Daily Meditations

Jesus: Forgiving Victim

It seems we always find some way to avoid the transformation of our pain. There’s the way of fight. Fighters are looking for the evil, the sinner, the unjust one, the oppressor, the bad person “over there.” He or she “righteously” attacks, hates, or even kills the wrong-doer, while feeling heroic for doing so (see John 16:2). Philosopher René Girard sees this tendency to scapegoat others as the central story line of human history. Why? Because it works, and it is largely an immediate and an unconscious egoic response. The scapegoat mechanism was almost perfectly ritualized by the Israelites (see Leviticus 16:20-22). They enacted placing their sins on a poor goat and sending it off into the wilderness to die, thus the name, scapegoat.

We are all tempted to project our problems on someone or something else rather than dealing with it in ourselves. The zealot—and we’ve all been one at different times—is actually relieved by having someone to hate, because it takes away his or her inner shame and anxiety and provides a false sense of innocence. As long as the evil is “over there” and we can keep our focus on changing or expelling someone else (as the true contaminating element), then we feel at peace. But this is not the peace of Christ, which “the world cannot give” (see John 14:27). Instead, it is the simplistic, only temporary peace that the world tries to create.

Playing the victim is a way to deal with pain indirectly. You blame someone else, and your pain becomes your personal ticket to power because it gives you a false sense of moral superiority and having been offended. You don’t have to grow up, you don’t have to pray, you don’t have to let go, you don’t have to forgive or surrender–you just have to accuse someone else of being worse than you are. And sadly that becomes your very fragile identity, which always needs more reinforcement.

Another way to avoid the path of transformation is the way of flight. Those with the instinct to flee will deny or ignore pain by naively dividing the world up through purity codes and worthiness systems. They keep the problem on the level of words, ideas, and absolute laws separating good and evil. He or she refuses to live in the real world of shadow and contradiction. They divide the world into total good guys and complete bad guys, a comfortable but untrue worldview of black and white. This approach comprises most fundamentalist and early stage religion. It refuses to carry the cross of imperfection, failure, and sin in itself. It is always others who must be excluded so I can be pure and holy.

Each of these patterns perpetuate pain and violence rather than bring true healing.

The crucified and resurrected Jesus shows us how to transform pain without denying, blaming, or projecting it elsewhere. In fact, there is no “elsewhere.” Jesus is the victim in an entirely new way because he receives our hatred and does not return it, nor does he play the victim for his own empowerment. He suffers and does not make the others suffer because of it. He absorbs the mystery of human sin and transforms it rather than passing it on. He does not use his suffering and death as power over others to punish them, but as power for others to transform them. Jesus is the forgiving victim, which really is the only hope of our world, because most of us sooner or late will be victimized on some level. It is the familiar story line of an unjust and often cruel humanity.

The risen, victorious Jesus gives us a history and hopeful future that moves beyond predictable violence. He destroys death not by canceling it out; but by making a trophy of it. Jesus introduces the revolutionary idea of restorative justice, which is a totally divine idea and possibility. Any notion of retributive justice only perpetuates the problem, and pulls God down to our finite level. Jesus says in effect, “I’m going to use my death to love all perpetrators even more.”

~Adapted from Richard Rohr on Transformation–Jesus: Forgiving Victim, Transforming Savior (Franciscan Media: 1997), Disc 1; and Richard Rohr with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2001), 19-20, 22-24.