Saturday, November 11, 2017

Jesus, Privilege, Victims, and Empathy

John 8:1-16

Recently, an old friend said, “We are all victims.” A young queer acquaintance of mine wrote, “everyone is not a victim. everyone does not experience harm in the same way.” So I spoke to my old friend and said, “Your words were hurtful.” He reiterated his belief that we are all victims. And I said, “Until you are willing to say publicly why you are a victim, how you’ve been victimized, you don’t get to say, ‘we.’”

The #metoo campaign startled a lot of my (male) friends. Surely it isn’t true that so many (all?) the women they know have been sexually harassed or abused. Surely the women who said #metoo need to publicly say how they were victimized. Otherwise, how can people know if the women are telling the truth or are exaggerating the harm or even making things up? So said (some of) my (male) friends.

As an aside, I really liked the idea someone put forward that men should ask themselves, “Would I treat Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson like this?” If the answer is no, then don’t treat the woman or girl like that either. If you wouldn’t extend a hug past 2-3 seconds for “The Rock,” then don’t do so for a female friend or acquaintance. If you wouldn’t spread into Dwayne’s space, don’t spread into hers. If you wouldn’t ask Mr. Johnson for a kiss—or just plant one on his lips—don’t try it with a woman. (Interestingly, women will need a different image to deter them from sexually harassing a man—maybe they need to envision a giant toad or a cobra or a python. This might also help women know when we can say “no.”)

So, back to the main story. I said on my FaceBook page, “Me too,” and I didn’t publish there why I posted it. I estimate at least ten percent of my FB friends know part of my reason for joining in, but not one of them knows all the reasons. And I don’t plan to put my life history in the public eye to justify my use of the phrase.

So we have a conundrum here. I want my old friend (white, male) to ante up his story of victimization before he can join in with #metoo, before he can say, “We are all victims,” but I can hardly bear to tell my counselor—sworn as she is to confidentiality—all the ways I’ve been victimized. Shame, self-blame—these cause me to withhold many experiences. And then there’s fear—the fear that if I share, the response will be, “What did you do to cause him to treat you like that?” And a new harm will be added to my collection. Or the response will be, “You need to forgive,” as if forgiveness erased pain, shame, self-loathing, fear. The lack of empathy for the seven year old I was (and inside still am) is a failure of imagination.

Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but religion may be the first, judging from my experiences. As a Christian child and woman, it pains and angers me to say that nearly all my victim experiences have been perpetrated by Christian men. The main exception is bullying/abuse by bigger kids, though these were in Christian school.

The way it works, as I see it, is this: a person of privilege has to drag out the story of victimization in order to show that he or she has the standing to speak to/with other victims. Those with less privilege can say #metoo, and they do not have to drag all the shaming things that have happened to them into the light. But when these things are dragged into the light, privilege may have something to answer for.

We can see the torture—perhaps even unmentionable rape by Roman soldiers—and crucifixion as evidence Jesus knows what we experience when we are harassed or abused. And these end-life events were not his only moments of rejection, shame, and threat of personal harm.

When he publicly claimed that God was sending him, that he was the one, his hometown folk tried to kill him, to push him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). Jerusalem folks threatened to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31). He evaded these physical harms, but the rejection fueled many of his hot statements condemning faithlessness and hypocrisy. The long-term result of Jesus’s victimization is the deconstruction of privilege everywhere.

A story found in John’s Gospel shows us this.

As a Jewish male—and one often recognized as a rabbi—Jesus had some of the marks of privilege in his culture. At the same time, his country was occupied by Roman soldiers, some of whom, it appears from John the Baptizer, extorted money from the citizenry and bullied unprotected Jews. Jesus’s privilege was also bounded by his status as illegitimate, which limited his ability to marry and made him a target for malicious ridicule (John 8:41).

Jesus used his privilege to welcome (Zaccheus the taxman, the sinful woman and her tears, the hemorrhaging woman, the children) and to confront (the rich young ruler, the religious elites, his own disciples, the Syro-Phoenician woman). He gave away privilege to talk as equal human beings with the Samaritan woman, with Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s tomb, with his mother Mary at the Cana wedding.

So Jesus’s behavior chronicled elsewhere in the Gospels is in line with what we see in the story of the woman taken in adultery and brought to him for judgment. The men in this story have all the privilege. The absence of the male adulterer speaks to this fact. The crowd speak to Jesus as a person of privilege—male, Jewish, a rabbi—and test him to see if he belongs with them. Will he uphold the system that privileges him?

Jesus resists their manipulations. He takes his own sweet time to sketch in the dirt. He knows he is inside a hostile circle. He knows a stray rock—or many stray rocks—may hit him as they punish the sinful woman. He knows that the only way to retain privilege and to stay personally safe is to step away from the woman and join those holding stones. But he stays beside her and challenges the crowd. He raises the double standard which privilege makes the norm when he says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”

As the members drop their stones and slink away, he speaks to the woman. I have always seen her in my imagination as cowering in terror, but perhaps she was defiant, loud, shouting to the crowd that she knew things about them, that she might hurt them if she got a chance. Either way, as the members drop the rocks and edge away, Jesus speaks to the woman, cowering or shouting obscenities, inviting her to be calm, to look around, to go without shame or blame, to go forward as a responsible human being.

So what can we learn from Jesus about privilege, about #metoo, about “we are all victims”?

1.     What Jesus does is to stand by the least powerful person and against the crowd. As the only one on the scene with the qualifications to act as judge and jury, Jesus chooses to be with the accused and to share her fate.
2.     What Jesus exposes, at the same time, is that all are sinners. All have erred, strayed, avoided obeying, disobeyed, bent what is true, and so on. No one has superior status, either social or moral. We have to confront personally and seriously our own carelessness or cruelty as part of learning how to be humane, to be kind rather than victimizers. Not one of us gets to be judge and jury for another.
3.     To say “We are all sinners” is not the same as saying, “We are all victims.” It is saying “We have all done harm to others, we are all complicit in making others into victims.”
4.     So whenever we find ourselves in a crowd with rocks in our hands, we will find Jesus standing beside the person who is about to die, whose shame and fear are leaking out everywhere, who feels completely alone.
5.     Jesus told us, “Just as you have acted toward the least—the powerless, the alien, the despised other—you have acted toward me. When you assert your privilege to exclude, silence, shame, blame, diminish, even destroy another person, you are doing the same to me.”

William Blake pointed out that it is natural for those who have experienced tyranny to rebel against it and to overthrow it. It is also natural for the former rebels to become tyrants in their turn. We who have privilege can break this cycle. We must recognize who the outsider is, whom the present system victimizes, and stand beside them against the powers that be. The tide can turn, and those who previously stood above in the place of privilege can find themselves in the center of the circle, threatened with stoning. In that moment, Jesus stands inside the circle again, drawing in the dirt, facing the accusers with the same challenge. “Let those among you without sin cast the first stone.”

"You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry"--Bob Dylan

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