Just like meritocracy, victimhood is a weapon of shame, a response by our psyches to counter perceived inadequacy while preventing us from healing. While meritocracy allows those who achieve cultural markers of success to celebrate themselves and look down on others, victimhood denies our culpability and points the fingers towards someone else. While meritocracy can only guard a few against shame, victimhood is a strategy everyone can use. This is why, when things go wrong, we all look for someone to blame.
Democrats blame Republicans. Republicans return the favor. Management blames workers. Workers return the favor. Unaware of whom to blame, Han Solo just ran through the Millennium Falcon claiming, “It’s not my fault!”
But in the midst of all the blame, it’s the true victims who suffer the most. Which is why, unlike Robin Hood who steals from the rich and gives the poor, victimhood just steals from the poor.
Victimhood and the Human Experience
Blame is so engrained in the world as we know it that Genesis gives it a central role in the book’s third cosmological myth. Remember, while the first two stories in Genesis reveal the world as it should be, the third one seeks to explain the world we have.
In the story, God comes to the first couple, hiding in the garden. Instead of taking responsibility, the adam tells God, “It was the woman you gave me who gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” Her response is no better, “The serpent deceived me… that’s why I ate it.” Each of them declares, “I am the victim here!”
Did you notice the double-layered response? He does not just blame her, he also blames God for creating her. Her response is similar. While she only names the serpent, by explicitly pointing to the serpent she implicitly points to the one who created the serpent. So who is to blame? According to the first couple, the answer is ultimately God.
They deny their culpability. This includes listening to the serpent, eating the fruit, and hiding from each other and God in shame. It is not their fault. After all, God put them in the garden with a tree they were not supposed to eat from and a talking snake whose only role seems to be tricking them into eating from it.
The story, written to teach us about ourselves and the world we live in, describes the origins of victimhood. Victimhood is when we see or think of ourselves as harmed by others even when there is clear contradictory evidence.
Victims vs. Victimhood
Notice that victimhood is not the same as being a victim. There are real victims in the world. People of color, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people are often vilified and/or socially limited. Our society is not subtle when declaring that their lives matter less.
The appearance of a “Black sounding name” on a resume radically reduces the likelihood of an interview, even if the rest of the resume is identical. There are dramatic differences in health outcomes where the only distinguishing factor is race. There is not equal pay for equal work. Our economy depends upon the very workers we label illegal. The way we have organized our society limits the opportunity for some children and then blames them for their circumstances. It is the presence of these actual victims that makes the illusion of meritocracy a sham.
But this is nothing new. Human history is filled with assaults on people based on race, class, and gender. It is why Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3 is so provocative: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” According to Paul, when we follow the way of love and the Kingdom of God forms in our midst, there are no more victims because we no longer oppress others based on race, class, and gender.
So as we seek to bring heaven to earth, we must honor the voices of actual victims. They deserve, not just compassion and empathy, but restitution. A society built on telling them they do not belong needs to do everything in its power to make them whole. It is part of the ongoing creation story … for victims, for those who assaulted them, and for those who benefited from the assault.
However, being a victim does not entitle anyone to a life of victimhood. It does not absolve anyone of personal responsibility for their hurtful choices. Nor does it grant freedom to stereotype others based on their similarities to an oppressor or assailant.
Being a Victim, Victimhood, and Me
On many of the traditional levels, I am not a victim. I am a straight, white, male born into an upper-middle-class family in the most powerful nation on earth. Physically I am tall, fit, and reasonably attractive. Educationally, I hold the title of Reverend Doctor. While that might prompt some to vilify me, I am not socially restrained because of who I am as a person.
And yet, on another level, I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The resultant emotional chaos fueled social ineptitude that, combined with my scrawny physical presence and desire for the approval of teachers, made me a target for years of bullying. Those things are wrong. The fact that they happened makes me a victim deserving of justice.
At the same time, how I handled those things was worse than the offenses themselves. Even while denying the abuse, I allowed trauma to drive my behavior. It defined my relationship with both women and honesty. I feared women I was close to and used women I was not. Being honest about anything potentially shameful was torturous. I lived as if everyone was out to bully me, constantly reacting to innocent comments as if they were hostile. In my victimhood, I lived a contemptuous, defensive, adulterous, deceptive, and manipulative life. Under duress, my initial reactions often lean in this direction.
On top of that, I used my victim status to excuse my vile behavior. If I could shift the blame then I could avoid dealing with both guilt and shame. I could acknowledge that I did something wrong, but simultaneously act innocent or unaccountable for my actions.
When I exhausted options to blame, I used broken Christianity to justify it all. After all, if God is about forgiving sin, then once I asked for forgiveness, there was no need to make amends. There was no restitution for my victims. Ultimately, victimhood fueled a life of victimizing others.
With Victimhood, We All Lose
In this way, my life then serves as a microcosm of society. While justice for victims is necessary, a culture of victimhood tears us apart while ignoring the plight of the most vulnerable, further victimizing those most in need of justice.
Victimhood limits our ability to address conflict at both social and political levels. In a society where power is achieved through victimhood, becoming the greatest victim is the only way to get ahead. This means to gain status we need to vilify others, creating more and more distance between us. Before long, common ground, rather than being what we seek, is what we avoid. In the process, we all become less helpful, more entitled, and more selfish. This is true for woke signaling liberals, conservatives claiming reverse discrimination, and Christians bemoaning cultural oppression like the war on Christmas.
In all the noise, the most vulnerable get lost in the fray.
How Do We Tell The Difference?
How do we distinguish those operating from victimhood and legitimate victims? After all, claims rooted in victimhood often sound like genuine victimization. Moreover, someone operating from a place of health can make identical conclusions to someone operating from victimhood. So how do we tell the difference?
Arthur Brooks identifies two criteria to help distinguish between those fighting on behalf of victims or someone operating out of victimhood.
First, he suggests we look at the role of free speech in the conversation. Brooks argues, “Victims and their advocates always rely on free speech and open dialogue to articulate unpopular truths.” Free speech is how they assert themselves into a conversation where they would otherwise be ignored. In contrast, victimhood often wants to suppress speech under the guise of not triggering others.
He also recommends we consider the movement’s leadership. Those fighting for justice tend to be “aspirational leaders who challenge us to cultivate higher values.” They point to human rights, capabilities, and dignity. However, those leading a culture of victimhood will often act as a savior or focus on a common enemy. People lose their status as individuals and instead operate as an aggrieved mass.
From my own experience, I would add a third point. If you are quick to box people you disagree with into victimhood without listening to them and confirming you understand their actual position, odds are high that you are operating from victimhood.
Breaking the Bonds of Victimhood
So what do we do about a culture of victimhood? In my experience, it starts with the person in the mirror.
Because victimhood, like meritocracy, is a tool to block the experience of shame, addressing that deep sense of inadequacy is essential. Before we do anything, we must discover that God is not offended and allow ourselves to heal.
Beyond that, one of the most powerful resources in my experience is the book of Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements (affiliate). Specifically, I turn to the second and third agreements:
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Truth be told, what someone else does reveals more about them than it does you. Similarly, what I did to harm others, said more about me than it did them. While you can still be a victim, embracing this belief makes it hard to remain in victimhood. It redirects your focus from yourself to systemic issues that sit at the root of oppression, enabling you to speak the truth about the reality we live in without personally attacking those who live in it.
Don’t Make Assumptions
It is easy to hear what someone says or observe what they do and make conclusions about their motivations and intentions. But unless we explore deeper, unless we seek to truly understand the world as they see it, any critique or challenge will ring hollow. Empathy enables understanding and sets the stage for actual dialogue and ultimately resolution.
By addressing our own shame, not taking what other says and do personally, and asking questions instead of making assumptions, we can begin to break free from the grip of victimhood and turn our attention to those most in need of justice.
Articles: Victimhood Culture Will Tear Us Apart and The Noise of Victimhood Culture Has Drowned Out the Plight of the Poor by Jenny McCartney in UnHerd
These two articles offer a deeper dive into victimhood culture and the impact on those who are the most vulnerable in our society.
Article: The Rise of Victimhood Culture by Conor Friedersdorf
The article explores various responses by students at Oberlin College to a conflict that arose during Latino Heritage Month. The analysis includes how the same events would evoke different responses in other historic and cultural contexts.
Book: The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle Against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism (affiliate) by Stephen J. Patterson
While a culture of victimhood seeks to heighten divisions, the Gospel, the good news of the kingdom, seeks to break them down. Rather than creating more victims, it aims to bring healing and restoration to the marginalized.
Confess ways you have embraced victimhood and hear grace spoken into your life.
Do you need help with that? Message me and share your story.
So if we reject meritocracy and victimhood, what is a healthy third way forward?