The War Against Victimhood Starts in Our Own Hearts

The West has embraced victimhood as its standard of righteousness.

One’s victim status is not only the top new currency; it’s also the robe that imputes an impeccable righteousness to its wearer. We are promised: Don this seamless garment, and you’ll be ordained into the cultural priesthood. Arrayed in this technicolor dreamcoat, you’re sure to see your father, mother, brothers, and even the sun, moon, and stars all bow down to you.

 

Postmodernity has seen the replacement of truth and hierarchy with lived experience and group identity. And, as any ethical or religious system necessarily demands the recognition of justified and unjustified classes, the West has embraced victimhood as its standard of righteousness.

One’s victim status is not only the top new currency; it’s also the robe that imputes an impeccable righteousness to its wearer. We are promised: Don this seamless garment, and you’ll be ordained into the cultural priesthood. Arrayed in this technicolor dreamcoat, you’re sure to see your father, mother, brothers, and even the sun, moon, and stars all bow down to you.

Perhaps in the past this claim would resemble the ramblings of a conspiracy wingnut, but in 2019, anyone who gives the news even a cursory reading is well-aware of the phenomenon. Our modern notion of the inherent nobility of victimhood, born out of critical theory, has been thoroughly documented by writers and researchers like Neil Shenvi.

This worldview pollution began at the headwaters of university and college campuses—where we still see the highest concentrations of the toxin—and spread downstream to film, art, industry, lower schools, churches, and even families.

Even in my own home and heart, I’ve seen the cancer of victimhood metastasize where least expected.

As adoptive parents, my wife and I have personally dealt with human brokenness on a level distinct from that experienced in the course of our modest, middle-class upbringing, and that experience has been (and continues to be) sanctifying. As we’ve wrestled through post-traumatic stress, reactive-attachment issues, sensory-processing disorders, and the mental and emotional stress placed on us and our marriage, we are often tempted to seek comfort through a familiar ritual that goes something like:

  1. Find article or podcast on the unique issue or pressure you’re facing—e.g., “10 Things Everyone Should Know About How Hard It Is to Adopt.” The more caustic, the better. (Optional step 1B: if such an article doesn’t exist, angrily write one.)
  2. Share this content passive-aggressively, hoping the people who know you in person will wise up and realize how they’ve failed you.
  3. Find a Facebook group of like-minded sufferers and proceed to commiserate about how no one else understands your particular experiences.
  4. Receive the sympathy of others.
  5. Experience mild gratification.
  6. Repeat as needed.
  7. Bonus points: Regularly curate and post quotes and memes reinforcing your own sense of victimhood.

These steps represent a common self-aggrandizing pattern to which millennials and other digital natives are particularly vulnerable, since our social lives often revolve around online content and loose social networks built on mutual affinities. To be sure, we in the church can and must benefit from better understanding the experiences of subgroups that are at times genuinely overlooked. But I know I am personally guilty of having followed virtually all seven steps, in order, more than once (including step 1B).

We love our shame.

As theologically conservative Bible-believers who see clearly the negative effects of identity politics and intersectionality across the current cultural landscape, we are prone to seek sympathy selfishly, lured by the siren call of victim-righteousness: I am justified/righteous/worthy because I have experienced (insert form of suffering). Rather than laying our hurts and cares before our sovereign God, we succumb to the temptation of victimhood and drink deeply from the stagnant well of self-pity, only to find its aftertaste to be wormwood.

But experience proves to us time and again that sympathy-seeking is a false savior. Murmuring is antichrist. What to do?

Despising the Shame

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV).

Growing up in the church and seeing these verses printed on everything from posters to embroideries, I always took Hebrews 12:1-2 for granted as just another noteworthy, tweetable apostolic saying. Familiarity with Scripture, after all, breeds indifference.

Familiarity also inoculates us to some of Scripture’s rather unconventional turns of phrase—statements which, upon inspection, bear great significance as we apply the whole counsel of God’s word.

One such puzzling phrase is the reference to Jesus as he “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (emphasis mine). What does this mean?

Since Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows on the cross (Isaiah 53:4), surely he also shouldered our shame. Like all of his cross-work, this was performed willingly, in love, on the basis of the covenant of redemption made with the Father in eternity past (see LBC 7.3). So in what sense did Jesus “despise” (ESV, NASB, KJV), or “scorn” (NIV), the disgrace of the cross? Or, how can Christ in one sense willingly bear our load and yet, in another sense, spurn it?

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