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illus242One of Christianity’s contributions to civilization has been a startling compassion for the victim. As René Girard has pointed out, from the beginning of time primitive peoples focused their animus on the outsider, the oddball, or the eccentric in their midst. It was the disabled, the alien, the poor, and the weak who most often took the blame for society’s ills. The crowd turned on them as the origin and cause of their problems. They became the scapegoat. As they were ostracized, excluded, persecuted, and killed, the source of the tribe’s problems was eliminated.

Consequently, the tribe felt cleansed. The violence unleashed a feeling of power and freedom. As the evil was purged, thrill surged. All was well. Life could continue and the tribe could prosper. Until, of course, another crisis developed—and at that point another victim would be needed. Because of the regularity of the crises, religions developed the ritual of regular sacrifice. Victims were found, throats were cut, blood was shed, and if animals were substituted, it did not mitigate the truth that the society still ran on the blood-fuel of the victim.

This may seem terribly primitive in a modern age, until one see videos of ISIS soldiers ritually beheading their victims. Modern Americans may think they are far removed from the barbarities of the Aztecs until they view a video of a wine-sipping high priestess of the cult of abortion describing how she dismembers children and harvests their organs. Is this so far removed from the haruspication of the ancients? When crazed and enraged young men—be they Islamist or racist extremists—open fire on their innocent victims, are we so far from Girard’s theory of the scapegoat?

jesus-helping-the-poorGirard points out that Jesus of Nazareth turned the model on its head. He does so first by valuing the victim. The poor, the outcast, the crippled, diseased, blind, and demon-possessed are his prizes. He treasures children and magnifies women. He turns the sacrificial system upside down not only by valuing the victim, but by becoming the victim. He accepts the victim role and willingly becomes “the Lamb of God” who takes away sin of the world. He defeats the sacrificial system by embracing it. He breaks it from the inside. For the last two thousand years, the world has been learning that the victim is the hero.

The problem is that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Being a victim is fashionable—ironically, becoming bullied is now the best way to bully others. It works like this: If you want to move forward in the world, make progress for you and your tribe, further your ambitions, justify your immoral actions, grab a bigger piece of the pie, and elbow others away from the trough, simply present yourself and your tribe as victims. Once you successfully portray yourselves as a poor, outcast, persecuted, minority group you instantly gain the sympathy of all.

The first key to success in this campaign is to portray your victim condition as something over which you have no control. This is clear when the victim group is a racial or ethnic minority. The same sense of unjust destiny has to be produced for other groups. So the feminists have exploited the technique to portray all women as downtrodden. Homosexual campaigners have likewise insisted that their condition is something they were born with, and now anyone with a sexual proclivity that is other than heterosexual can be portrayed as a misunderstood and persecuted victim.

People suffering from any kind of illness, disability, or misfortune are victims of some sort of injustice, cruelty, or neglect. Those who suffer from poverty, addiction, broken families, psychological problems, emotional distress, or just plain unhappiness are victims too. The victim mentality is linked with an entitlement culture: Someone must be culpable for the unhappiness of the victims because someone should be responsible for making them happy.

The second step in effective victim-campaigning is to accumulate and disseminate the propaganda. Academic papers must be written. Sociological studies must be undertaken. Groundbreaking books must be published. Stories of the particular minority group being persecuted must make front page news. The whimpers of the persecuted must rise to heaven. The shock at their victimhood must be expressed as “sadness,” “concern,” and “regret.” If one is not sympathetic, if one is reticent to pour balm in the victim’s wounds, then the bullying begins. You must recognize the victim. You must be sympathetic. You must be tolerant. You must join the campaign to help the victim, solve their problems, and make them happy at last. If you do not, you are not only hard-hearted, you are part of the problem.

The third stage of the campaign is the release of anger. Once the victim is identified and the information is widespread, the rage can be released. The anger must be expressed because, without knowing it, a new cycle of tribal scapegoating has developed. As the tribe gathers around the victim in sympathy, they must find the culprit, and their search for the culprit (whether he is guilty or not does not matter) sends them on the same frantic scapegoating quest that created their victim in the first place. The supposed persecutors have now become the persecuted. The unhappiness of the tribe (which presents itself as sympathy for the victim) is now focused on violence against the new victim—and so the cycle of sin and irrational rage continues.

at-the-cross-2-scapegoatObserve American society today. Everywhere you look we are apportioning blame and seeking scapegoats. The blacks blame the whites. The whites blame the blacks. The homosexuals blame the Christians. The Christians blame the homosexuals. The Republicans blame the immigrants. The immigrants blame the residents. The workers blame the wealthy. The wealthy blame the workers.

Why has our society descended into the violence of scapegoating and blame? Because it is inevitable. The victimhood cycle will continue through cycles of revenge and further victimhood unless there is an outlet.

Where is there an end to the cycle of violence and victimization? There is only one solution: Find a constant victim—one who is the eternal victim and remains the victim. How is this done? It is done within the religion of a society. If a society has a religion of sacrifice the ritual victim becomes the focus of the tribal animus. The ritual victim becomes the constant scapegoat. The ritual victim becomes the psychological safety valve.

Catholicism, of course, is the only religion in the modern world which, astoundingly, still claims to be offering a sacrifice. This is why the ancient celebration of the Mass is still so vital in the modern world—because there the one, full, final sacrifice is re-presented for the salvation of the world.

The problem is that we are not a sacrificial and a sacramental people. We do not understand what the liturgy calls “these holy mysteries.” Most Catholics in America are embarrassed by the language of sacrifice. We are a blandly utilitarian race–shallow, and lacking in imagination. We are uncomfortable with blood sacrifices and cannot understand the rituals of redemption. American Catholics prefer their liturgy to be a banal family meal where they sing happy songs about making the world a better place. It is no longer a sacred sacrifice or a holy mystery, but a cross between a campfire and a pep rally.

Nevertheless, when the religion in a culture offers the mysteries of sacrifice the urge to lay blame is assuaged, the cycle of blame finds its proper resolution. As the eternal victim is offered the mystery unfolds, and the words, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” echo more profoundly than we ever could have imagined.

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14 replies to this post
  1. Did I miss something, or is Rev. Longnecker advancing the idea that Christianity has made us into softies for a hard-luck story?

    Lobbying for rights should cause an open hearing, but too often it causes blame. Talking about “victimhood” is a way of saying you do not believe someone’s claim: Well I have found that if people are making a claim, we should assume they have good cause, not assume they are lying with an intent to intimidate us! Such automatic mistrust is the root, of the escalating violence that Rev. Longnecker himself bemoans.

  2. Thank you Fr. Longenecker, for discussing this latest trend (or old trend made new, if it is part of Saul Alinsky’s tactics for radicalism?) that I am noticing happening in society, but also of late, on the Internet. I am sure you have been privy to this also, as you are a blogger, as what you are describing has come up in major form in the last few years on the Catholic Blogosphere.

    There have been a few major brouahas of “liberal” priests or other organizations or people, bullying (supposedly or truly) “innocent” Catholics who obey Church teachings, or worse, have participated in “pseudo-journalism” on the blogosphere. Exactly what you have described has been played out numerous times, and has resulted in a number of “victories” .. or are they victories? …

    While it cannot be said that the “bullies” or people/instigators initiating the action against said “victims” are totally innocent and sinless, it can be said that the very disgusting and virile behaviour you have described has played out exactly as you have said.

    Unfortunately, while yes, “victories” have been supposedly earned for “little joe Catholic” or the “Traditionalist”, if anything, these episodes have truly revealed only more of the spiritual sickness that plagues the heart of everyone involved. Sadly, save a rare case or two (e.g. the Patricia Januzzi case), it seems that all it does it show how un-Christlike like and hypocritical we all are, and how we reject the Joy of the Gospel and the Mercy of the Lord, and how both layperson and clergyman alike do not obey Holy Mother Church in their conduct, but revile Her and disobey Christ and Her. It has also revealed spiritiual pride, hypocrisy, and even acts of Satan being committed by those who are supposed to be the “best” of us.

    And when we do such behaviour, it only contributes to the New Tyranny against the Catholic Church, not the New Evangelization of the Church. Whether that tyranny is oversought by Catholic laity or the clerical class, they are all one and the same face in a sense, that it does not matter who is in charge.

    Again, thank you for this timely, and well needed article Father.

  3. “Catholicism, of course, is the only religion in the modern world which, astoundingly, still claims to be offering a sacrifice.”

    Well, that depends on whether you include the Eastern Orthodox churches in your definition of “Catholicism.” Because, in the EO liturgy, the sacrificial nature of what is going on is, if anything, even more apparent than at the Roman Catholic liturgies I have attended.

    • I agree with this also. I believe the Anglican also offer the mass, almost identical to the Catholic Church. And don’t Jews also still offer sacrifices? (obviously not divine, as is the case with The Lamb of God at mass) Either case, the point is that really, when we are hurting, we can turn to scapegoating towards each other, or we can lay our burdens on God, the only one who can take it.

  4. Thank you, Fr. You have expressed my sentiments well.

    Ted Gale…I have, recently, been learning about the Eastern Church and consider it Catholic in essence…Succession, Sacraments, Saints. Am understanding St. Pope John Paul Ii’s words…”So the Church may breathe with both lungs. ” Thank you also.

  5. Excellent article, Father.
    Mr. Tom Mullally, that’s not what he’s saying. The U.S., once broadly Christocentric, is becoming increasingly secular. Christian virtue is shunned and perverted while relativistic ‘ethics’ are expounded and embraced. You mention two concepts I see prevalent in newthink: ‘blame’ and ‘assume’. It is better to be unassuming and to avoid the urge to rash judgement in a rush to assign blame; to avoid excessive emotionalism / sentimentality so as to discern things objectively. I’m not so good with words and so I hope this makes sense. God bless all.

  6. As a Protestant who would want to defend our denial that the Eucharist is a sacrifice per se, I was very challenged by this reminder of an element of the meaning of the death of Jesus that is usually lost in our liturgies as well. Thank you for an excellent post.

  7. Ms. Ellen —

    I spent a substantial amount of time with an EO parish, and there is no question that is “catholic” (with a lower case “c”), without being Roman Catholic. JP II’s assessment of the prospects for reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Churches and Orthodoxy may have been overly optimistic (his simile of “two lungs”, for example, probably reflected a Western perspective (or perhaps wishful thinking), and does not appear to be widely shared among the Orthodox). That said, to one who was put off by the liturgical practices of post Vatican II Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy’s liturgical orientation, its emphasis on the sacraments, its panoply of saints (both those shared with the West and those not so shared), its hymnography and its iconography were all compelling.

  8. It is a good point. I do understand the difference between the victim bully and a real victim, not as Tom Mullally suggests, though I also see his point. But the difference I see is with groups that are not interested in really alleviating their need or pain from the root, but in a very shallow way, by the predetermined preset ideas they ultimately and deep down desire to practice.
    For example, you may have one man fighting homosexual tendencies, and he seeks help because he does realize this is not something he desires to embrace, and that perhaps it comes as ramification from a childhood trauma. He is deeply tempted to practice the tendency, but upon seeking council, he is faced with the yoke of having to look deep within himself, and even return to the moment of the trauma, which can be very painful. He is also faced with the temptation that it might be a lot easier to just give into the tendency that open up that can of worms. But in a decisive moment of accepting his true victimhood (that of the moment when the trauma happened, not now that he is being tempted by the repercussions of it) he must either give into humility, or give into pride. WHENEVER there is a victim, the difference in the reality of his/her victimhood is discerned by their attitude: either humility, or pride; that is what defines a true victim. VERY IMPORTANT POINT!

    Now suppose you have another homosexual man who went through all the same turmoil, but has given into the tendency and has become enslaved by it. He might still feel there is something wrong, (since peace has not yet been truly found), but his attitude is one of trying to suppress the anxiety that comes from unresolved issues by sedating himself with self-indulgence, and then trying to shut down anyone that proposed or slightly tries to remind him of even a mere chance that there might be something in him unresolved. He rather have a quick fix, and that comes by way of giving into his tendencies. Anyone that threatens that very, very vulnerable thread they’ve build their life’s sanity on. This is the freedom they are missing out on, the freedom from not being tormented by the trauma. Accepting one has to deal with a trauma takes humility, and humility is hard to accept. Here, at this stage, is where pride can kick in, to deny that one is broken, traumatized, vulnerable, not all put together, because that makes us feel inadequate and lesser. Why else would the homosexual movement be parading under the banner of “pride”? Or why would Planned Parenthood be claiming that the videos that are surfacing recently and that show the atrocities they are doing with the sale of baby organs are fraudulent? Whenever we cannot (by pride) accept that we are in the wrong, pride kicks in and we make ourselves appear as the victim. But when it is driven by pride is false victimhood. This is what I believe Fr. Longenecker is trying to explain.

    There was a very big difference (and quite evident) in times of old with the poor, when they had nothing to lose by accepting the denigration of their state. Their victimhood was real and accepted whatever help came in, with eagerness and gratitude that anyone would give them the time of day. This are not so evident now a days because there are poor that are truly victims, and there are poor who scoff and/or bite the helping hand. There are homosexuals that are true victims and seeking real help, and there are scoffer homosexuals that “want or need no help”. There are those doing abortions who are truly seeking help (either doctors or mothers) and there are those who are staunchly set on denying it is a child they are dismembering through abortion, though they turn within a few minutes and sell it as human parts… As everything else in this world, there are true and false prophets, true and false politicians, true and false policemen, and what Fr. Longenecker is trying to say is that lately there is a rise of a new and false type… that is, true and false victims.

  9. We Orthodox also pray in the Creed that we believe in “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” We like to say we’re Orthodox but not Jewish, Catholic but not Roman, and not denominational but pre-denominational. Come and see.

  10. Taking the post’s three parts — example of Jesus, everyone-a-victim, the Catholic Mass — together and acknowledging I may not have “gotten” it on the first read, it seems the unfortunate effects of the second element are how to bring the first and the third together: When presented with that victimhood of all non-believers we have the answer: Jesus loved we who suffered and the Mass re-enacts this every Sunday.

    He whom you seek in your suffering is here all week.

  11. The next obvious consideration is that it will soon no longer be profitable to assume the mantle of Professional Victim (because to paraphrase a line from The Incredibles, “When everybody’s a Victim, no one is.”)
    However, I foresee the possibility that as the world enters into the “post-Christian” era, we will turn more toward real human sacrifice (and not the symbolic ‘shaming’ now ongoing.) Should that happen, it will be doubly dangerous to presume victimhood for profit.

  12. “The Republicans blame the immigrants.”

    Republicans seem to be doing almost as good a job of pandering to immigrants as anyone else. The only ones really demanding that something be done to protect our borders and retain some semblance of our American identity are those who’ve come to reject party politics altogether.

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