Dr. James A. Forbes, the retired senior pastor of New York’s Riverside Church, is preaching today at the National Cathedral in Washington. He’s a friend, and he asked me to look over an early draft. I haven’t been the same since, and I told him so. “That’s a sign of a good sermon,” he said.
Forbes can preach. Newsweek named him one of the twelve best preachers in the English-speaking world. When he headed off to New York in 1982 to study at Union Theological Seminary, his mother gave him two books: the King James Bible and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Stride Toward Freedom. His compassion is legendary. Bill Moyers, who wrote the forward to Forbes’ new book, Whose Gospel, praises the depth and power of Forbes’ ethical vision.
Still, I didn’t expect Forbes’ sermon on “the spirit of victimization” to so unsettle me. I was prepared to agree with him that we are in danger of becoming a nation of victims. Arizona Anglos see themselves as victims of brown-skinned immigrants. Some bigoted whites think they are being selected for extinction by an African-American president. We are all under the sword of Islam, according to Glenn Beck and Dick Cheney. At least it seems to have momentarily taken the heat off those white Americans used to call “the heathen Chinee.”
What Forbes did was force me to think about how I was a little too familiar with the spirit of victimization. Didn’t I think George W. Bush happened to me? Listen, it’s hard to be a liberal in Texas and not feel a little victimized now and again. And there are, let’s leave no doubt, victims aplenty in America, victims of cruelty, violence, prejudice and enforced poverty. The ongoing struggle for social justice is all about reducing their numbers. But Forbes points out that there’s a big difference between being a victim and living with desperate passivity as a victim.
Glenn Beck’s shtick is based on his teary-eyed victimhood. Sarah Palin, casts herself as a victim of a media machine that’s making her millions of dollars. She promises to save “real Americans” from the rest of us. It’s easy for me to point the finger. It’s harder for me to admit that I’ve succumbed from time to time to the spirit of victimization.
If the spirit of victimization has anything to do with the angry tones of public discourse and the wrangling about government and the venom from the lips of some political and religious leaders, we must hope that there is a way to heal the divisions and help a divided nation rediscover its unity and shared vision.
The thing is, democracy was supposed to so empower individuals that the spirit of victimization could be banished from the realm. It didn’t help this cause that the birth of American democracy was accompanied by the enslavement of one people and the near extermination of another, of course.
Now our democracy seems to be turning into a victomocracy. Everyone’s a victim of everyone else. Et tu, sulum?
Forbes tells the story:
There is a lame man lying around the pool of Bethesda along with many other sick people all waiting for the troubling of the water so that whoever was first to jump into the water would be cured of whatever disease he or she had. He had been there for a very long time. His condition, back then in the bible days is a remarkable reflection of a major cause of the mean spiritedness plaguing us in our time. It puts its finger on an affliction which threatens to undermine our society and to turn the American Dream into a nightmare.
It is generally thought that the lame man’s problem was some kind of paralysis so that he could not walk. But in the exchange with Jesus it became clear that he had an even more serious condition. I call it the Spirit of Victimization and what is that?
So Jesus comes along and asks the man, “Do you want to be made well?” (in the language of the King James Version of the bible; “Wilt thou be made whole?”) The sick man answers: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
…the paralyzed man had been sick for 38 years and had been at the pool for a very long time. He had become a fixture there. From all indications, his expectation to be healed has been changed to an acceptance of his condition as a permanent debilitation. He had lost hope that things could be better. He learned to blame others for not helping him and then accused others of taking advantage of him and jumping aheadof him as he was making his way to the pool.
Get up, Jesus tells him. It’s not unlike Buddha telling his students that if they want to protect their feet, wear shoes. Don’t try to cover the whole world with leather. Thorns hurt, but they don’t steal shoes.