The word ‘victim’ apparently did not enter the English language until the late fifteenth century, when it denoted a creature killed as a religious sacrifice (cf the Latin, victima). Only subsequently did it acquire its modern meanings of someone harmed or injured as a result of crime/accident (now its primary meaning), a person who has been tricked/duped, or someone who feels helpless in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment. That in itself is interesting, and I’d like to examine how and why there was such a shift from the religious and universal to the secular and individual — and at that time. I can hazard a few guesses, but they are not really to my purpose. What really interests me is the way in which the concept of victimhood has expanded.
One could be forgiven for thinking we are all victims nowadays. There is always someone to blame for whatever is going wrong in our lives (blame = another word of religious origin, meaning to blaspheme). Whether we’re talking about public service cuts, the milk price, or boorish behaviour, those who suffer the consequences are victims of Tory policies/profiteering supermarkets/loutish lads and ladettes. There may be some truth in the allegations, but why should we be so keen to adopt the language of victimhood and apply it to ourselves or others? Does it let us off the hook somehow or allow us a sympathy that might otherwise be denied? For example, I recently heard someone refer to ‘cancer victims’. I have never thought of myself as a victim just because I have cancer. As far as I know, nothing in my life-style is responsible for the particular cancer I have, and it would be absurd to blame my ancestors for the genes they bequeathed me. It is just ‘one of those things’. I see no point in railing against fate or God. No one is to blame.
I think it may be significant that both ‘victim’ and ‘blame’ are religious terms we have adapted to secular contexts. They retain (some of) their power to shock and awe, especially when we make verbs of them. To victimize someone conjures up a horrible picture of cruelty and injustice inflicted on another; to blame someone suggests pinning responsibility for something bad on another person. In both cases, we use the words to condemn. The evil is placed safely outside and beyond us; and that, I think, is the problem.
Very often we use the language of victimhood to evade responsibility ourselves or to make another pay. Sometimes, this can be taken to absurd lengths. To give another example. I’m a Catholic, but I don’t feel personal responsibility for the slaves owned by Christians in the fourth century or the putting to death of Cathars in the twelfth any more than I imagine modern Eqyptians feel for the enslavement of various peoples under the pharoahs or the death of Christian subjects in later epochs. Of course, the nearer we are in time to the events in question, the more difficult it is to think clearly about these things. We are tempted to view everything the same way and use the same language, which ultimately cheapens not only the language we use but deadens our understanding of the horrors we are talking about. I am appalled by the African slave trade, for instance, but I am uneasy about comparing it to the systematic genocide of the Holocaust: six million people murdered in six years because they were Jews is an enormity one cannot get one’s head round. The evils of the slave trade over centuries are also an enormity, but the common factors — cruelty, injustice, death — are complicated by such things as the involvement of Arab/African traders and, cynical though it may sound, the fact that those involved in it were not such good record-keepers as the Nazis. I feel deep shame that human beings can behave so badly to one another, but how can I apologize for that in which I had no part? I imagine my serf ancestors would understand, even if no one else does.
For me, as a Christian, there is only one true Victim: the mediator between God and ourselves, Jesus Christ, who gave his life on the cross and has forgiven every sin of which we are guilty. Forgiveness frees, whereas blame merely imprisons further. Christ on the cross shows us the Victor-Victim paradox. We are now able to shoulder our own responsibility in union with him and in so doing discover it is nothing we need fear or run away from.
At three o’clock this afternoon there will be a short pause in the monastery when, as on every Friday, we shall mentally stand beside the cross and thank God for redeeming us in Christ. In that moment of silent prayer we gather together all the needs of a wounded world and ask God to have mercy. The language of victimhood will again resonate with its true meaning