Counseling is something I just happen to do. As a student pastor, there are many hats to wear and counselor is definitely one of them. For some reason, counseling comes naturally to me. Other than one college course (maybe two…don’t really recall), I haven’t had any official training or education in counseling. My hunch is that my natural knack for it comes from my personal wiring and that I’ve learned the art of bluffing. I am a good liar. My default defense mechanism is to bluff. I am both proud and ashamed of it. What it does afford me is the ability to detect others’ tells when they are bluffing.
As such, I usually read people quickly. I am able to “feel” what they are feeling and trace the logical path which has brought them to the point they are at. Over 8 years of vocational ministry (and over 5 years in the restaurant industry, which I also view as ministry), I have noticed that most of the issues people struggle with can be simplified to a handful of categories. One of the more common ones is victimhood.
Victimhood (or the victim mentality) is the tendency to conclude one’s present situation as primarily the result of others and one’s environment while assuming little responsibility for one’s own circumstances. I find this description by Judith Orloff MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, in the Huffington Post an adequate description of the person with the victim mentality:
The victim grates on you with a poor-me attitude, and is allergic to taking responsibility for their actions. People are always against them, the reason for their unhappiness. They portray themselves as unfortunates who demand rescuing, and they will make you into their therapist. As a friend, you want to help, but you become overwhelmed by their endless tales of woe: A boyfriend stormed out… again, a mother doesn’t understand, a diva-boss was ungrateful. When you suggest how to put an end to the pity party, they’ll say, “Yes… but,” then launch into more unsolvable gripes.
Let us be honest; we all have a bit of victim in us. It’s easier to blame someone else to than to face our own nakedness (Genesis 3). To presume ourselves the victim automatically moves ourselves to the moral high ground. As victim, I obtain a strange source of power over those who have wronged me in that they owe me a debt. I become the debt collector. We now are able to leverage our victimhood for approval. By playing the victim, we automatically justify our position and enmitize all who oppose. As Ofer Zur, Ph.D. said,
The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.
It’s understandable. You and I are being raised in a culture where the new moral code is victimhood and…I know what you just did. You just labeled someone: a party, a movement, or an individual. You and I are quick to categorize “those people” who are against us and, thusly, make you and I the victim of “those people.” It is a powerful tool. Victimhood is used in politics, social justice, education, and religion. It is a constant assumption that someone out there is against us either proactively or passively. Maybe one of the only unifying ethics we all have today is victimhood and sociologists and psychologists are just recently documenting this trend . It is understandable, not healthy.[Perhaps the flagship of this discussion is this paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning – https://www.academia.edu/10541921/Microaggression_and_Moral_Cultures]
The hard truth is that there are legitimate desires for justice and vindication. There are real violations of our personhood which we all experience. There are times where we are truthfully victimized. Yet, in becoming the victim, we allow someone else to determine who we are and often times this “someone” is nothing more than a caricature. We submit ourselves as slaves to either a person or, worse, our misconstrued interpretation of a person. The uglier truth is that true victimism can become a dysfunction. An infinite feedback loop can be established where one aggrieved party assumes the victim of the opposing party, all the while the other party is also assuming the victim of the first party. The cycle emanates on the macro and micro scale. It is found in families and political debates, in restaurants and corporate businesses, and in churches and between churches.
Victimenge (yup, I just invented that word) is the passive and incognito form of revenge. By playing the victim, I thrust blame onto others. It becomes socially justifiable to label, caricaturize, and gossip. I can withhold relational privileges, deny my wrong-doer’s opinions and feelings, and refuse value to him or her that violated mine. I give myself ethical permission to make broad conclusions of the character of others based off insufficient evidence. Through playing my part, I am able put the other party’s character on trial and never allow them to defend themselves. All the while, no physical act of aggression has taken place.
As victimhood has spread through our culture, groups of “victims” have united against their perceived oppressors. War lines are drawn and the fight to prove who is the real victim begins. Slander and assumptions replace healthy discussion. Blame becomes our modus operandi, jargon our artillery, and persecution our pretext. A culture where everyone is the victim is a culture where everyone is the enemy.
Exodus from Victimhood
I remember taking Psychology 101. The course helped form my view of student ministry. When the professor, however, first introduced the Nature versus Nurture debate, I couldn’t help but to ask, “What about me?” Do I not as a volitional being carry some weight in this tension? Can I not chose to rise above both my nature and nurture? Or am I to assume that my life trajectory has already been determined based on my internal chemistry and external stimuli? In a materialistic worldview, the latter really is the only option. Materialistic determinism teaches that all we are is matter and energy so all of the future outcomes of our life are a predictive product of the current state of matter and energy. In this view of the world, everything that happens isn’t my fault because there is no “me.”
It reminds me of a song by Anna Russell, an English-Canadian singer and comedian:
I went to my psychiatrist to be psychoanalysed
To find out why I killed the cat and blackened my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch to see what he could find,
And here is what he dredged up from my subconscious mind:
When I was one, my mommie hid my dolly in a trunk,
And so it follows naturally that I am always drunk.
When I was two, I saw my father kiss the maid one day,
And that is why I suffer now from kleptomania.
At three, I had the feeling of ambivalence towards my brothers,
And so it follows naturally I poison all my lovers.
But I am happy; now I’ve learned the lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.
In the Judeo-Christian worldview, I am a volitional being, able to think, decide, and act regardless of my circumstances. It is I who, whether truly victimized or not, can choose to live in a state of victimhood or move out. I can reciprocate the victim mentality in my culture or choose to break the cycle. The only way to really break the cultural cycle of reaction and revenge is through forgiveness. I must, even in the depth of exploitation, forgive the other party. I have to allow myself to be victimized while refusing to be the victim.
I remember reading a story about Eva Kor, a holocaust survivor. She and her twin sister, Miriam, were subject to heinous experimentation in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. Nazis preferred experimenting on twins so they could compare the two against each other. Through the world war and the mass genocides, Eva and Miriam were the only survivors from her family. After the war, Eva and her sister moved to the states. Eventually, Miriam died from complications of the vast experiments she went through as a young girl. Eva, after losing her last family member, met with Hans Münch, a Nazi doctor and offered him forgiveness. She also, at the meeting said she had forgiven Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death.” This year, Eva met Oskar Groening, a former Nazi guard and “the accountant of Auschwitz.” She hugged him and he kissed her hand. Eva has said,”I realized I had power over my life. I had the power to heal the pain imposed on me in Auschwitz by forgiving the people who imposed that pain.”
The Victimization of Jesus
It is intriguing then that Jesus throughout the Gospels describes His death on the cross not as an act of victimization but as the giving of Himself for the sake of others:
John 10:11, 18 – “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.”
(Also see Matthew 26:53)
Jesus breaks the chain of victimization by being victimized and refusing to be a victim. In His oppression, He lifts up. In His injustice, He justifies. In His arrest, He sets free. In His defamation, He blesses. In His suffering, He heals. The Deity, killed by His own creation, refuses to be the plaintiff. His murder now becomes His willing sacrifice.
When we take communion, we ought to be reminded of this. We eat the parts of someone victimized. We also eat of someone who raised from victimhood. It’s as if we partake in His victimization and there is no retaliation for dessert. We are invited to live in His words, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). This is what should set Christians apart from others: the unconditional and unprompted forgiveness of our enemies. “Enemies” implies that they are still against us. They haven’t changed or apologized. Jesus was speaking to a group of people who have been living under Roman occupation. Their daughters have been raped, their babies stapled to door frames, their husbands crucified, their families’ income robbed, and their God blasphemied. In the midst of ethnic, political, religious, and financial oppression, Jesus’ words must have stung, “Forgive them.” Forgiveness means that, instead of making them pay, we have to absorb the debt. It means that we give up our rights even while our enemy abuses his. It means we stop defending while the other offends. It means we stop viewing them as enemies. It means that when they are against us, we are for them. It means we take up our own cross. Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God, writes,
Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. However, to refrain from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity, but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death
Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism.
I must finish with some large “fine print.” In no way am I saying that there are not legitimate times to acknowledge your victimization. If you’ve been victimized, you can not forgive unless you first acknowledge that you have been sinned against. I am also not saying that this something quick and easy, some decision you just make and move on. No, sometimes you have to hang there in agony as you work through forgiveness.
I am also not saying there is not a place for justice and protection. If you are being abused, get out and tell someone. Get help! However, do not let what was done to you become the definition of who you are. The only way to truly move on is to forgive your abuser. If you choose to exist as a victim, life will always seem like it is out to get you. There is no joy to be found in that life.