Who’s the Victim?

The common view in Antiquity on people who fell victim to sickness, suffering and “bad fortune” was that “they had it coming” because of certain transgressions they (or their ancestors) committed against the sacred order of things. In other words, because of sin. It is clear, for instance, that Job’s friends and relatives follow this logic in the Old Testament book of Job. They keep on suggesting that Job somehow deserves the suffering he has to endure. Jesus radically challenges this way of thinking. A prime example of this can be found in John 9:1-12, the story of Jesus healing a young man who had been blind from birth. Given the common understanding of sickness in their pre-modern society, it comes as no surprise that the disciples of Jesus pose the following question:

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

The answer of Jesus must have come as a complete and shocking surprise:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3)

This story reveals some important aspects of Jesus’ understanding of God and man. Apparently, according to Jesus, God blesses those who are sick, those who suffer – in short: the victims. Not because they are victims per se, but because they are in fact fellow human beings and their suffering is regarded as unjust. This belief in a God who regards victims as human beings who suffer unjustly is exemplified by the healing activity of Jesus, which consists in opening up the possibility for these victims to become part of the (human) community again. Since Jesus reverses the idea that victims are condemned (or “chosen”) by some divine command to suffer, but insists that God actually blesses and “chooses” them as human beings, he takes away the reasons for their marginalization, or persecution and expulsion. Moreover, he takes away, at the same time, the traditional means by which communities structure themselves, and challenges them to include those they experience as a threat, a disgrace or even as an enemy.

As the story turns out, the blind man saw something that the people of his community and Jesus’ disciples remained blind to. Jesus paradoxically accomplishes that the actual sinfulness is no longer located in the blind man, but rather in what had been the (rather unwitting) complicity of the individual members of an entire community to take part in mechanisms of expulsion.

Ever since the traditions of the Gospel spread in western culture, being a victim was gradually no longer experienced as an inevitable and sacred “state of affairs”, nor as a disgrace or something to be ashamed of. Western civilizations developed a growing active and moral concern for victims in the course of their history. Sadly, however, the search for victims all too often became a perversion of Christ’s healing activity. Sometimes we use the claim of being a victim to victimize others and to perpetuate mechanisms of exclusion. Not surprisingly, René Girard and Gil Bailie have some very insightful thoughts on the matter.

René Girard in Evolution and Conversion – Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, Continuum, London, New York, 2007, p. 236:

“We have experienced various forms of totalitarianism that openly denied Christian principles. There has been the totalitarianism of the Left, which tried to outflank Christianity; and there has been totalitarianism of the Right, like Nazism, which found Christianity too soft on victims. This kind of totalitarianism is not only alive but it also has a great future. There will probably be some thinkers in the future who will reformulate this principle in a politically correct fashion, in more virulent forms, which will be more anti-Christian, albeit in an ultra-Christian caricature. When I say more Christian and more anti-Christian, I imply the figure of the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ is nothing but that: it is the ideology that attempts to outchristianize Christianity, that imitates Christianity in a spirit of rivalry.


You can foresee the shape of what the Anti-Christ is going to be in the future: a super-victimary machine that will keep on sacrificing in the name of the victim.”

Gil Bailie in Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1995, p. 20:

“There’s plenty of truth in the revised picture of Western history that the young are now routinely taught, the picture of the West’s swashbuckling appetite for power, wealth, and dominion. What’s to be noted is that it is we, and not our cultural adversaries, who are teaching it to them. It is we, the spiritual beneficiaries of that less than always edifying history, who automatically empathize more with our ancestors’ victims than with our ancestors themselves. If we are tempted to think that this amazing shift is the product of our own moral achievement, all we have to do is look around at how shamelessly we exploit it for a little power, wealth, and dominion of our own.

The fact is that the concern for victims has gradually become the principal gyroscope in the Western world. Even the most vicious campaigns of victimization – including, astonishingly, even Hitler’s – have found it necessary to base their assertion of moral legitimacy on the claim that their goal was the protection or vindication of victims. However savagely we behave, and however wickedly and selectively we wield this moral gavel, protecting or rescuing innocent victims has become the cultural imperative everywhere the biblical influence has been felt.”

Just a few days ago I came across an example of this dynamic, i.e. the dynamic of proclaiming oneself as a victim and of having certain rights to persecute “evil others” because of it. Extreme right wing and nationalist parties, among others, often use the tactic of presenting themselves and their followers as victims to make certain political and social claims. In Belgium and in the Netherlands this is called the “Calimero-complex”. The cartoon character Calimero is a hapless chick, fresh out of the egg, whose famous line is: “This is not  fair; they are big and I am small.” Hence the “Calimero-complex” is used to denote persons who think the world is against them, and who revel in an underdog role.

So, what happened? Well, a few days ago I visited some friends in Antwerp, one of the big cities in Belgium, in Flanders. That’s where I saw this poster of the extreme right wing and Flemish nationalist party “Vlaams Belang” (“Flemish Interest”). It portrayed a caricature of “Lamb of God”, the beautiful 15th century painting by the Van Eyck brothers (conserved at Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent). The lamb was depicted in a black color, instead of white, thereby reinforcing the stereotypical connotation that “blacks are bad”. The poster was accompanied with slogans to warn certain people to “stay away from our country”, namely “impostors [abusing the system to seek asylum], illegal immigrants, Islamists, criminal foreigners”. The poster suggests that the people mentioned defile our cultural identity and heritage, and that they are no innocent lambs or wrongfully accused scapegoats.

Filip Dewinter, leading figure of Vlaams Belang, claims that the posters were in no way issued by his party and is filing a complaint. According to him, the unknowns who did issue the poster are trying to blackguard his party, presenting illegal immigrants and others as people who are targeted as “black sheep” by Vlaams Belang. Filip Dewinter suggests that his party falls victim to a campaign that reverses what is actually happening. According to him, Vlaams Belang indeed has every right, even a duty, to defend the country against illegal immigrants and the like, and these people shouldn’t be depicted as “black sheep” or victims.

I guess the real victims of these quarrels stay out of sight. The ones who have to flee their home-country, who have no real options, but are labeled as “illegal immigrants” all the same. Just the beginning of this month, Parwais Sangari, a young promising Afghan and in no way a criminal, had to leave our country to return to Kabul – you know, the place where you wouldn’t send your children on a holiday these days… Twenty year old Sangari had foster parents here. Nevertheless he was sent away to walk around aimlessly, without any real home, in the Afghan capital – after four years in Belgium.

Still there’s hope. As it turns out, we’re not completely blinded by “the atmosphere of fear” we’re creating in our politics. Some people have started campaigns in favor of people like Sangari, demanding to reconsider our general asylum and migration policies.

How blinded are we? Are we capable of noticing the Victim? Can we stand the light that shines in our darkness? Can we allow ourselves to be blinded by its splendor, to see with new eyes and new hearts?


    1. I guess we all have this tendency from time to time – to think of ourselves as victims and to adopt some sort of victim complex or martyr complex. Sometimes it’s very difficult to discern who’s who, and you’re right: abusers do manipulate our ability to empathize with victims.


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