“The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about the victims for whom they hold us responsible.”
-Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (pg. 164)
According to Rene Girard, our society, more than any before it, is obsessed with “the victims”–especially those of exclusion, violence, and social scapegoating. And he would know. The French literary critic and anthropologist is something of an expert on the idea of the victim. His works on the ideas of mimetic desire, scapegoating, violence, and their role in literature and culture as a whole are groundbreaking and influential (The Scapegoat, Violence and the Sacred, etc). In any case, according to Girard, you can scan the ancient literature down the generations, across societies, and you find nothing like the widespread concern for the victims in the modern and contemporary period.
You can chalk this up to any number of sources: the effect of the Gospel on cultures through history, the spread and transformation during the Enlightenment of the Christian concept of charity into one of universal benevolence (per Charles Taylor), our post-Holocaust sensibilities, or any number of other social movements. What you can’t do is deny its pervasiveness. As Girard notes, even if we’re hypocritical about it, we at least know we’re supposed to be concerned for the victims: whether oppressed social groups, races, sexes, orientations, or classes.
We are keenly aware now of the way that individuals and groups can be marginalized and kept down by the cruel, powerful, or simply dominant, yet apathetic social majority. What’s more, we know we’re supposed to do something about it in word or deed (or, more cynically, at the very least through a token acknowledgment of complicity via Facebook update).
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, insofar as it’s connected with and led to great movements of social justice (Civil Rights movements, advances in gender equality, the rights of the unborn, etc), I think it’s a good thing. Whatever the social roots, I think there are deep, biblical justifications for something like our modern concern for the victim.
Christ himself (among many other things) was a victim of violence and oppression at the hands of religious, social, and political powers. He not only atoned for our sins on the Cross but, among his many works, he exposed in concrete form the oppression and violence against the weak at the heart of a world in rebellion to its Loving Redeemer.
All that said, as with any religious insight, sin’s pernicious power can twist and pervert it for its own uses. And, as the opening quote suggests, the modern concern for the victim is no different. In a phrase: we’ve learned to weaponize our victims.
“We could use our insight discreetly with our neighbors, not humiliating those we catch in the very act of expelling a scapegoat. But more frequently we turn our knowledge into a weapon, a means not only of perpetuating old conflicts, but raisng them to a new level of cunning, which the very existence of this knowledge and its propagation in the whole society demand. In short, we integrate the central concern of Judaism and Christianity into our systems of self-defense. Instead of criticizing ourselves, we use our knowledge in bad faith, turning it against others. Indeed, we practice a hunt for scapegoats to a second degree, a hunt for hunters of scapegoats. Our society’s obligatory compassion authorizes new forms of cruelty.” (pg. 158)
I suppose I could just remind you of your Twitter or your Facebook feed on Tuesday and you’ll see where he’s going. Think of the vitriolic discussions and finger-pointing around abortion, #BlackLivesMatter, the Syrian Crisis, bullying against LGBT kids, religious liberty infringements, and any number of other important instances of victimization and the importance of Girard’s comments should become apparent. Still, I think it’s worth commenting on in this passage and a number of points to add beyond it.
First, there is the danger of second-order scapegoating brought on by our awareness of our tendency to scapegoat others. As soon as we identify a victim and their corresponding oppressor, we are liable to turn the tables, engaging in “secret substitutions”, and vindictively turn the initial oppressor into a victim of even worse violence (physical, social, economic) than the original victims suffered. We see an instance of online cruelty and become a Twitter mob that doxxes and shames a person out of work and society as a whole, all the while convinced of the rightness of our cause. We’re not oppressors, we’re “allies”, or “voices for the voiceless.”
Then there’s the self-righteous posturing element. Girard points out the way we use the victims to prop up our own self-defense against shame and guilt, our own sense of righteousness. Or maybe it’s not self-justification, but a secularized attempt at penance or atonement that drives us to perform our righteousness before men. We prove and perform our righteousness in a couple of ways, at least.
First, we do so simply by publicly supporting the right sort of victims. Girard speaks earlier about the “weighing of victims” that goes on in society. And we’ve all seen that, right? The comparative element in our online conversations: “How can you care about X, when Y is happening?”
Comparative judgments do have an appropriate place, at times. There are some issues that simply are bigger, more important, or more pressing at a given moment. Of course, the problem is that knowing how to rank them can be a difficult judgment call to make and it’s not always obvious. What’s more, my concern isn’t always a zero-sum game. I can care about more than one victim at a time, or acknowledge the importance of one justice issue while realizing that my voice is needed on this other issue over here.
The devious, second dimension to the comparative judgments, though, is the self-justification that comes with knowing my victim matters more. It’s not just that we want to be righteous by caring about victims, it’s that I care about the right victim, while you care about the wrong one. We want to appear righteous, but we also want to be more righteous than she is.
Which brings us to weaponizing the victim. That opening quote is so devastating because once you open your eyes to it, you see it everywhere–especially your own soul. It’s a mirror that exposes to light some of the ugliest impurities in our righteous crusades. Because haven’t you seen that in yourself? No? Well, I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen it in your enemies, right?
Haven’t you been agitated by that progressive who is always taking every chance they get to share a devastating story about some victim and immediately tacking the moral on that “this is what Republicans/Evangelicals/Fundamentalists views lead to” or some such statement? Or on the flipside, the way that some legal absurdity just shows the moral bankruptcy of the progressive/Democrat/Post-Evangelical capitulation? Doesn’t this latest tragedy (beautifully) highlight their horrid lack of concern? (A concern which, quite admirably, you have). Don’t these tear-stained faces cry out for the merciless prosecution of our enemies? (Oh, and yes, maybe some aid as well, of course.)
Here’s the thing, I don’t for a minute claim that I escape this, nor, again, that there aren’t situations where that kind of stock-taking and comparison needs to take place. I’ll come clean and say that I have been there in this last month. I mean, with all the Planned Parenthood videos coming out, I’ve sat there appalled at the perceived inconsistency of some of my progressive friends who will trumpet every (in my view) piddling social faux pas, yet remained quiet about it, or whose knee-jerk reaction is to defend the abortion giant. Or be more incensed about Cecile the Lion than tens of thousands of infants butchered. And I honestly think my opposition to abortion and prioritization of it is justified.
But has that been my only concern? Haven’t there been moments where I’ve prided myself on having that sense of proportion? Have there been times when my legitimate concern for these helpless victims hasn’t been edged out my desire to score righteousness points and use that evaluation as part of a broader argument against “deluded” progressives? Am I quieter about other moral issues because they’re not an opportunity to score points against them? Am I more concerned with victims I can hold my neighbors responsible for?
I have to ask myself these questions if I’m going to be honest and avoid running the risk of hunting the hunters, or crassly weaponizing the already-victimized, turning them into objects for my own self-justification. And here’s one of the most pernicious elements of the whole thing: I used myself as an example here, simply to avoid using this post as a third-order exercise in weaponizing the victim against those who weaponize the victims! But I know I’m not the only one here.
Think through the issues, the victims that burden you, and the opponents who anger you. I don’t know what it is for you or who it is for you. Maybe it’s abortion. Maybe it’s racial injustice. Maybe it’s gender or sexuality. Maybe they are friends who’ve gone progressive. Maybe they are Sunday School teachers who stayed Evangelical. Maybe they’re Anabaptists, Calvinists, Roman Catholics, or whoever. And maybe you’re really actually right and they’re really actually wrong. My point here isn’t to say that there aren’t priorities, or a proper place for righteous anger against others on behalf of the victims. Clearly these things actually matter.
My question is this: is your first instinct for the victim or against your enemy? Is it to seek justice or secure righteousness? To bless the hurting or curse the proud? I honestly don’t know sometimes. And that scares me. I remember Paul’s words:
“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Rom. 2:1)
We pass judgment on others in this fashion, only at a danger to ourselves.
It’s at that moment, though, when I remember my only hope is that one day the secrets of men “will be judged by Jesus Christ” according to the gospel (Rom. 2:16). That Christ Jesus–the One who was the Victim at our hand and on our behalf–is the Judge is my only hope to stand on that final day.
Christ’s gospel is also my only hope to escape this cycle. Only as I continue to recognize my own sin–my violence against God and my neighbor–that put him there is my pride humbled before others. I know that I myself “practice those same things”, in a million different quiet ways. What’s more, it’s only as I continue to trust that his atoning death for sin and resurrecting justification is mine through faith, can I move beyond the self-justifying desire to performatively prove my righteousness against my ideological opponents. My identity isn’t at stake, nor is my need to cover my own guilt and unrighteousness.
Neither of these movements should undercut the motive to seek justice for the victim.
Instead, we are set free to care for the victims as people, for their own sake and the sake of the One whose Image they bear, instead of as pawns in our schemes. Indeed, it opens us up care for more than we had before, since we’re no longer caught up in weighing the victims, making sure we’re working for the “right sort”, the respectable victims who pull up their pants and have don’t have the wrong kind of past. We don’t have to be moralistic advocates. We don’t have to worry about whether or not admitting the evil they’ve suffered plays into our opponents’ hands because, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it’s not about winning anymore.
It even serves as a curb against our worst, vindictive excesses. Since we know that beyond the temporal justice we rightly seek in this world–stopping bullying, ending police brutality, saving the unborn–ultimate, divine judgement will either be served at the last day, or has already been handled at the Cross, we are less likely to vindictively fall into victimizing the oppressor and continuing the cycle of violence.
Everything changes in light of the Victim who is the Judge.
Soli Deo Gloria