Isaiah 9 describes God’s divine rule as one free from oppression and filled with justice—an almost unimaginable picture for many of us given the current state of our world. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God calls His people again and again to make the suffering of marginalized groups like widows, orphans, refuges, and the poor a priority. Clearly, justice is on God’s agenda.
But how should believers talk about injustice in the contemporary, politically polarized world? Dave Doveton’s “Theology of Victimhood: A Pastoral Response” (published recently in Anglican.ink) describes pitfalls he urges believers to avoid. The article begins by declaring that Christians must stand against all oppression and unjust “victimization,” but continues that they also must not allow “victimhood” to become part of a marginalized group’s identity. By victimhood, he means blaming others (oppressor groups) for one’s own suffering, which, he believes, lead to demonization of others and assumptions that oppressed status somehow equals unquestionable piety.
While Doveton’s argument is largely a response to cultural Marxism’s influence on minority groups’ collective identities, his article is strongest when discussing “victimhood” on a purely individual level. By examining the suffering of Cain and Abel, of Jacob and Esau, and of Joseph and his brothers, Doveton aptly points out the evils of resentment and self-pity in individual responses to difficult circumstances, which are sometimes of one’s own making and sometimes caused unjustly by others. Likewise, it is easy to agree with Doveton’s premise that “self-pity is not a Christian virtue,” nor is it a healthy response to suffering.
However, as useful as Doveton’s “pastoral” admonition on victimhood is on the individual level, it isn’t aimed solely at individuals but at the ways minority groups articulate their collective struggles. If used incautiously to talk about “other people’s identities,” such discussions of victimhood risk misrepresenting others by not letting them represent themselves.
When we do not offer fellow believers with whom we disagree a place at the table, there can be consequences. In the rest of this essay, I want to address some ways that even the best intentioned arguments can miss their mark before returning to that difficult question of “how should we talk about injustice?”
As we dive in, I should clarify that, while Doveton’s article addresses any minority groups whose identities might be impacted by cultural Marxism, given that I live just a few hours away from where George Floyd was killed, I cannot help but focus on how this discussion impacts the larger church’s relationship with our grieving African American brothers and sisters. This means I’m leaning into this question from a different angle, perhaps with different concerns and with different scenarios in mind than Doveton. I’m taking the time to acknowledge this difference largely out of fairness to his argument and intentions. Partly though, I also want to suggest just how important a different perspective can be. In the end, my goal is not so much to “knock down” Doveton’s analysis of responsibility as to expand it, while suggesting ways we might redirect the larger conversation regarding injustice.
So why does allowing fellow believers to represent themselves matter? Let me offer three reasons.
First, not giving voice to others often creates a straw man argument. This occurs when what “we” saw about “them” is different than what “they” would actually endorse. The simpler and more extreme the argument sounds, the easier it is for the audience to accept the critique, though it’s more like holding a pep rally for the home team than winning a difficult football match. In this case, Doveton does not summarize, quote, or otherwise reference any Christian perspectives that he believes demonstrate the politics of resentment and self-pity. It’s not obvious then which fellow Anglicans or other Christians actually hold these criticized beliefs or who would actually take these criticized claims as far as is suggested. For example, which believers would say that anyone from “an oppressor group” is “incapable of redemption” or that those who can claim “oppressed” status are excused from taking any responsibility for their own choices? Those are weighty accusations. If they are well deserved, let the wayward condemn themselves through their own mouths.
And if we instead infer these attitudes from behavior rather than from actual words, is “victimhood” really what we most often see from Christians advocating for justice? To take a relevant historical example, let’s consider the witness of the African American church in the U.S. As Esau McCalley has pointed out, the mere fact that so many enslaved, mistreated people embraced the very God espoused by their oppressors is perhaps the greatest testimony to the gospel’s truth. Courage like this hardly sounds like victimhood.
But embracing the God of redemption does not mean unjust suffering is over and past. Sometimes, as in Joseph’s story in Genesis, God miraculously reverses the fortunes of those who have been dispossessed. More often though, as in the centuries of enslavement of Joseph’s descendants, those who have experienced suffering for their ethnicity, gender, nationality, economic status, or other reasons may continue to suffer—not just because of universal fallenness or a few, isolated individuals’ choices, but because they belong to this group in the first place. When African Americans fear for their sons’ lives should they go jogging through a white neighborhood, when death rates from Covid-19 disproportionately hit the poor, native Americans, and other people of color, when it’s obligatory for parents of black and brown children to explain how not to get shot by the police—the sins of all our fathers continue to haunt our every step. Suffering for one’s group identity isn’t really a choice, nor is naming the suffering or being honest about why it exists in any way self-conceited.
Instead, it is those who are not of the majority who must continually be aware of how the majority sees them. “Will I come off as ‘too angry’ if I share how I really feel?” “How much better do I need to dress than my colleagues for them to take me seriously?” “If we get together to discuss issues that affect us, will we be seen as too focused on the concerns of black or brown parishioners to minister to the needs of the wider church community?” It is those in the majority who enjoy the luxury of unintentional conceit, for they can most easily forget about the existence, unique challenges, or culture of their brethren.
The second major way not giving voice to those being criticized creates misrepresentation is through collateral damage. Vague, “some folks out there,” critique risks splashing a scarlet letter across friend and foe alike. While discernment is sometimes necessary, we engage in a risky proposition when the goal becomes discerning the potential sinfulness of other people’s rhetoric—especially when those others occupy demographic groups different than ourselves. The vaguer the group, the easier it is to apply our judgments unfairly. In the present historical moment, should we, for example, apply Doveton’s analysis to African Americans marching in support of justice for George Floyd? Should it be applied only to those who voice “too many negative feelings,” who seem “too confrontational,” or who might be guilty of using language like “privilege” or “systemic inequality” that sounds too left-leaning? Perhaps it should only be applied to the looters (though many of them are neither black nor members of any minority group, and I doubt many would justify their actions with spiritual arguments). When I took a mandatory hunter safety course as a teenager, the first principle they taught was “never point your gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot.” Let us be similarly cautious with our verbal weapons. In aiming at an ideology taken up by some members of marginalized groups, it can be difficult to avoid friendly fire at the marginalized believers themselves.
Third, there is a risk that the language of victimization can become less about checking our own hearts than expressing our frustrations with others. As a white, middle-class man, I have sometimes found myself sitting amongst friends of different ethnicities, genders, and socio-economic classes—in their houses on their home turf—feeling a little anxious at the turn of conversation. In these cases, sometimes I have been surprised by the amount and intensity of “complaints” against dominant groups, by hurt feelings, and yes, sometimes, even by what feels like resentment. Not having the same lived experience, it wasn’t something I could understand in one afternoon visit, but I remember leaving friends’ houses still feeling uncertain and uncomfortable.
For me at least, fears of others’ victimhood come from moments like this: moments when I, as a member of the majority, feel negative vibes that don’t seem to have an immediate, actionable point in response, no clear and tidy solution we can use to clear them up. Worse, sometimes, it feels to those in the majority that they aren’t allowed to understand the unique suffering of minority groups, aren’t allowed to examine any of the claims such groups make regarding the origin of their suffering. No one wants to feel like they are forced to be “the bad guy,” incapable of redemption,” just for being white, or a man, or born in the country of one’s citizenship, or plagued by some other marker of majority status. What I didn’t realize at first is the level of trust being bestowed upon me when friends let their guard down a little—or the powerful opportunities for my own growth that these moments offered.
And let’s suppose for a moment that some of those frustrations members of the majority feel are, in some cases, not unfounded. What if some fellow believers who happen to be black, or brown, or refuges, or women, or any other non-majority group occasionally articulate their suffering in less than the best possible way? Would that minimize the God-given responsibility to listen to their concerns and respond as urgently to those needs as if to our own?
If one part of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer. And if one part of a body suffers, the first priority is not to stop and judge whether the arm or leg that hurts is sending those signals in just the right way. The first priority is to pay attention to the part that is in pain, trying to understand the underlying cause of its agony. This means that it is precisely those parts of the body that are the most comfortable that bear the most responsibility toward those which are most pained. If one’s leg falls asleep because of the whole body’s posture, the rest of the body needs to change its posture, though only the leg was suffering. When the rest of the body shifts in response, the pain sharpens initially because the root cause is finally being addressed. However, only with willingness to share pain can the whole body function together as designed.
In classical rhetoric, there is a concept called kairos. It means seeing and seizing the opportune moment. We see New Testament references to this concept when Paul says that “at just at the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for us” (NIV Romans 5:6). Likewise, Proverbs offers a similar conception:“Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances” (NAS Prov. 25.11). The right word, delivered at the right time, can bring healing, can restore lost hope, or can return the wayward to the path of wisdom. I believe that this last goal is what Dave Doveton intended in his article, and I am grateful for the principles he offers that, if applied as a self-check to our own, individual hearts, can help all believers respond well to our own unique moments of suffering.
Sometimes though, the timeliest, the most appropriate, and perhaps even the holiest action to which God calls us is to change our collective posture, which starts by occupying the posture of listening even when it is uncomfortable: even when others surprise us with their anger; even when there is no clear solution offered; even when it seems things might be going a little too far; even if some who are examples of this group’s suffering had rough lives or aren’t great role models; even when the process takes a very long time and we can’t come to firm conclusions right away. Make no mistake though. Listening is an active posture. It does not mean simply waiting for others talk, nor does it mean overwhelming them with questions. It means proactively seeking out voices that are already speaking and continuously putting ourselves in a position to keep learning.
Talking about injustice is not always easy or comfortable, but if the church is to truly address suffering, we must discuss it on both the individual and corporate level. Yes, we need to know (as Doveton shows us) how individuals can turn to God when suffering unjustly. Yet, we must give at least as much urgency to the corporate, to how each part of Christ’s body can turn unflinchingly toward one another’s pain.
There is a point here we must not miss. Even when done at the behest of just one part of the body, changing our collective posture heals the whole. After all, it is those who are comfortable with their own posture, refusing to be uncomfortable for the sake of other parts of the body, who most risk abdicating their responsibility: the very pitfall Doveton wants us avoid.