God is with the Victim

by Caleb Roberts

The victim as ‘pure’ victim is more than victim: when God receives and approves the condemned Jesus and returns him to his judges through the preaching of the Church, he transcends the world of oppressor-oppressed relations to create a new humanity, capable of other kinds of relation — between human beings, and between humanity and the Father.  There is more to human interrelation than the oppositions of the one who possesses coercive force or authority to condemn and the one who suffers it.

Yet this does also imply something about God’s attitude to any and every victim.  If God’s love is shown in the pure victim, it is shown (as we have seen) as opposition to violence: so it is impossible to conceive of the Christian God identified with the oppressor in any relationship of violence.  The powerless sufferer, whether ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’, is the one who belongs with God, simply in virtue of being a victim; so that the saving presence of God is always to be sought and found with the victim.  Conversion is always turning to my victim — even in circumstances where it is important to me to believe in the rightness of my cause.  For we are not here dealing with law and morality; there are other kinds of judgement-as-discernment, discrimination and responsibility, which would require a different treatment.  What is at issue is simply the transaction that leads to exclusion, to the severance of any relationship of reciprocity.  It may be unconscious, it may be deliberate and willfully damaging, it may appear unavoidable; but as soon as such a transaction has occurred, God is with the powerless, the excluded.  And our hope is that he is to be found as we return to our victims seeking reconciliation, seeking to find in renewed encounter with them the merciful and transforming judgement of Jesus, the ‘absolute’ victim.

Part of the point in stressing this is to guard against an easy sentimentalizing of the victim.  Some people need to believe that penitence towards the victim is an admission of the innate or impregnable moral superiority of the excluded or dispossessed.  This (curiously) reduces my violence to a kind of mistake: had I but recognized the virtue of my victim, I should have seen that I had no ‘right’ to act as I did.  The hard thing to accept (and to write of) is that it is not unjust or misplaced violence that needs penitence (what, after all, is the definition of just or rightly-directed violence?), but the oppressive, excluding act as such.  But the pressure is very strong towards the easier view that someone must be ‘in the right’: I feel guilt about my violence, so it can’t be me; therefore it must be my victim.  It is a pressure reflecting a very deep, but nonetheless ambivalent, longing for a simple moral orderliness, and it must be regarded with the utmost suspicion. (15-16)

Rowan Williams | Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel