Victimhood as Weapon and the Power of Justice
A few weeks ago, around the time of the Kavanaugh hearing, I saw a post shared on Facebook. This post started by expressing sympathy for victims of sexual assault, but then began to criticize women who “weaponize their victimhood” in order to hurt others — in this case, Brett Kavanaugh. Weaponized victimhood is, according to this poster, fake or exaggerated victimhood that then creates a real victim: not the sexually assaulted woman, but the man faced with the possibility of being held accountable for his actions.1
I was struck by the idea that victimhood can be weaponized, and just a few days later I heard this idea again from Trevor Noah. In this clip, Noah describes Trump weaponizing victimhood: “He [Trump] knows how to offer victimhood to those who have the least claim to it,” allowing men to see themselves as the real victims of the #MeToo movement, rather than the women coming forward with accounts of sexual harassment and assault.
I was struck by the way that, despite their deep differences, the two positions both emphasize the power of victimhood.
This emphasis on the power of victimhood shed some new light on a critique I often heard in my conservative home of so-called “victim mentality.” Those with this mentality, I was told, imagined slights in order to claim certain benefits, like restaurant patrons planting hairs in their soup to gain free meals. In this view, many women, minorities and people in poverty were scamming the system — gaining power — by portraying themselves as victims instead of doing the proper American thing and bootstrapping themselves into success.
And what is the power of these victims? Why is victimhood either coveted or denounced? After all — filers of frivolous lawsuits aside — who would want to be a victim? Who would want to be sexually assaulted or racially profiled? Who would want to be trapped in cycles of poverty?2
The power, or perceived power, of victims lies in their call for justice. To announce oneself as a victim is to demand justice: a powerful call in a nation founded on the idea of liberty and justice for all.3
The Power of Justice
I imagine that Trevor Noah, the writer of the Facebook post, and the conservative adults of my childhood would all agree that justice is important, even vital to the success of America and American democracy. But crucially, they disagree over who gets justice.
Does Christine Blasey Ford get justice, or Brett Kavanaugh? The women raising their voices in the #MeToo movement, or the (few) men who are falsely accused?
The problem with justice is, often, like the problem of fairness for my children: they are all for fairness when it benefits them, but not so much in favor of fairness when it doesn’t. We want justice when it suits us or benefits us, but not when justice’s scales might tip against us.
Take reparations, for example: there’s a compelling argument to be made that black Americans deserve recompense for centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, centuries that have prevented black Americans from accumulating wealth at anything approaching the level of white Americans. Justice, in this argument, would require not just the granting of legal equality but also financial reparations to right past injustices.
But even someone like me, who can agree with this argument in the abstract, feels uncomfortable with the thought of this justice touching my pocketbook: after all, I have an ancestor who enlisted in the Union army at the age of 16! How can it be justice for me to give my money to right a wrong that I never caused?
Claiming victimhood is asserting a right to justice. But despite our claim in the Pledge of Allegiance that America offers justice for all, most of us see some people as more deserving of justice than others. And because of our biases — conscious or not — we imagine that the people most likely to be victims, those with the greatest claim for justice, are the people most like us.
And so some of us hear the call to believe women as a call for justice, while others hear it as sanctioning injustice against men. Or some hear Black Lives Matter as denying the importance of other lives, while others hear a cry for equal protection.
Responding as Christians
So how are we, as Christians, supposed to navigate victimhood and justice in our current cultural climate? I wish I had a tidy answer for that question. But I would suggest a few principles:
First, we must remember that throughout the entirety of scripture, God is concerned with justice for the socially marginalized. Over and over in the Old Testament, prophets condemn Israel for exploiting and oppressing those with few resources and little power — the poor, the widowed, the foreigner, the orphan. Jesus embraces the marginalized in his ministry, healing and loving them no less than (and sometimes more than) the powerful in society.
This doesn’t mean that every marginalized person is a victim. But it does mean that, when people on the margins of society call for justice, Christians should pay particular attention to these calls. Especially in a society like ours where Christians often have power and privilege, we should use that to amplify calls for justice from those who may lack power or a voice.
Second, we must be cautious when we present ourselves as victims who desire justice. I want to tread carefully here: I absolutely think that Christian women should press charges against abusers and Christian minorities should report the racism that makes them feel unwelcome. But Jesus also tells us to turn the other cheek, give away our tunic as well as our cloak, walk the extra mile.
We believe that God’s justice will come, that Christ will reign on earth as in heaven. And so at times, as we await the arrival of God’s perfect justice and mercy, we might need to endure some injustice. This especially applies to those of us who have positions of privilege in society. Sometimes that injustice will simply be in our perception: fairness sometimes feels unfair when we don’t get what we want. But sometimes we may have to risk a minor injustice to right a greater one.
We believe that God hears the cries of the wronged and that God’s justice will one day arrive, tempered by mercy, but still a justice that rights all wrongs. Right now, we cannot fully reproduce God’s justice. But may we be people who work towards justice, who honor the oppressed and the injured by earnestly discerning the nature of true justice, God’s justice. May we be willing to hold people — even ourselves — to account as we seek justice.
Alleged actions — but guilty or innocent, Kavanaugh’s reaction demonstrated that he simply could not accept being held accountable for any of his actions, even for what seems to have been a well-attested tendency to get blackout drunk in high school and college.↩
I understand that many people who have experienced sexual assault or other forms of violence prefer not to call themselves victims, often using the term survivor to emphasize their own agency and not the agency taken from then by their attacker. I’m using victim in this essay to emphasize the wrong done against a person, a wrong they did not invite, a wrong that demands justice.↩
With the caveat that “all” did not exactly mean all for nearly the first two centuries of America’s existence.↩