The Power of the Victim
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today may we consider two great teaching moments in Luke’s Gospel and how they help us break out of the cycle where our choices are to be a victim or a victimizer. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The first of the teaching moments in Luke that I would like us to consider comes near the end of the book. It is the cross of Jesus. There he hangs, the Son of God, suffering the unimaginable agonies of crucifixion, the most degrading and cruel form of execution the imperial power of that age was able to imagine.
There he hangs, and slowly his life’s blood stains the wood and the ground below. To speak at all while losing breath and life is a hard enough task. Even harder, it would seem, to surpass the urge to sink into a bottomless pit of despair, or perhaps spend your last wind cursing mightily the enemies who have put you there to die a death so horrid.
But Jesus does not curse. According to Luke’s Gospel, he speaks three times, and what he says are words of forgiveness, mercy, hope.
First, he speaks about his tormentors. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Then he speaks to a fellow prisoner. “I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Last of all, he sums up his entire life. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
And what is our place in this picture—yours and mine? It is we who place him there. It is for us he is nailed to the cross. It is for us this man dies.
Perhaps you know these words from a hymn sung in Holy Week:
“Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.”
[“Ah, holy Jesus,” Hymn 158, stanza 2 in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation).]
So the cross is a revelation of the victim Jesus. And it is revelation of us as victimizers. All of us. With faith comes the realization: I crucified thee!
We are victimizers of Jesus, and we are victimizers of each other in a hundred ways large and small. But our identity in this broken world does not end here. We are victimizers, yes; but each of us is also a victim. Each of us ends up sometimes on the receiving end of violence, contempt, mistreatment, and even self-loathing. Each of us is a victim.
Now the language of victimhood has become very popular in our time. Some people point out loudly and often with justification that they are victims.
They suffer because of their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their economic or social position.
They suffer because of age or handicap or gender.
They suffer, so they say, because those in power are too conservative or those who control the media are too liberal.
Some recognize their victimhood because a drunk driver killed a person they loved, or because they smoked cigarettes for thirty years.
These people—and some of us are among them—these people and many others identify themselves as victims, and often their claims contain a good deal of truth.
This leads us to consider another teaching moment in Luke, the one that appears in today’s Gospel. It’s called the Sermon on the Plain, because that’s where Jesus is at the time. Matthew has a similar account, known as the Sermon on the Mount. But it’s Luke’s version we consider today.
Surrounded by a vast crowd, Jesus pronounces a series of blessings. Then he pronounces a series of woes. Note carefully what this means. He doesn’t tell anyone to do anything. Instead, he describes how things are. And how things are, according to Jesus, is the upside-down version of how we usually regard them.
Who’s got it bad? Who’s got it good? Who’s got joy waiting for them? Who can expect sorrow in the future? Our society has its answers of these questions, and they are pretty much the same answers the contemporaries of Jesus would give.
We think the ones who have it bad are the poor and the hungry, the sad and the scorned. We think the ones who have it good are the rich and the well-fed, the satisfied and the respectable. Jesus says something different. The blessed are those who sure don’t look that way. Joy is stored up for them.
Actually the “them” here is us, or so it would seem. Jesus says as much. He looks at the faces of the people around him—it is a diverse audience: disciples and strangers, Jews and Gentiles—he looks them in the face and says: Blessed are you if you are this way, but woe to you if you are that way. He’s talking about the people in front of him, and he’s talking about us here this morning. And one thing he tells us is that victims are blessed, and we are blessed insofar as we are victims.
So this teaching moment stands in contrast to the other one. At the cross, Jesus is the victim and we are victimizers. Here there are other victimizers, and we are victims. These blessings are aimed at us. [I am indebted to Gil Baillie for this insight.]
The Gospel of Jesus Christ represents the up-ending of conventional values. In the days of Jesus and in our own time, the conventional perspective distinguishes clearly between winners and losers, and history is recorded by the winners. But with the spread of the Gospel, the world starts to change, however slowly. Now the losers have a voice, and history is written differently than it was before.
However slowly and painfully, the stories are getting out.
We hear from the Indians as well as the cavalry.
From black voices as well as the white power structure.
From women as well as men.
From the poor and struggling as well as the rich and comfortable.
The stories of the victims are getting out, because in Christ, God becomes a victim, and the Gospel is at heart a victim’s story.
But perhaps you say to me: “Wait a minute! I agree that many have suffered terribly, and it’s right that their stories be heard and that there be restitution for injustice. But sometimes the role of victim is exploited, whether by those who are genuinely victims or those whose claim to that role is dubious.”
The cross of Jesus turns the world upside down. Victims gain privilege and power. The conventional order is increasingly suspect. But a question remains, an example of how choice can be used rightly or not. The moral privilege and power that now belongs to the victim can be used simply for personal or political advantage, or it can be put to a far greater purpose.
For the victim to use power and privilege simply for personal or political advantage is hardly surprising, since acting for oneself or one’s group alone is the most common pattern of human behavior. Some such action is necessary, even commendable, to redress past wrongs, to restore the balance of justice. But it should come as no surprise then if victims of one kind produce victims of another kind. What makes the Gospel good news is that it points to a different alternative.
It is possible for victims to turn their suffering into a promise of resurrection. It is possible for victims to turn their suffering into a triumph that does not separate losers from winners, but lifts everyone to the higher and better place.
Victimization brings with it power. With this power comes opportunity, either to start victimization yet again, or bring it to a halt through suffering that is redemptive.
Stephen the first Christian martyr experienced this. When stones were thrown at him, he saw a vision of Jesus in glory, and like Jesus, he prayed that his persecutors would be forgiven. This witness helped to turn the heart of the Saul who became St. Paul.
Mohandas Gandhi experienced this. Though never baptized, he drank of the spirit of the Gospel more deeply than many Christians. His campaigns of non-violent love set India free from foreign domination and set free many hearts: Hindu and Muslim and Christian.
Martin Luther King experienced this too. His goal was to free all victims of American racism, whether black or white. In suffering African Americans, he recognized power and dared demand that this power redeem the nation.
The Gospel enables us to recognize ourselves as both victimizers and victims. We can see in the resurrection of Jesus the power that belongs to the victims, the power that belongs to the powerless. And we can hear in the Beatitudes the call of Jesus that the old cycle not continue.
Grace means that the power of the victim can free us all.
Grace means not only are victims blessed, but they have the authority to bless everybody else.
I have spoken to you in the name of the God who brings us new life through the cross: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2007 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.
Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).