The Politics of Victimhood and Shame—Mark 8:27-38 and Isaiah 50:4-9a

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

“Victimhood culture” has swept our nation in recent years where victimhood has become an identity to be ashamed of. However, Jesus teaches his followers to bear their victimhood without shame, just as he bore his own without shame.

Mark 8:27-38
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Isaiah 50:4-9a
4 The Lord God has given me
   the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
   the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
   wakens my ear
   to listen as those who are taught. 
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
   and I was not rebellious,
   I did not turn backwards. 
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
   and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
   from insult and spitting. 

7 The Lord God helps me;
   therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
   and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 
8   he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
   Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
   Let them confront me. 
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
   who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
   the moth will eat them up. 

One will often find the word “victim” spoken with a distinct disdain. Bradley Campbell’s recent publication condemns The Rise of Victimhood Culture. Such a “victimhood culture” we are told, is particularly rampant in universities. While at the same time, the president of the United States argues that he is in fact the true victim: “The victim here is the President.” (Twitter, @realdonaldtrump, Oct 25, 2017).

There are those with a “victim mentality”; those who “play the victim card”; those who “self-victimize.”  This culture of victimhood is particularly troubling because, in the words of Haidt and Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, victimhood “has created a fragile generation.”

We are to be rugged individualists, whereas the victim requires systems of communal support. We are to be victorious, while the victim is defeated. We are to be strong; the victim is weak. In sum, it is shameful to be a victim.

In “victimhood culture” this fragility and weakness is internalized. Millennials are “generation snowflake”; they require safe-spaces and can’t handle disagreement. Victimhood has become an identity. They should be ashamed. Or so we are told.

Yet, the Christian gospel offers a considerably different triangulation of identity, victimhood, and shame, a way of rethinking the relationship between weakness and shame, between victimhood and identity.

Indeed, the eighth chapter of Mark is centrally concerned with the unique identity of Jesus. Jesus’ two questions—“who do people say that I am? … who do you say that I am?” (verses 27, 29)—continually echo throughout these passages. It is Peter alone who is able to cut through the possibilities and land on the decisive answer: “you are the Messiah” (verse 29).

But this victory is short-lived. For despite correctly naming Jesus, it is immediately apparent that Peter fundamentally misunderstands Jesus’ ultimate identity. As Jesus explains: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (verse 31). In the image of Isaiah, the messiah will be a servant who is “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering … oppressed and … afflicted … by a perversion of justice” (Isaiah 53.3-8). The messiah, Jesus explains, will be a victim.

In fact, Christianity retains precisely this language today. The Eucharistic Host, the body and blood of Jesus, are themselves regularly marked as “the victim”—from the Latin victima: “to choose, separate out, set aside as holy, consecrate, sacrifice.” As one reads in the Council of Trent: “for the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different.”

But this victimhood fundamentally disturbs Peter’s understanding of the messianic identity. Surely the messiah will be rugged, strong, victorious, and honorable. The messiah will be a king in the line of David. The messiah will overturn the Romans, and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel. A humiliating death? That is too shameful for the messiah. And so Peter “began to rebuke him” (verse 32).

Jesus’s response is infamously sharp: “get behind me, Satan!” (verse 33). Peter is here called Satan not because he is evil. Indeed, the figure of Satan has appeared only on one prior instance in the gospel: at Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Thus, Peter is likewise called “Satan” because he offers to Jesus a temptation. Peter’s rebuke suggests a different road, a different kind of messiah than the suffering servant: a messiah who would be the victor rather than the victim, a messiah who would view victimhood as shame.

But Jesus rejects this alternative messianism. Castigating Peter, Jesus doubles-down on his victimhood, not only reaffirming his own coming suffering, but inviting his followers into this victimhood themselves. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (verse 34). If any want to follow me, let them self-victimize, let them play the victim card. But how could Jesus invite his disciples onto this shameful path?

The architects of the lectionary have perhaps given us a response, insofar as they have paired this week’s gospel reading with Isaiah 50:4-9a. This passage—which would later be paraphrased in the Sermon on the Mount: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39)—disrupts the contemporary correlation between victory and honor, victimhood and shame. The victim of this passage faces the spit and abuse of their adversaries, abuse designed to produce shame and disgrace. And yet, this prophetic figure proclaims: “I have not been disgraced … I know that I shall not be put to shame”—not because victimhood has been avoided for victimhood can’t always be avoided, but because victimhood itself is not shameful.

Thus, in the same way, Jesus calls his followers to bear their cross, to bear their victimhood without disgrace. The path of the messiah may often be a path of suffering, but it is not a path of shame.

Rather, conversely, it is precisely those who reject this path of the suffering servant who are shamed. “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (verse 38). While this passage may be taken in a general sense—e.g. those who reject the divinity of Jesus—its context suggests something more specific. The “words” spoken of here may be precisely those words for which Peter rebuked Jesus: the recognition of impending suffering. Thus as the Church Father Tertullian will later write, “the faithful are not ashamed that the Son of God was crucified.” Victimhood itself is not shameful. This logic is carried to its fulfillment in the writings of the Apostle Paul, whose cruciform theology centers not divine strength, but divine weakness: “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25). Or as this logic is internalized in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

But the point here risks overstatement. Suffering is not good. Suffering is not an end in itself. It seems to stretch hermeneutic plausibility to suggest that Jesus is here advocating a self-flagellating attitude which would seek out suffering or pain.

Rather, this logic of weakness, which encourages followers to take up one’s cross, serves to remind us that even if painful, even if it is not good, suffering is not shameful. While being a victim is not an end in itself, neither is being a victim a mark of disgrace. When one turns victimhood into disgrace—whether to chastise college students or shame the president—one employs a dangerous logic that correlates honor and strength, victimhood and shame. Regardless of its intention, this logic emboldens the strong by moralizing their victory, while victim-shaming precisely those who have been cast down by the powerful.

But in the words of Paul, the correlation goes in precisely the opposite direction, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). It is the victim that calls us to our moral responsibility, that reminds us to invest in systems of communal support, that reminds us to care for one another when we are weak.

So, if you find yourself the bearer of a cross, if you find yourself a victim, may you remember that you have value and worth. May you remember that dignity is not the same thing as strength, nor victory the same thing as honor. And may you find comfort in the victim who came before you, and who is sung of in the hymn O Salutaris Hostia (O Saving Victim):

O saving Victim, open wide
the gate of heaven to man below;
our foes press on from every side;
thine aid supply; thy strength bestow

All praise and thanks to thee ascend
for evermore, blest One in Three;
O grant us life that shall not end
in our true native land with thee.

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