Thursday, September 27, 2012

Christ the victim?

October 2nd marks this blog’s second anniversary.  When I began it, I thought that if 50 people other than me read it in the first year, I’d keep writing.  The first year actually had about 8,000 visitors from dozens of countries.  Heading into the 2nd anniversary, it’s had about 20,000 visits from over 70 countries.  Thanks for the interest!  I will continue writing as long as I feel called.

I began the blog because I was bullied out of teaching faith formation at my local parish though I still felt called to teach.  My kids reminded me that in today’s world, there are more ways to teach the faith than within the four walls of a parish-owned building.  They told me, “Write a blog or something! Try teaching in snack-sized bites.” 

Inspired by my kids’ ideas and not liking to feel victimized, I expanded my horizons.  Within a few days I had written and published my first blog article.  I’m still working on the “snack-sized” thing.  Regardless, now instead of reaching a few dozen people in my small Midwestern U.S. parish, I touch thousands of people around the world.  I thank my kids for their advice and support.  I also thank the bullies who tried stifling the Spirit but instead just further enkindled and spread it. 

I think I easily could have wrapped myself in victimhood, sported bitterness and blamed “the church” while wallowing in unhappiness.  I could have stomped off in a huff from the church, righteously licking my wounds.  Instead I found freedom in broadening my horizons while remaining in my faith community.  More importantly I experienced a great deal of spiritual growth and found a new way to serve God.  I learned to speak openly and fearlessly about church bullying and other injustices.  In general, I’ve just tried to cooperate with the Spirit to bring about changes that it directs.  That brings a lot more inner peace than victimhood.

My non-snack-sized personal anecdote brings me to this article’s topic: victimhood.    

Victimhood seems to be a popular topic these days.  For example, the U.S. presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, recently said he believed 47% of Americans enjoy victimhood.  Along with several of his supporters, he believes that many people, after being convinced by professional victim-helpers of their victimhood, plain and simply like to be victims. 

So what is victimhood and how does it tie to Christian faith? 

According to Dr. Ofer Zur, people who live in a state of victimhood are people who believe they bounce through life blown by forces beyond their control and subsequently attribute their behavior to these external forces.  People who enjoy victimhood tend to feel low self-esteem, shame, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness and an internal sense of “badness”.  He observed that such people prefer retaining the perceived “benefits” of their victimhood over the price of ending it.   He mentioned these perceived benefits include gaining people’s sympathy or pity, avoiding responsibility or accountability, possessing a sense of righteousness, and sometimes even feeling relief if their “badness” is punished.  He also states that victims and abusers have a complementary relationship, meaning they can’t exist without each other. 

Similarly, Daryl Conner wrote a two article series about victimhood as it pertains to organizational change.  He contrasted people who feel victimized by organizational change to those who participate in influencing the change.    A summary of those contrasts are contained in the following table but I encourage you to read his original articles:

Think they are acted upon by external forces
Think they are one of the forces in situations
Think they are helpless due to circumstances
Think they can have an impact on the change
  • Deny or avoid what they dislike
  • Reject or attack what they think they can’t change
  • Protect and fortify existing positions
  • Use covert actions or won’t engage at all
  • Openly admit what they dislike
  • Determine the accommodations needed for successful change
  • Expand their horizons
  • Seek ways to make progress

These articles caused me to think of the church, both ordained and lay members. 

The church is founded upon faith in Jesus Christ, whom the apostles took to calling a victim.  Jesus told his followers to emulate him.  So the apostles direct the faithful to imitate the victimhood they declared for Jesus.  But, did Jesus think he was a victim?  And did he call his followers to be victims too?

Scripture never indicates Jesus felt he was a victim.  Indeed it clearly expresses that Jesus could have refused to do God’s bidding but didn’t.  That sounds like a personal choice and a willingness to accept consequences. 

Jesus openly admitted he didn’t like something (asking to let the cup pass if it could), but he had a determination to be a part of the necessary change for the world.  He expanded his horizons and encouraged his apostles to do likewise.  He took action to make progress for humanity.  That seems to match what Conner describes as an influencer rather than a victim of change. 

So why do apostles like to portray Jesus as a victim?  Why do they encourage people to imitate Jesus in that victimhood? 

Other than hopelessness, the psychological elements Zur mentions that result from a victimhood mentality seem to be personality traits the clergy encourage amongst the faithful: shame, guilt, low self-esteem, helplessness and an internal sense of “badness”.  It would seem that the clergy say, “Here is Jesus, a victim.  To imitate him, you must imitate his death by becoming victims too.  Be docile and accepting of the status quo.  Do not challenge us.”  Is this a case of abusers in search of victims?

However, if one sees Jesus as influential in changing the world rather than a victim of it, then it would seem the focus shifts to Jesus’ Resurrection.  Imitating him shifts from imitating his death to imitating his life, where he challenged religious authorities and social norms, where he walked with the marginalized, where he helped others move beyond their victimhood, and where he was influential in changing the world.

Fifty years ago this October the Second Vatican Council opened and that was one time in which church hierarchy members seemed to act like influencers of change en masse rather than as victims.  But as I reflect upon the apostles’ historic and especially their recent en masse reactions to change, the list of victim characteristics seems to better parallel their behaviors.  Since the apostles feel they best emulate Jesus, do they feel they are victims too?

What’s the risk to move beyond a victimhood mentality for the clergy and laity?  What is the price for change and do you think it’s higher than the benefits of moving beyond religious victimhood?  Should we embrace victimhood?  What is the impact of organized religions on a victimhood mentality in society?