I grew up in a small West Texas town. If you don’t know anyone from West Texas you should know that we pride ourselves on being proactive, no-nonsense, to-the-point, I-don’t-need-your-help people. If you’ve ever read an apocalyptic novel, the author usually describes a landscape not unlike West Texas: dry desert climate, hard soil, few growing things, tumbleweeds, harsh winds, hot sun, nobody else for miles. I think this shapes a person. And it shapes the people of West Texas into very independent, rough around the edges types.
The very worst thing you could say to someone from West Texas is to accuse them of being a victim. You can call them an array of colorful and vulgar names, but woe to you if you insinuate that someone isn’t a hard worker or can’t clean up their own mess or needs some grace or a helping hand. You can be anything you want in West Texas but you sure better not ever be a victim.
To be honest, I like this. I am fiercely independent in spirit and I don’t like asking for help. Those subtle and blunt messages about how pathetic and awful and weak it is to be a victim seeped in deep.
And then I got really serious about Jesus. I became one of those annoying people who thinks it is possible and likely and, in her own estimation, true, that Jesus is the greatest person who ever lived and is worth following and patterning her life after. And when you simmer in the story of Jesus for long enough you realize that a) Jesus spent most of his time around the kind of people who would not do very well in West Texas and b) Jesus also became one of those people when he died an embarrassing death on the cross.
Jesus became a victim. Jesus was a victim. Jesus is a victim.
That is not a comfortable reality for anyone, which is why Christians are so very creative in avoiding it. When we don’t avoid it, we mostly think about it in terms of our own personal salvation (look at how much he loves me) and not the salvation of the world (look at how much he loves the victim, the betrayed, the forgotten).
If you confess to follow Christ, if you have been baptized as a symbol of your death and new life, then you have chosen to pattern your life after a victim. Not an unwilling victim. Not an accidental victim. A man who chose to turn his face toward Jerusalem and walk into a known trap in order to be the victim. In order to show the world that he will identify with and suffer with all victims everywhere, and that he will triumph over that violence and that death and that betrayal and that rejection when he is raised, as the most innocent of all victims, to new life.
If you have decided to follow Jesus, you don’t get to not be a victim anymore. It doesn’t matter if you are, like me, a white upper class well educated person who does not actually have to be a victim. It is now your job to consider the victim first. It is now your duty to look at any and every situation and ask, “What does this mean for the least of these?” It is now your faithful act of discipleship to reject anything that is not good news for the victim, for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for the outcast. IT IS YOUR JOB.
It is, one could argue, our primary job as it relates to other human beings. If we did this one thing, we would then find ourselves aligned with all the other things that lead to faithful discipleship. The problem in American Christianity is that not only do we not start there, but most of us don’t ever get there at all.
We just don’t have time for that anymore, guys. We don’t have time for this hateful rhetoric toward other people by saying that whatever concern they are facing is a whiny complaint of a victim. You literally theologically cannot say something like that and call yourself a Christian. Christian means “little Christ.” If Jesus was the capital V victim of world history, then we are called to be little v victims in his place. And that means we consider the least of these first. Always.
I am going to be honest with you. That is going to mean that some people are going to take advantage of us. Some people are going to lie about needing money or about needing help or about how bad their situation is or about whatever attention-getting thing they are using. You don’t have to be a doormat to the kind of people who want to take, take, take and want to take advantage of you. But you are going to have to become, in all practical reality, a victim sometimes. It’s the price of discipleship. Be a fool for Christ knowing that sometimes it is most definitely going to feel like it because it will be true. It’s still the faithful thing to do. It’s still the place to start.
If you need some perspective, though, on your level of victimhood, there’s this: my spiritual director told me that one of the things an early church Christian had to learn when preparing for baptism was how to breathe deeply in the case that they are burned at the stake so that the smoke, and not the fire, would be what killed them. So we should probably not complain.
James Cone wrote, Theology is always identified with a particular community. It is either identified with those who inflict oppression or those who are its victims. I’m going to take that one step further and say only one of these is faithful theology. The other one is following on some path, but it isn’t the path of Jesus.
Which theology are you identifying with?