Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Anguish: Unraveling Sin and Victimization

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Anguish: Unraveling Sin and Victimization

Article excerpt

I was visiting a friend before Christmas and she asked me to help wrap presents for the clients at the homeless shelter where she volunteers. I asked her if the wrapped presents were to be chosen randomly by each person from a grab bag. She said, no, each was intended for a particular recipient. "Who gets the alarm clock" I asked. "Oh, that's for John, he's always late for the job interviews we set up for him." "What about the soap and deodorant?" "That's for Mary. Her hygiene needs a little work." "How about the `Recovery' Bible" I asked. "Sam has a drinking problem and is angry at God." It seemed each present had a moral. "You're irresponsible." "You're dirty." "You're faithless." It would be easy to extrapolate to: "You are at fault for what has happened to you. If only you could be on time, cleaner, more religious, things would be different." Maybe things would be different if such changes were made. But I wondered what the clients heard and felt when they unwrapped probably the only gift they'd get that holiday season.

I am not faulting my friend. She is a committed, loving believer who really puts her faith to the test daily. The gifts were purchased by her with good intentions, and she works very hard at the shelter for no pay. Additionally, she understands that the people she serves have been victimized in many ways, that is, caught in traumatic, life-changing situations of injustice which rendered them helpless. Many, if not most, of these clients had been abused as children, born of a minority race, beaten up by boyfriends, caught in a changing welfare system, denied adequate medical care, trapped in substance abuse. In her work she has heard many of their stories and is sympathetic.

The Difficulties of Victimization Work

Of course, any helper in this situation can find her compassion and energies pressed to the limits. There are so many reasons why it is hard to work with victims. Although people who have been victimized can sometimes cover up the pain by behaving quite engagingly, more often victims do not come across very attractively. Despair, anger, listlessness, self-pity do not sit well with our Western focus on success, optimism, activism, and "the good attitude." Helping victims can be hard, frustrating, and slow. Additionally, a victim's plight reminds us uncomfortably of our own human vulnerability. It can be easier to recognize and sympathize with the distant victimization of third world poverty, "ethnic cleansing" or genocide, but harder to see and accept the victimization that surrounds our daily lives, i.e., domestic violence, sexual abuse, economic inequity, racial discrimination. Our potential complicity, too, is something we would rather not see.

Beyond that, many people are simply tired of hearing about yet another category of victims. Some fear we have become a nation of whiners. They may worry that the claim of victim status will be used to garner special favors or justify inappropriate behavior. It is true, as Michael Roth says, that in some places "marginalized groups are now at the discursive center of things" and-although real victimization obviously continues--in certain circles cultural clout can come with the status of having been oppressed ......1

However, while claiming victim status can gain attention and prompt change, it is an inadequate basis for one's identity. It can further disempower victims by excessively focusing on lack of agency, by romanticizing them, or by expecting complete innocence. A focus on victimization can even subtly serve our own needs by expecting from victims untoward gratitude for our benevolent attention or help.

A homogenizing of victimization means that people who have been seriously abused may have to "prove their case" and overcome the public's information overload in order to gain a hearing. This is especially hard for those whose sense of shame, however misplaced, prevents them from calling attention to themselves. …

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