In 2010, I had the opportunity to be apart of the Chautauqua Institute’s New Clergy Program. It was a great experience in which I learned a great deal, met some fantastic people, and got to enjoy the beauty of the institute during the summer months. I also got to hear some amazing speakers. Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III from Trinity United Church of Christ spoke as did Islamic Scholar Daisy Khan and Jewish scholar Rabbi Irwin Kula. It was a full program. The experience was topped off with daily sermons from Rev. Dr. James Forbes, one of the best preachers I have had the pleasure of hearing.
Early in the week, Dr. Forbes spoke about the idea of being a victim. He said that everyone in the country was playing the victimization card. “White folks, victims! Black folks, victims! Christian, victim! Muslim, victim!” He wasn’t making light of the true and very real oppression in the world. He was drawing attention to the fact that our desire to claim the mantle of victim often keeps us from being a part of the healing work that is going on in the world. He used the story of the paralytic in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel to spell this out, the one who Jesus asks if he wants to be made well and who replies with his story of being overlooked and passed by.
We can all claim victimhood in one way or another. It is the rarest of people who has had no disadvantages in life. We claim victimhood, I believe, from a deep desire to have our story be heard. I think that is actually a pure and holy desire. We want to be known and in that being known, we want to be loved and accepted. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Where we get in trouble is when our victimization comes into contact with that of others. Then we try to “outvictim” each other. We compete in the Olympics of suffering. We talk about how poor we were growing up or abuses suffered or tragic circumstances. All that talking leads to talking over other people. It tends to lead to feeling ignored and undervalued, maybe even insulted or offended.
I had an email exchange with an author whose book I read in hopes of having her on the my podcast. She tells a harrowing story of an assault that she suffered. It is an excellent book, but I was bothered by some of the language she used in talking about the race of her attackers. The result was an exchange in which I’m sure she felt like I wasn’t fully understanding the gravity of her trauma and in which I felt like she wasn’t feeling the impact of her words. We reached a very uncomfortable impasse. I stand by impressions I had of her language, but I questioned my motives. Was I looking to steal the spotlight of victimization away from this woman who had endured the unthinkable? Did I also need to be the victim?
I have to check my motives. In a world where “men’s rights activists” want to celebrate “white history month” and have “straight pride parades”, the victim real estate seems to be going fast and everyone wants to get in on the land grab. The victimization conversation is so often the companion piece to the privilege conversation. No one wants to claim privilege. Everyone wants to be a victim of something. There are a myriad of dangers in this line of thinking but two in particular stick out. First, false pleas of victimhood distract from the areas where injustice is really happening. They distract in terms of attention and resources. Secondly, those who feel victimized also often feel entitled to recompense for their injuries. And we’ve seen time and time again how those who feel victimized have taken the matter of justice into their own hands.
The messy world created by imperialism means that we are often forced to choose which person’s victimhood we will honor at any given point. I have been incredibly disturbed in the last few days to read the stories about filmmaker Nate Parker. Parker’s film “Birth of a Nation” has been greatly anticipated after its premiere at the Sundance film festival. It tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, a story of myth and legend for many African Americans. The buzz about the film has been building momentum for months as it seems that the film is telling a story that is so important to our times. How better to understand the unrest in places like Milwaukee than to understand the historical precedent of those who rebel against oppression. I was very excited for this film!
Then the story came to light that Parker and the film’s co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of sexually assaulting a woman while they were all students at Penn State. Parker was acquitted, it seems, because he had a prior consensual relationship with the woman, while Celestin was convicted and but then had his conviction overturned when the victim refused to testify. The victim committed suicide years later and it is the belief of her brother that it was the trauma she experienced, both in terms of the assault but also the threats from the two men afterwards and her inability to receive justice from the legal system, that lead her to ultimately take her life.
I’ve been torn in thinking about this film. On one hand, you have a cinematic depiction of one of America’s great original sins being played out at a time when we definitely need to learn the lessons that history has to teach us. On the other hand, should we support the work of two men who assaulted and tortured a woman to a point where she allegedly could not go on living? Whose victimhood is to be honored in this situation? While I cannot say with any moral authority what the “right” thing is to do, I am leaning toward not supporting the film. I know the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion. I don’t know the story of the woman who is no longer around to tell her own.
For all of us, I believe, there comes a time when we have to hold in tension those times when we need to honor our own stories of hurt and abuse and when we need to start being a part of the healing of others. It is a dicey proposition. Pride and ego can get in the way. Fear that no one will take our side can overwhelm us. We all desire to have our stories heard, known, and understood. But I worry that we run the risk of drowning each other out by insisting that our stories be heard over all others. I have no answers. But I do have a prayer, accredited to a wise saint, that I believe can guide my thoughts and actions:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life” – St. Francis (allegedly)
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