While out for a walk recently, I noticed a well-kept Porsche with its door ajar parked curbside. I thought this was odd, until I saw the owner inside, half his body hanging out of the door as he affectionately cleaned and treated the sport car’s leather interior.
My judgmental thoughts came fast and furious. With no more information than what was before my eyes, I looked down on this man. I wondered to myself how materialistic he must be. Speculated on the unjust business dealings and oppressive practices he must have engaged in to enjoy so expensive an automobile. Questioned why the wicked prospered with their Porsches while the righteous and upright (like me) drove used compact cars.
I had no right to judge the man. He could be a far better, generous human being than I am. I have no idea. But I very quickly jumped to the conclusion that I am a victim (of circumstance? The 1%? A lack of luxurious comforts and the means to purchase them?), and that this person was, at the very least, the beneficiary of an oppressive economic regime, if not an obvious culprit.
Why did I jump to conclusions? Why the snap judgment? Of course, I am a sinner, liable to give into temptation without active submission to the Spirit’s sanctifying work in my life. But why was I tempted in the way that I was?
Previous generations would have been tempted differently. They may have been tempted to deny the good of such expensive possessions deriding them as motivated by greed or materialism that is incompatible with a spiritual life devoted to God in Christ.
But that’s not what I did. I inserted myself into the judgment. He has more than me. I am a victim. He is an oppressor.
I believe I was tempted in a different way than previous generations because of our contemporary tendency to play the victim.
The advantages & challenges of a diverse society
Our culture is complex (for a host of reasons). One of those complexities is our ethnic and cultural diversity. All past generations of humans lived in a more homogenous setting than we do. It was clear what the predominant culture was in a given society, and this set the tone for the way everyone behaved toward one another. The “rules” of culture were more clearly defined and established, which, in turn, made knowing others and being known by others—friends, neighbors, acquaintances, family members, etc.—more straightforward.
This is no longer the case. I know that the people around me in a diverse, Bay Area context, have had any number of experiences that differ dramatically from my own. I can’t make assumptions about anyone anymore—and that’s a good thing!
But it makes my life a great deal more complicated. That “unknown-ness” in my neighbors can alienate me from them. Meaningful friendships and relationships are harder to come by. Finding common ground with the people I live next to is much more difficult.
In a culture that highly values diversity, we have labeled oppression as the greatest sin. Using power to keep others down is the worst behavior we can engage in.
There are plenty of historical reasons for this. From the Trail of Tears and slavery, to Jim Crow and the glass ceiling, our nation has a history of those with power using it to marginalize those without. Having learned from our mistakes, we have sought to correct them by elevating tolerance and eliminating oppression wherever possible.
This isn’t a bad thing. But it has its consequences.
Given all this, one could almost say that having a position of power is a social liability. (Except it’s still a position of power!) In such an environment, playing the “victim card” trumps everything else. If I’ve been victimized—oppressed by people with power I don’t possess—there is nothing anyone can say to excuse or explain it. My pain must be acknowledged.
In a counter-intuitive way, playing the victim is actually a power-play. Because I am a victim my voice must be heard, my needs must be met.
So, if I see myself as a victim when I see the Porsche owner, I am no longer a responsible agent. I have been oppressed by forces beyond my grasp (that have prevented me owning a Porsche!). I then have the right to judge, look down on (and even oppress!) the Porsche owner, since he is clearly not a victim (he’s privileged!) while I clearly am (poor me!).
When Christians assert their rights as a protected class, lament that they are being oppressed, play the victim as other groups often do, we are playing the world’s game. We play the victim to get power. We assert our weakness in order to reclaim strength.
Thus, in an inversion of the gospel, we become strong by claiming to be weak. I gain control by showing I had none.
Christ took the low place
This is not the way we learned Christ (Ephesians 4:20)! Christ took the low place, not to force His neighbors to lift Him up. He took the low place in faith that His Father would.
When we play the victim in a way that looks for validation, commiseration, or exaltation from our neighbors, we are doing the world’s work in the world’s way. When we use difficulty, the sins of others, or our emotional state to excuse ourselves from obedience and discipleship, we forfeit our true identity as the cross-shaped people of God.
When we accept legitimate trials as part of God’s providence and a chance to honor Jesus in our suffering, we do Christ’s work Christ’s way. The choice is ours. In Christ we have the victory (1 Corinthians 15:57)! We can’t be both victims and conquerors (Romans 8:37).