There is a virus sweeping the Western world and infecting most of us with a new disease. It comes complete with a high fever. The sickness? The debility and self-focus that come from the feeling that I am a victim, that I am being hard-done by, that the structures of life are particularly unjust to me.
Today we see this everywhere. It seems no group or individual is immune. Everyone feels the victim.
At an obvious level, we see this played out in the tensions surrounding gender: Both women and men feel duly victimized. Women feel that they have been victimized by men, by patriarchal structures, by biology, by a male God, and by history in general. Because of this, many women carry a deep archetypal anger. Men, and this comes as a surprise to most women, feel that they are victims, that the industrial revolution took them away from their homes and their children and took their fathers away from them. They are the ones who history and circumstance forced to do the killing (of other men in war, of animals for food). Many men today feel a deep archetypal sadness. Both genders feel hard done by and both are far from healthy.
And we see this dynamic everywhere. People who have left their churches often feel hurt by those churches and luxuriate in the scars. Church leaders, on the other hand, themselves feel victimized because they have become the symbolic lightening rods around which virtually every type of anger, shortcoming, and hatred can constellate. Persons on welfare feel victimized by a society which cannot provide them with work, just as those who are working and paying the taxes from which welfare takes its money themselves feel victimized by those whom they perceive as getting a free ride. Almost every ethnic group in the Western world portrays itself as the victim, just as the white majority themselves now feel victimized. Everywhere there is a certain sense of anger, of outrage even, at the unfairness of it all.
Moreover what we see within groups is paralleled in individuals. Most of us have a paranoid conviction of personal injustice. Life has not been fair to us. We have been abused, taken-for-granted, used, not given equal access, or not given a fair shake. We feel victims of racism, sexism, family violence, incest, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, cultural abuse, of something unfair – and we are now reacting to life appropriately, with anger and rage.
Hence we are obsessed with rights, with claiming them, and with suing whoever who might even accidentally or indirectly infringe upon them. North American society, in particular, is obsessed with rights. We have Human Rights Commissions working overtime to deal with the multiple indignations that arise when everyone in a culture feels victimized, analyzes life through a victim-perpetrator typology, is mad at the world, and is in an ideological sulk.
Where does that leave us at the end of the day? Communally, it leaves us fragmented, raw, living a certain emotional apartheid, and unable to build real political and ecclesial communities because, while we have rights, we don’t have equal responsibilities. In the Western world we have Charters of Rights and Human Rights Commissions but we don’t have their necessary counterpart, Charters and Commissions on Human Responsibilities. In a climate where everyone feels victimized the focus will always be on rights. While this may be good and necessary in many non-Western societies at present, in the Western world it is a focus that betrays an unhealthy self-obsession. We are too narcissistic to have the heart and resiliency for community.
Moreover, in our private lives this sense of being the victim has rendered us unhappy and made it hard for us to genuinely reach out in love. Why? Because when I feel victimized, it is impossible to feel gratitude and delight, to count my blessings. As such, it becomes equally arduous to be unselfish since gratitude, in the end, undergirds all love and virtue. When my primary identity is that of being a victim – “I have been abused! I am a woman! I am a man! I am a minority! I come from a dysfunctional family! My rights have been violated!” – I, like a patient in a hospital, am someone to be ministered to, someone who must first undergo a convalescence before being capable of ministering much to others. When I feel the victim I do not have the resiliency to absorb the necessary give and take of community, nor do I have the heart to live the dialectic of love that Christ proposed, namely, that if I want love and forgiveness I should, first, go out and give them to others. When I feel as victim, I am not likely to be living the Prayer of St. Francis.