Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On Whether Victims Need Conversion

Richard Beck has a post up today called "The Victim Needs No Conversion." Per usual, it is thoughtful and robust food for theological thought. I agree with a great deal of it, in particular the move of prioritizing God's act of identifying himself with victims, and locating himself with and among them. However, I think the post reflects a problem that is prevalent in a lot of discussion of victims and the oppressed, namely, a too formal generalization that leaves undifferentiated the complexity of actual human beings who at once experience some form of victimization and themselves make victims of others. There are any number of obvious examples: the abused son who becomes a father who abuses his children; the male slave who oppresses his wife; the emotionally abused wife/mother who emotionally abuses her friends or children; the alcoholic whose genes and social context lead him to drinking yet whose own drinking inflicts evil on others; the sub-manager lorded over by his boss who in turn lords over the workers he manages; and so on.

I don't have time right now to try to articulate fully how I think the gist of the post might be combined with this more differentiated perspective, but I think the move is necessary. Perhaps something like this: all people, even victims, need conversion, because conversion is (by God's grace) a radical turning into a new form of life, and all people, even victims, are in bondage to forms of life that inevitably result in hurting others and/or themselves.

In this way "conversion" isn't code for "believe in this set of propositions" and/or "change your religious affiliation." It means the total revolution of one's life. And, to be sure, victims are in a uniquely privileged place to hear the call to conversion as good news; and in many ways the gospel comes simply as sheer blessing on their life as such. But it nevertheless enables and demands a change of the heart and of one's way of life—and that, too, both is good news for victims and applies to them like all others.


  1. Hi Brad,
    I very much agree. I've made that exact point in many places--how victims create more victims--and I struggled if I should add all that to the post. It came out a bit in the post when I talked about the "forgiving victim" as "the victim who seeks to create no more victims" by doing the "internal work that needs to be done to break the cycle of violence, hate and revenge."

    Much of the problem with the post is using the notion of "conversion." It's a weird frame that might not work, but I thought I'd try it to flush out into the open some of the issues and tensions I'm wrestling with. Specifically, the pastoral frame I have in mind is something like domestic abuse or sexual abuse and victims coming for help. What too often tragically happens in those moments is that victims are often "preached at," functionally asked to "convert" to handle the abuse in a way deemed "fitting of a Christian." Thus, a lot of the tragic pastoral advice given to victims is because instead of standing with and lifting out (the liberation theology aspect) there is the tendency to "preach at" or "convert" the victim, asking them endure their abuse in order to be "a Christian," or, at least, a better Christian.

    My point is that the first thing one should do in encountering the victim is simply to lift them up. That's what Jesus does throughout the gospels. He doesn't preach at victims. He calls them blessed. That's his first move.

    To be sure, he does go on to preach enemy-love and forgiveness, but I see these as coming after the first pronouncement of blessing and elevation. Once elevated the hard work of love and forgiveness begins, to prevent the cycles of victimage you're talking about.

    So maybe it's a sequence. Blessing and elevation first and then the work of forgiveness. Pastoral advice goes awry when the order is reversed?

    Incidentally, I see this as a common tension in all variations of liberation theology. How do you stand with the oppressed in a way that loves the oppressor? What is needed, I'm guessing, is a dialectic.

    Hope to see you this summer at CSC!
    Grace and peace,

  2. It has been said that one can't forgive without an apology. Perhaps there is an extension to restitution. Where there is no restitution there is no apology and no forgiveness, just condemnation. Jesus' death perhaps functions as an ultimate restitution for the oppressed who have no restitution in this life. To answer your question Richard, perhaps this is the root of the dialectic you are seeking: that while Christ died to provide restitution to the oppressed, those who claim that restitution should be the first to provide earthly restitution to the oppressed. Skipping the victim card, empower the oppressed and restore their dignity, not on the basis of the offense of the oppressor but on love. The oppressor then becomes irrelevant.
    A handful of people have hurt me and taken away opportunities from me. Christianity is supposed to lift one like me to new life, all on it's own merits, so that I can say, this was my past, but that doesn't matter now because I have my own two feet on the ground now, I am doing better now, and I will move forward. Always paying forward and never paying back.
    The problem, is that the Western church has gotten so hung up on soteriology and pre-determining the outcome of the day of judgement that the effect of the cross has been bottled up and labeled "heaven". The common understanding of the cross as penal substitutionary atonement and the explication of that in the concept of justification by faith only makes matters worse. I am not saying these conceptions aren't perhaps part of the truth, but the tail has been wagging the dog for so long that the church, and Christianity in general, is becoming a caricature of what it ought to be. We aren't lifting anyone up, here in America we are cutting their food stamps and taking away their civil rights in the name of morality (at least the majority of American Christians are, as evangelicals hopelessly allied to the political right).