One of the great follies of our day is that every group’s story has become a tragedy. Our society has increasingly embraced a discourse of victimization, in which every subculture tends to define itself in terms of grievances created by other groups. This is most prominent in queer, feminist, and racial discourses, but it has crept into every corner of our society, to our great harm.
A culture in which the language of victimization is primary is doubly broken. First, it drowns out the cries of real victims in a torrent of illegitimate (or at least, much less legitimate) claims. People who have suffered real abuse find it much harder to get a hearing when others are using "abuse" as merely one more lever to achieve their own ends. To be sure, many of the groups that cry "victim" do so with some legitimacy. Christians in America really never have to worry about being beaten mercilessly for their proclaimed identity; people who come out as gay do in certain parts of the country. Feminists have had legitimate complaints about male abuse of power, and we would do well to listen - which is not to say that we must agree with every such complaint; we shouldn't, and I don’t.
Even when communities have experienced real hostility and oppression, though,the choice to define themselves entirely in these terms of persecution is to everyone’s detriment: the second pernicious consequence of embracing a pervasive culture of victimization is that the possibility of dialogue between oppressor and victim erodes rapidly. Rational discourse is and must be out the window. All that remains is conflict, lasting until the old grievances have been redressed and the power balance righted - or at least, right from the perspective of the victim. Anyone who has studied the French Revolution knows how that plays out.1
Christians, then, ought not perpetuate a culture oriented around the language of victimization.
Unfortunately, though, and to our shame, many evangelicals are full participants in this culture. One need only look at our approach to the culture wars to see this born out: we are so often defensive and angry at how "our country" is being taken from us; we feel persecuted by the media and the courts;2 we act out our grievances by taking swipes at others. Other groups may continue down that path; we must chart a different course.
But before we continue, it is important to ask why so many Christians have adopted the same aggrieved tone as the world.
We suffer at the moment from a twin malaise: we feel ourselves on the defensive because we put insufficient stock in the credibility of our own positions, and we resent our loss of position at the center of culture. Our frustrations, in turn, push us to adopt the same terms in the debate and assume the same basic postures as our opponents in the culture war. As James Davison Hunter has noted in To Change the World, much of the hostility pervasive to the "culture war" phenomenon is rooted, at least in part, in this dual sense of victimization and insufficiency. We lash out at those we perceive to have caused us harm, or by whom we feel threatened due to our lack of confidence.
As Matt put it, noting how counterproductive our hostility can be,
It is impossible if we are not confident for our intellectual positions to sound like good news. Good news is not the sort of thing that has to be browbeaten into folks. It can be offered, cheerfully and with a smile, and it will have more influence and effect than all the cautions and warnings of social decline might ever have.
Here, the culture war mentality really does a number on our effectiveness. If the point is defeating our opponents, rather than persuading them to join our side, then why should we work to make our positions sound like good news to them?
Coming at this same point from a different direction, Hunter points out how ressentiment becomes central in a group’s identity:
The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity. Understanding themselves to be victimized is not a passive acknowledgment but a belief that can be cultivated. Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. (To Change the World, p. 108)
One of the most significant moves Christians can make in the culture wars, then, is to drop the sense of entitlement and the accompanying resentment when things don’t go our way, and to forge in their place a cheerful, Chestertonian (which is to say: friendly and witty and incisive all at once) confidence in the truth of our positions and a deeper trust in the sovereignty of God. When attacked we can respond with good cheer. But how?
First, we must take into account that we American evangelicals are actually not much persecuted here, especially compared to our many brothers and sisters across the world and across history. Neither occasional hostility by coworkers, nor derision by the media, or even the slow collapse of American civil religion constitute persecution.
Second, and more important, we must recognize that persecution – real persecution – is in fact normative for Christians. "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted," Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:13 (emphasis mine). Faith in Christ subverts all the broken powers and fallen philosophies of the world; we ought to expect hostility from those powers and philosophies in response. With this in view, we can recognize that our natural democratic tendency to take political action to assert our rights against those who would wrong may ultimately be counterproductive.
That is not to say that we ought to turn to civic quietism, disengaging from cultural or political action. To the contrary – but let us leave behind the resentment at being opposed or even mocked. When our opponents jeer, we should grin at them: we saw it coming, and it’s not exactly a cause for alarm. If our positions are true, they will win out in the end; why so worried in the meantime?
Third, we must remember that we are not victims. Again, some theological retuning is in order. On the Christological (and Pauline) model, suffering is ultimately a cause for joy. Thought it may not seem that way now, in the end, our suffering produces for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). We may understand persecution or suffering in this age in terms of victimization; or we may see how God uses it to conform us to his image, to transform us to better understand and serve others, and to advance the gospel.
We must learn to take much more seriously Paul’s discussion of "filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions" (Colossians 1:24): that is, the suffering necessary to take the gospel to a world that is naturally in opposition to God and therefore to his people. Persecution is not only normal, not even only normative, but to be embraced as a cause for joy by Christians. This is remarkably countercultural in every society, because it runs opposite to fallen human nature, but it may be particularly provocative – subversive, even – in a culture so thoroughly consumed by narratives of power and victimization.
Finally, and most importantly, we can have confidence that God is, in fact, orchestrating all things for good. The promises of Scripture (most prominently in Romans 8) are not a lie. Whatever we see in our culture – whatever goods, and whatever horrors – God is yet in control. Our fear and our resentment are unfounded, and demonstrate the extent to which we have misplaced the doctrine of God’s providence.
Now, these points could be taken to suggest a sort of retreat, an abandonment and a throwing up of the hands: Christians should expect persecution, and God is in charge anyway, so what happens, happens. But if we take the apostles or the many heroes of our faith as our example, we see that they ought to lead us in precisely the opposite direction. Yes, persecution will come; and yes, God is orchestrating all things. The ends to which God is working all things have means, though – namely you and me.
Thus, it behooves us to reject the language of victimization wholesale. We must learn to hold our convictions with good cheer, ready to disagree with our neighbors good-naturedly, unthreatened by their disagreement and unafraid of persecution. Our fellow citizens may not follow our example; but at the least we will have bettered our culture by making it a little less hostile, a little more cheerful, and indeed a little more welcoming to real victims with real grievances.
If our faith is true, it can stand up to any criticism; it can take any attack; it can weather any assault – and it will prove stronger in the end for having endured. More than that, God uses even the hostility of the world for the good of his bride, the church of Jesus Christ. We can have confidence in him and his purposes, and therefore we can take what comes cheerily and in so doing toss every expectation of the world on its head.
The outcome might just be the kind of impact we’ve been looking for all along – but it will be worth it even if not.
I should note that a number of people in the "queer" communities seem to have identified this same problem; David Jay of AVEN seems to get this, for example.↩
There is much to be grieved by in our politics, not least in the courts, and as will become clear I am not at all opposed to seeking change politically; it is the shape and timbre of our response with which I am primarily concerned.↩