The Victim Needs No Conversion

This post is a continuation of the thoughts I shared two weeks ago in my post Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting.

To recap, that post was trying to wrestle with what kenosis, humility and "taking up the cross" looks like for a person in locations of abuse and oppression. As I noted in that post and in others, "descending" to a place of "lower status" presupposes that the person is "high status" and on the top. Thus, to be a Christian in these locations is to let go of and to empty oneself of status. To humble and lower yourself.

But how does that work if you are already a low status person, especially an abused and oppressed person? How much lower are you supposed to go?

The worry in all this, as I pointed out in my prior post, is when people tell abused and oppressed people to tolerate their abuse and oppression quietly and passively. In this, in acquiescing to the abuse, the person is told he or she is "being like Jesus." As I noted, pastoral advice like this heaps theological abuse upon physical, sexual and emotional abuse in how it stands with the abuser and the oppressor.

So we definitely don't want to go in that direction. Kenosis, humility and taking up the cross shouldn't look anything like that, siding with the abusers and the oppressors. (Not that we hate the abusers and oppressors, just that we don't provide them with theological justification for what they are doing and that we engage in vigorous, fearless and sustained theological rebuke of abuse and oppression.)

So if that's not the direction we should go, then what does kenosis, humility and taking up the cross look like for those who are low status, those who are being abused and oppressed?

In my prior post I tried to articulate what all that might look like, kenosis in the location of abuse and oppression. So if you missed that post read it to get my take on the subject.

Now here in this post I want to suggest an alternative approach to this same subject, something a bit more provocative and radical.

The basic idea is this. Victims are already Christian. Victims need no conversion.

Only oppressors and abusers require conversion.

Regarding kenosis, humility and taking up the cross victims have already been poured out, humiliated and crucified. Thus, victims have already been converted. In their victimhood victims already stand with and in Christ. Or, rather, Christ has already moved to stand with the victims--sanctifying them, divinizing them. Victims incarnate the Crucified Christ and, thus, they are already Christians.

Hanging already on the cross, victims need do nothing more to become "Christ-like" or to become like Jesus. As I said, victims require no conversion.

This, then, is the root of the problem with preaching kenosis, humility and taking up the cross to victims. You're suggesting that the one already hanging on the cross do something more, to in essence crucify themselves again.  And it's that demand for re-crucifixion--the attempt to convert and preach at the one hanging on the cross--that brings in the potential for abuse.

This is why I think notions like kenosis, humility and taking up the cross often become dysfunctional, hurtful and sadomasochistic when preached at those being abused or oppressed. You're trying to convert the converted, to make people in these locations do something more, to go lower, when they, as victims, need do nothing more.

(The one caveat that could be added here is that we talk about the forgiving victim on the cross. The victim who seeks to create no more victims. Thus, while the victim is holy and doesn't need to become more of a victim to stand with Christ--the victim don't need to submit to additional suffering or lowering or humiliation--there may be internal work that needs to be done to break the cycle of violence, hate and revenge. In short, victims need do nothing more by way of suffering to stand with Christ and to suggest otherwise is abusive. But having been lifted out of the abusive and oppressive context victims will face the hard labor of forgiveness. This circles back to connect with the view of kenosis I articulated in the earlier post, suggesting that the "emptying" of kenosis involves pouring out--even vomiting out--the black bile of the abusive past.)  

In framing these issues in this particular way--the victim needs no conversion--the ideas here might sound strange and provocative. But these are old and biblical notions.

In many ways, what I've just described takes its cue from liberation theology. But instead of God's preferential option for the poor what we have here is the preferential option for the victim. God already stands in divine solidarity with the victims. Thus victims do not need to "convert," they do not need to move from one spiritual location to another in order to stand with and be with God. The Crucified God is already found in the midst of victims and among the victims. Thus, victims need do nothing to find God beyond their being victims. The victim requires no conversion to be with God. Victims are already with God.

Biblically, this is simply the theology of the Beatitudes, the Magnificat and the Nazareth Manifesto. The poor, the meek, the gentle, the persecuted, the least of these are already blessed. And being already blessed victims don't need to do anything more in order to become blessed.

What victims require, and this is the clear teaching of Scripture, is elevation and exultation. Being already blessed and already in God's divine favor the victim needs no further encouragement to be more Christian, more blessed, more Christ-like. To preach conversion to the victim--to ask them to go lower, to re-crucify themselves--is abusive as the only message the victim needs is the Good News of Divine favor: Blessed are you.

You, here in your low estate, have been seen by God. Your cries have been heard and your tears have been counted and gathered into the wineskin of God.

Take my hand, and be lifted up.

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22 thoughts on “The Victim Needs No Conversion”

  1. "This, then, is the root of the problem with preaching kenosis, humility
    and taking up the cross to victims. You're suggesting that the one
    already hanging on the cross do something more, to in essence crucify
    themselves again. And it's that demand for re-crucifixion--the attempt to convert and preach at the one hanging on the cross--that brings in the potential for abuse."

    Crucifixion is the only form of capital punishment that a person cannot do to themselves. Maybe, potentially, the abusers are the crucifiers.

  2. There is a reason that those who demand to be FIRST, envy the suffering; it is clear that within the heart of the child of God the suffering ARE first.

    We do not go to the words of John the Baptist much in our churches, except to quote him as he announces Jesus' presence, "Behold the lamb of God". But one of his last statements, I believe, should be that of ours when we find ourselves in the presence of suffering: "He must increase; I must decrease". And that we can do if we are conscious at the moment of beholding the lamb of God.

  3. Wow-amazing. "Biblically, this is simply the theology of the Beatitudes, the Magnificat and the Nazareth Manifesto. The poor, the meek, the gentle, the persecuted, the least of these are already blessed. And being already blessed victims don't need to do anything more in order to become blessed. "
    Love this part!

  4. Widening the net a little, I'd be inclined to apply this theology to all marginalized people. I'm particularly interested in doing this as I'm currently leading an adult Sunday School class on development disabilities and theology (based mainly on material by Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen). Individuals with developmental disabilities should not be regarded as victims, but they are unquestionably marginalized. And everything you wrote here directly applies to this population.

  5. I have personally witnessed victims of abuse have injury from abuse exasperated by Christians who fail to grasp what you are saying here, especially in the context of child molestation. "We are all sinners, and all deserve to go to hell for eternity. In the eyes of God, a child molester is no worse than anyone else." It's a mantra I cringe to hear. The "anyone else" is, of course, implicitly the victim. When a child or victim is abused and marginalized by someone in a position of power over them, dehumanizing lies that place the blame on the victim accompany the abuse.

    Right at this vulnerable junction, the "christian" swoops in with the concept that the solution lies in the victim coming to a full realization of the extent of his/her own 'depravity'. Forgiveness is required because of the backdrop that the victim deserves much, much worse from his/her creator. This is why teaching a classical understanding of penal substitionary atonement to the marginalized can create a "Stockholm syndrome" where the the victim is taught to equate the absence of God's violence against them to some how be equated with love. Rather than creating a safe and nurturing environment for victims, Christians can simply partner with the abuser in perpetuation the lies where at the core of the abuse.

    You are right that Christ already stands with the victim. No conversion needed. May His church stand there also.

  6. Some of you may be asking questions about this post similar to the ones my friend Brad East is asking:

    Brad's point is well taken as victims often create more victims. Here was my response to Brad on his blog as it might help add nuance for those raising similar concerns as Brad's:

    Hi Brad,

    very much agree. I've made that exact point in many places--how victims
    create more victims--and I struggled if I should add all that to the
    post. It came out a bit in the post when I talked about the "forgiving
    victim" as "the victim who seeks to create no more victims" by doing the
    "internal work that needs to be done to break the cycle of violence,
    hate and revenge."

    Much of the
    problem with the post is using the notion of "conversion." It's a weird
    frame that might not work, but I thought I'd try it to flush out into
    the open some of the issues and tensions I'm wrestling with.
    Specifically, the pastoral frame I have in mind is something like
    domestic abuse or sexual abuse and victims coming for help. What too
    often tragically happens in those moments is that victims are often
    "preached at," functionally asked to "convert" to handle the abuse in a
    way deemed "fitting of a Christian." Thus, a lot of the tragic pastoral
    advice given to victims is because instead of standing with and lifting
    out (the liberation theology aspect) there is the tendency to "preach
    at" or "convert" the victim, asking them endure their abuse in order to
    be "a Christian," or, at least, a better Christian.

    My point is
    that the first thing one should do in encountering the victim is simply
    to lift them up. That's what Jesus does throughout the gospels. He
    doesn't preach at victims. He calls them blessed. That's his first move.

    To be sure,
    he does go on to preach enemy-love and forgiveness, but I see these as
    coming after the first pronouncement of blessing and elevation. Once
    elevated the hard work of love and forgiveness begins, to prevent the
    cycles of victimage you're talking about.

    So maybe it's a sequence. Blessing and elevation first and then the
    work of forgiveness. Pastoral advice goes awry when the order is

    I see this as a common tension in all variations of liberation
    theology. How do you stand with the oppressed in a way that loves the
    oppressor? What is needed, I'm guessing, is a dialectic.

  7. Terrific stuff, Richard. To add another antonymic to your abuser/abused, victimiser/victim framework: powerful/powerless. Perhaps it more explicitly opens up the sweeping political dimension of your argument. To adapt your two-line thesis:

    The basic idea is this. The powerless are already Christian. The powerless need no conversion.

    Only the powerful require conversion.

    It also suggests that, fundamentally, we are talking here about a radical reconfiguartion of our understanding of God - of God's omnipotence.

  8. This reminds me of a recent question I read: must the poor become Christians to inherit the Kingdom? Jesus didn't make it a conditional statement . . . he said - Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom.

  9. Without foreclosing the penultimate words of protest and resistance lest victims collude in their own victimisation, yes, the ultimate words of understanding, love, and mercy - not retribution but rehabilitation - that is, finally, the only way the "cycles of victamage", the vicious circle of the abused becoming the abuser, can be broken. Forgiveness is the telos of justice.

  10. This is not a hypothetical issue for me. What you've addressed here is one of the primary reasons I'm no longer a Christian, so I appreciate this. Everything Christianity ever told me just made me feel worse, and I didn't start to feel sane until I began rejecting the notion that further self-abasement would somehow be spiritually helpful.

    I've met several Christians who seem terribly concerned about whether or not I've forgiven my abusive father which annoys me for several reasons: A) it seems to place their particular theological framework over and above my actual well-being, and B) I spent three decades in the church and I have no idea what forgiveness would even mean in my situation. "Forgive or you'll turn into an abuser yourself!" always sounds like more of a threat than a path to healing.

    I used to do some speaking through RAINN's speakers bureau, and it always frustrated me when someone would ask during the Q & A if I had forgiven my father. It always felt like they needed me to say yes for reasons of their own - like I needed to fit my life into their narrative of the world so they wouldn't have to feel too uncomfortable. The real answer is that forgiveness is so far down the list of things I'm concerned about that it's not a relevant question for me. Other survivors feel like they need to forgive, and I don't question their path.

    American (and evangelical) culture seems to like its victims to fall into one of two categories: the dramatic train wreck in need of saving and the inspirational overcomer saved by Jesus and/or Oprah-esque self-empowerment and full of gauzy forgiveness. (Although Oprah did a LOT to bring childhood sexual abuse into the light, so I have to give her props for that.) I don't fit into either of those categories, and I find that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I embrace my responsibility to behave ethically and treat others with compassion and respect (while being intensely aware of my various emotional deficits), but I would not consider myself a forgiving victim, and I'm perfectly fine with that.

  11. Professor Beck --

    I love the thought line. One challenge -- and I'm not even sure how much of an issue this is for me -- but I could see people like myself scurrying for the high road of defining oneself as a "victim."

    "Yes I may be a rich, entitled white guy, but you have no idea how much the system and entire world is against me! I am the schmuck of jokes! I am literally the face of greedy, porcine capitalism...and people hate me for it! I am the true victim!" Victim becomes a subjective term.

    What is a biblical way to build some fences around the word "victim"?

  12. Relating to what you are saying, if we are to understand 'repentance' as a change of world view that changes our behaviour, would it not suggest that victims are to 'repent' as well For example, of things like self-loathing (which is only an example of many things). From this perspective, the victim needs 'saving' in that the victim needs to see and understand a world in which God - the creator of the universe - has entered our world and 'came near'. Is this not the same type of repentance that all people must face: the knowledge of a world where God is imminent and in our midst as the earth shattering reality that all people must come to terms with and reorient their reality towards. What is salvation if not the realization that God has pierced through the chaos and is bringing order to our chaotic world? The victim cannot be exempt. I see only a more happy and releasing recognition for the victim, whereas the oppressor must face agony as we contemplate our complicity. Why can't repentance be a joyful occasion? It should also be noted that sometimes the victim is as free even as they are complicit.

  13. I don't if you'll see this, Richard, because a few days have passed and I've needed time to think about this carefully. I've been reading your blog for some time and following this series of posts with great interest, because I'm struggling with balancing victimhood and Christianity.

    What I have found from this vantage point is that I very much need to relinquish things, but not shame or anything like that. What I need to relinquish is anger. It may be, from the world's point of view, righteous anger, but it's still an active, formidable obstacle between me and whatever of God's work I might be able to do. In my case, because I am disabled, that isn't much, so I need a very, very clear head, and any time there's silence, the anger comes in. It is huge and very demon-shaped, and it's very, very seductive. It tells me that I have a right to justice, that I have a right to vindication, that these things are worthy goals. It tells me that I am innocent, and although I was not complicit in the things that happened, that lack of complicity doesn't make me any more or less of an innocent than anyone else. Running into the wrong people at the wrong time doesn't make me a better or more nobler person.

    But neither does fighting for justice, and that's what I have to let go of. I have to let go of justice and embrace mercy. I have to understand that when Jesus said to turn the other cheek, he meant me, not because it's okay to abuse me but because getting caught up in it interferes with doing His work. Turn the other cheek, and they get tired of hitting you, at which point, you can get back to work. Bad things happening to us aren't about us at all. They're distractions, but when you're on the victim end, it's really easy to get stuck on them.

    I don't have a preferential option, not as a poor person nor as a victim. God isn't offering me what I want. He's giving me a challenge that I suspect is as great as that he would give the man who molested me or the parents who beat me or the doctor who just spent a few years causing havoc by inappropriately medicating me. They have guilt to face, which is hard, but I have to face the fact that God offers me no justice in this life, and the next life has no guarantees. I don't have a free ride. I have to give everything to the poor and follow Him, and that's no easier for me than it is for anyone else. In order to see Him well enough to follow, I have to set aside my anger and my desire for justice as well as my desire for revenge, which believe me is considerable. I have a different challenge, but it's still a considerable one. I have to live in a world where God exists and does nothing, then I have to turn around and offer others the kind of help I never had, while getting no credit for it in this life. It's not going to change the fact that, given the nature of my victimhood, I will still be seen as unclean. I have to be God's hand in this world without any hope of earthly reward. I cannot understate how difficult that is. All I can say is that I can't do it. I keep trying, but I can't do it.

    I hope I have not rambled excessively in your comments. I've been thinking about this a great deal because there have been hard decisions to make lately, decisions that will negate some hard-won credibility, and your writing on this topic has helped me clarify things. I just hope this makes sense to you.

  14. Dear Ann, I can't tell you how incredibly honored and humbled I am that you've shared this with me, with us. It's holy ground.

    I can't pretend to know the depths of your pain, doubts and the struggles you face. But I can say that I stand with you and look at you as a woman of great, great courage. A woman who, to use Brene Brown's words, is "daring greatly."

    I thank you for sharing this because, for my own Christian walk, my faith has to make sense in the place where you find yourself. If my faith doesn't make sense in the midst of pain and suffering then I don't know what good it is. And while my reflections on this blog about faith and victims may, at times, be wrong or unhelpful or just not very good the motivation behind what I'm doing is, I pray, holy and good. I'm trying to think about what faith, truth, church, justice, hope, and love look like when I stand with you as a friend and a brother.

  15. " If my faith doesn't make sense in the midst of pain and suffering then I don't know what good it is." Does our faith ever really make sense in the midst of pain and suffering? Or is that where it "just" becomes faith? I would be interested to know if, and how it makes sense for you...

  16. Oh! I did not expect that. Thank you!

    You are only wrong, in my experience, in the sense that one reasonable mind can come to a different conclusion sometimes than another, and you are never unhelpful. I find that you have an uncanny tendency to post something that I need to read more or less when I need to read it, and that when you come to a different conclusion, your train of thought helps me understand my own. I doubt I'm the only one of your readers who would say that.

    I am still getting a handle on my own thoughts, but perhaps a tl;dr version of last night's ramble is this: I was reading Thomas Merton and ran into this quote: "Your life is shaped by the ends you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire." I realized that I was made in the image of vindication, which is all I've really wanted, with a bit of justice thrown in, perhaps with the tiniest smidgin of revenge in some cases--and I couldn't bear to look at myself in the mirror. I wanted these things more than I wanted God. Actually, I wanted God to give them to me, and was almost withholding belief until it happened, like the Psalmist who bargained for his life by reminding God that the dead sing no praises. It doesn't help that in order to be considered a proper victim, one must conform to a specific set of rules that mostly serve to restrict our lives even more. The end result is that spiritually, I now resemble a plastic surgery addict, and it feels impossible to fix.

    Facing that reflection, for me at least, has been the great challenge of conversion. Thank you for this blog, because it always gives me food for thought.

  17. I'm reminded of a distinction Parker Palmer made in an interview between "true crosses" and "false crosses". The whole quote is really worth the read.

    "It's awfully important to distinguish in life, I think, between true crosses and false crosses. And I know in my growing up as a Christian, I didn't get much help with that. A cross was a cross was a cross, and if you were suffering, it was supposed to be somehow good. But I think that there are false forms of suffering that get imposed upon us, sometimes from without, from injustice and external cruelty, and sometimes from within, that really need to be resisted.

    I do not believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live a living death. I believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live life fully and well. Now, is that going to take me to places where I suffer, because I am standing for something or I am committed to something or I am passionate about something that gets resisted and rejected by the society? Absolutely. But anyone who's ever suffered that way knows that it's a life-giving way to suffer, that if it's your truth, you can't not do it. And that knowledge carries you through. But there's another kind of suffering that is simply and purely death. It's death in life, and that is a darkness to be worked through to find the life on the other side."

  18. I believe there are victims who are simply victims -- victimized children come to mind, for one -- but surely there are many people who are both victims and perpetrators. I guess I'm not sure that being a victim "covers a multitude of sins," as it were. The poor inherit the Kingdom, but everyone sins and falls short of the glory of God...?

  19. I won't soon forget the minister telling my abusive husband and me that we just weren't right with God. If we'd simply repent, our problems--including his narcissism and abuse--would simply go away. Of course, the abuse didn't matter; if I was a better wife, my husband simply wouldn't be acting that way. This was the message we received from this (Baptist) man of God. We needed to be better Christians, and were equally guilty for our struggles. It was a spiritual problem of equally distributed weight.

    So... thanks for this post. Because I promise that I was the closest I had ever been, as a victim of spousal abuse, to God; I was used to feeling like nothing, and being told I was nothing, and treated like I didn't exist except when my husband needed to make me feel his pain. While I was learning words like "codependence" and "narcissism" and "abuse" from mental health professionals, if I had believed this man--if I had not had a real faith independent of that church--I think I might have died or harmed myself, rather than try and keep living that environment, believing it was my fault.

    Thankfully, I did have a separate sense of identity, and we divorced soon after (when he wanted to and I was more than willing). But that experience changed me forever: a woman who has done nothing but repent and Try to Be Better, begging a minister for some hope or clarity or for someone to help her spouse heal, and he doing nothing but telling her that her worst fears are true: there is no way out; the abuse is her fault; and if she was just a better Christian, God--and her spouse--would love her.

    All Christians are not this way, but I am haunted by the thoughts of what that minister might be doing to women (or men) in my situation, at that particular church, even now (years later).

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