, and we’ll be much the worse for it.
Isn't the ‘genius’ of the cross incredible? Who but the God of all wisdom, grace and power could possibly conceive of an offer of salvation to both victims and victimisers in one cosmic act?
Onwards, to the glory of that gospel.