1 Corinthians 10:1-13
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on February 28, 2016.
There is a strong temptation among Christians and religious people in general to engage in a very pernicious way of thinking that is called ‘blaming the victim.’ It is essentially blaming the victims of society’s problems for the problems themselves or blaming the victims of a great disaster for causing the disaster itself. One of the major icons of this religious mindset is Pat Robertson who located the cause of the destructive earthquake in Haiti (back in 2010) not in the scientific reality of shifting tectonic plates but in an apparent pact that the Haitians made with the devil hundreds of years ago. The earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians and left more than a million homeless was, according to Robertson, God’s punishment and call to repentance. The victims of the earthquake caused the earthquake. Robertson, who loves this way of thinking, even blamed Democrats for causing the terrorist attacks of 9/11.[i]
One of my favorite theologians, James Alison, explains the disturbing ubiquity of this victim blaming when he writes, “It is an absolutely common logic, and we find it in diverse forms round about us without much difficulty […] If someone is assaulted, she must have been doing something to provoke it; if black people have a low socio-economic status, it must be because they are really more […] lazy than others; if someone has AIDS, it must be a punishment from God for some deviant behavior.”[ii] There is a certain logic to this way of thinking and, to be sure, there are many passages in Scripture that can be used to support it. But in our Gospel today, (thank God!) Jesus utterly rejects this way of thinking (that blames the victim) and he calls us to reject it as well.
When some people tell Jesus about the tragic death of Galileans at the hand of a brutal and insecure tyrant, he nips this way of thinking in the bud, asking, “Do you think that these Galileans suffered in this way because they were horrible sinners? Because they made some pact with the devil? Or do you think those 18 people who were killed tragically when the tower of Siloam[iii] fell were especially bad people who deserved that kind of death? Do you think that God was punishing them for their sinful ways? Do you think the victims of these tragedies deserved and therefore caused these disasters?” Jesus answers all of these questions with an emphatic “NO!” The Greek word for “no” is ou but Jesus says ouki, which in Greek emphasizes the word to become “Definitely not! Absolutely not!” And he says this twice just in case we missed it the first time.
He then calls his listeners (including us) to repent. Now unfortunately, this word “repent” has been hijacked by people like Pat Robertson to support victim blaming. Because the word has been used and abused in so many different ways it has compelled one of my favorite poets, Leonard Cohen, to sing, “When they said, ‘Repent! Repent!’ I wonder what they meant.”[iv] So what does Jesus mean when he says, “Repent”? It’s an important question to ask, especially during this Lenten season. We usually think of repentance as confession and apology for past mistakes or moral failings. Although that might be an outcome of repentance, the actual meaning of the Greek word that Jesus uses for ‘repent’ in Luke (metanonte) is literally, “change your mind; change your way of thinking.”[v] In this context, it seems very clear that Jesus is saying, “Stop blaming the victim! Stop this way of thinking!” The tragic irony is that the very word used by Christians to accuse and blame victims (“you should have repented or else this would not have happened!”) is the word that Jesus uses to get us to stop doing just that! Jesus invites us to see suffering not as an opportunity to make us feel better about ourselves by blaming those people who we think clearly deserve their suffering, but rather as an opportunity to challenge and subvert the socio-political and theological systems and ways of thinking that keep victims stuck in their suffering.
A professor of Christian Ethics recently told me how even using the term “the poor” can actually contribute to the suffering of victims.[vi] This may sound strange, but she learned this from a Christian minister in El Salvador who, at a meeting of the World Council of Churches, said to the First World churches, “Please don’t refer to us as ‘the poor’ because that makes it sound like we are poor by chance (or by our own inherent inadequacy). No, call us ‘the impoverished’ because that word conveys the reality that we are in poverty because we are part of a global system that impoverishes us, which is the same system that makes you wealthy.” By blaming the victim we distance ourselves from any responsibility from the world’s suffering, from the truth that we often benefit from a system that oppresses others.
Now of course I am not saying that people do not reap what they sow and face the real consequences of poor life decisions. It is true that some suffering in our lives is caused by our own mistakes and sins. But when we see suffering in others, we must not automatically deduce that they did something to deserve it. In fact, suffering in others might be more connected to our own sins than we like to think. Environmental scientists point out the sobering fact that our health and wealth and privilege come at the expense of other people’s sufferings around the globe. When we point the finger at the victim, we are pointing three fingers back at ourselves.
When Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did,” he is saying that if we remain stuck in our victim blaming and perpetuate this way of thinking among others, then other people will likely blame us when we experience suffering in our own lives, we “will perish as they did.” As Jesus says in Matthew, “With the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt 7:2). And just in case we do not understand Jesus the first several times he calls us to reject victim blaming, he offers a parable to drive home his point.
In the parable, there is a man and there is a gardener. The man sees a fig tree not producing any fruit and, like a ‘Pat Robertson’ victim blamer, he assumes that the tree must be inherently inadequate and bad: ‘It is wasting soil and important resources that ought to be used on more productive trees. That lazy fig tree is wasting all of our tax dollars.’ It never once crosses the man’s mind that maybe he is responsible for helping the tree produce some fruit. Maybe he could do a little bit more than just point out its faults in order to justify its destruction. The gardener wisely suggests, “Let’s give it some love and care and attention and see what happens.” A true expert in his trade, the gardener is confident that the tree will produce fruit when given some loving attention, so confident that he can say, “If it doesn’t bear fruit in a year, cut it down.” He can say this because he knows it will indeed bear fruit.
The man in the parable is not God. The man is us whenever we see suffering or poverty or a homeless person on the street and assume that the victim is getting what he or she deserves. God is not the man in the parable. God is the gardener and God wants us to be gardeners as well. God wants us to see suffering in others as an opportunity to offer compassion and nourishment, simple care and attention. By doing that, we subvert the systems of oppression, the systems that keep some people wealthy at the expense of others. We cannot deny that Jesus calls us to subvert these systems of oppression, systems that are fueled by victim blaming. Indeed, Jesus was killed for that very reason. He was killed by those who benefitted from the system and those who did not want anyone to threaten the structures that kept them powerful and wealthy. He was killed by those who used victim blaming to keep themselves feeling safe and secure at the expense of other people’s suffering. But although Jesus had harsh words for people who enjoyed privilege at the expense of oppression, he did not blame those people either. He was ultimately trying to get his listeners (including us) to stop playing the blame game completely. He knew the game was useless, not because we are all innocent but because we are all culpable. We are all complicit in some way. We are all sinners and that is the truth at the heart of Lent. And blaming the victim blinds us from that truth while simultaneously perpetuating the systems of oppression. This is why racist fascists rise in power because they and their supporters are convinced that they are right, that they are on God’s side, when in reality they are blindly perpetuating systems of oppression, the same systems that killed Jesus.
Now I want to conclude by confessing my own complicity. I want to confess that I actually enjoy blaming other people and not just bullies; sometimes I even enjoy blaming victims. It feels good. It makes me feel better about myself. In fact, I often feel like I need to blame at least someone for the suffering in the world and the difficulties in my life. And I know I am not alone in this. Often, the obvious mature thing to do is to take responsibility, acknowledge my shortcomings, change the things I can and accept the things I can’t. But I still get annoyed and often I want to blame someone. As I have been praying and studying the Gospels (especially the Fourth Gospel), I have experienced Jesus as someone who clearly wants to move me from blaming the victim to subverting the system. But this movement does not happen over night. Along the way, Jesus tends to me like the gardener tends to the fig tree. He nourishes me (and us) with the Eucharist, where we can bring to God our whole selves, including our need to blame; and God is willing to receive that even as the object of our blame in order to transform us with his forgiveness, compassion and self-giving love so that we can repent, change our way of thinking, move beyond the need to blame completely and thus bear fruit worthy of that repentance. Amen.
[ii] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (New York: Crossroads, 2001), 6. For more on the phenomenon of blaming society’s victims for society’s ills, see William Ryan, Blaming the Victim, Rev. Ed. (New York: Vintage, 1976).
[iii] In the Gospel of John, “Siloam” shows up again when the disciples approach Jesus with a question that is also laced with blaming the victim: “Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (9:2). Again, Jesus invites his disciples to stop blaming the victim and then invites the man born blind to wash his muddy eyes at the pool of Siloam (9:7).
[iv] Lyric from the Leonard Cohen song “The Future” from the 1992 album of the same name.
[v] Bob Kysar writes, “The Old Testament theme [of repentance] is captured in the New Testament with a Greek word which literally means, ‘to change one’s mind.’ But the concept of mind in Greek thought was not as limited as ours. The mind was for them the entire inner disposition of a person. We would say, perhaps, the personality. Consequently, repentance in the New Testament means a change of the innermost person, or the change of the basis of one’s life […] In the popular reduction of repentance to a sense of feeling sorry for wrongs we have done, we have lost a good deal of the biblical concept of repentance. To be sure, the turning around or the radical change of one’s inner life basis would involve an element of regret and even sorrow. But the focus of the word is toward the positive change called for in repentance, not the feeling of sadness for the past. It is a forward-looking word. A word that points us toward what we are to be, not toward what we have done in the past.” Robert Kysar, The Scandal of Lent: Themes for Lenten Preaching in the Gospel of John (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg, 1982), 9-10.
[vi] The Christian Ethics Professor is Dr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley CA.