At a time when society regards victimhood as a virtue, it is important to remember that Jesus Christ was never a victim – at least not in the way victimhood is understood in the twenty-first century. Yet throughout the centuries the image of Jesus Christ as victim has dominated song, art and architecture.
In a similar way, it is common to speak of people being victims when they are at the receiving end of mistreatment of some kind, but those being mistreated do not always accept victimhood. At a conference in Bethlehem, Palestine, on ‘Boundaries, Borders and Peoples’, a Palestinian speaker made it abundantly clear that although Palestinians experienced oppression from Israel, they should not be regarded as victims. By his protestations, he was making a distinction between being victimized and being a victim. If a person, or a people, accept the role of victim, they are ultimately being rendered powerless. The Palestinian speaker did not regard Palestinians as powerless. It may be that the initial trauma of being overwhelmed by another person, people or circumstance may for a while bring about complete powerlessness and victimhood, but this is not a place to dwell for too long.
So powerful is the concept and experience of victimhood that, at some level or other, it always creeps into discussions about reconciliation. Victimhood is a topic which can create a great deal of emotion – there are some who, because of past traumas, are locked in the mode of a victim. But victimhood, as usually understood, undermines and renders reconciliation impossible.
Jesus Christ the ‘Victim’
The Christian tradition is full of images of Jesus Christ as victim. When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him he said, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1.29). According to St. John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death fell on the day of the slaughtering of the Passover lambs, thereby sealing the link between the sacrificial victims and the death of Jesus. But while viewing Jesus as victim helps explain his completion and fulfilment of the Jewish rites of passover, the transfer of victim status from animal to person causes difficulties and confusion for us who understand victimhood in a very different way from those living in first century Palestine. It is necessary to go back to discover the roots of Jesus’ victimhood.
In trying to explain the significance of Jesus’ life and death and its relationship to Judaism, some authors of the New Testament turned to the Jewish sacrificial system where worshippers could atone for their sins by offering sacrifices. Mention has already been made of St. John’s allusions that Jesus’ death is linked with the slaughter of the paschal lambs which were to be sacrificed, but it is the epistle to the Hebrews which develops and refines this comparison. At the climax of an explanation of the sacrificial system, the epistle identifies Jesus himself as the sacrificial victim:
But as it is, he [Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9.26)
Jesus’ self-offering superseded the offering of animals and put an end to the need for any more sacrifices as it was both superior and a once-for-all offering. This was how the crucifixion could be understood. Jesus, instead of an animal, was the victim. But here the similarity between Jesus and the animal victim stops. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus’ death was self-giving. He had a choice about whether he should go to his death: he could have said ‘no’ and not walked the path that he took. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus struggles with what he is called to do, his reluctance to do it and his final agreement to take the path to the cross:
Going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want. (Mark 14.35-6).
St. John’s Gospel powerfully draws out the choice before Jesus (and it was St. John’s Gospel which made the link between Jesus’ death and the slaughter of the paschal lambs):
And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No- one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’ (John.10.15-7).
So, on the one hand, Jesus’ victimhood was similar to that of an animal in the sense that he was regarded as a sacrificial victim, but, on the other, it was totally different in that he had a choice.
Two further points need to be made to draw out this distinction. Firstly, the Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to a sacrificial victim (thusia) only refers to animals except in the instance quoted from Hebrews 9.26 where it refers to Jesus. There is no word which means victims in the contemporary understanding of people who are completely powerless in the face of what is being done to them.
Secondly, Jesus’ ‘victimhood’ draws out the difference between an animal and a person. An animal has only its power to lose – it becomes totally powerless when it is captured and sacrificed; but whereas, a person may be rendered physically powerless by an enemy by being captured, imprisoned or enslaved, a person need not be totally under the control of their captor. Human beings have a potential for otherness, a capacity to reach out beyond themselves which is bound up by that part of a human being often described as the soul. In many ways, the soul does not belong only to us, but to God, and it is from the soul that human identity is derived: the enemy cannot gain control over it unless it is given to them. When it is handed over, a human being becomes a classic victim.
It is important to emphasize that although Jesus was victimized, he was never a victim. Indeed, it was when he was physically powerless, nailed to the cross, unable to move and breathing his last, that Jesus was, in reality, most powerful and the victory of Good Friday was won.
But Jesus can be seen as a scape goat – and it is to that we turn in the middle of March, before Holy Week.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.
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