In Tragedy, Violence, or Despair, Blaming the Victim Must Stop

September 12, 2012

Today, only hours after a deadly attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, Donald Rumsfeld took the ghoulish step of blaming murdered state department Ambassador Chris Stevens for the violence done against him. Rumsfeld claimed in a tweet that “The attacks on our embassies & diplomats are a result of perceived American weakness. Mitt Romney is right to point that out.” What Mr. Romney had “pointed out,” hours earlier, was that early statements from “the Obama administration” were too apologetic and not outraged enough by the killings. In fact, as many news outlets have explained, the early statements were from the people actually in the embassies, were issued before killings, and were intended to quell some of the violence before it got out of hand.

So, to Rumsfeld, it was the “perceived weakness” of the dead in attempting to make peace that caused their deaths, not the murderous, hateful rage of a few evil men.

This is called blaming the victim, and it has real, devastating consequences, whether it’s done to State Department patriots or to average American citizens.

This is National Suicide Prevention Week. Fitting, then, that I should stumble yesterday across the following comment in an expletive-laden attack on my “Chick Fellatio” post:

“Recent studies show homosexuals have a substantially greater risk of suffering from a psychiatric problems than do heterosexuals. We see higher rates of suicide,[and] depression. There is A LOT OF THINGS WRONG WITH BEING GAY and it doesn’t matter one way or another if you want to admit it.” – Bo (name changed)

Such a cruel little tautology. Without irony, Bo cites statistics about LGBT depression and suicide rates as proof that there’s “a lot of things wrong” with us, thereby adding to the chorus of messages contributing to those very depression and suicide rates.

LGBT suicides should mean more to us than talking points in a mean-spirited screed. Yet it’s oddly comforting to remember that we LGBT people are not the only ones who get blamed for our own suffering. In fact, we are in the very best company. We’re in the company of Ambassadors, peacemakers, and heroes.

Eleven years ago yesterday, planes hit the twin towers in New York, forever changing American life. It only took two days after the deadliest single act of violence this country has ever known for famed preacher Jerry Falwell to blame Americans for the attacks:

“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU,…I point the finger in their face and say: “You helped this happen.”

TV host and religious personality Pat Robertson, who was hosting Falwell, agreed, adding “I totally concur.”

Falwell is dead, but the outcry against Robertson for concurring did little to slow his own victim-blaming after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, after Katrina, and, just last week, after Hurricane Isaac.

But large-scale disasters aren’t necessary for victim-blaming. Rep. Todd Akin’s views on “legitimate” rape allow him to believe pregnancy can’t befall an innocent woman. Stacey Campfield’s views on HIV transmission allow him to believe that AIDS can’t easily befall heterosexuals.

The argument goes like this: God is good and all-powerful. A good, all-powerful God would create and rule over a perfect world. Therefore, if a bad thing happens in your life, it’s your own fault for either doing or tolerating bad things.

Religious political and media personalities are so adept at this argument that they can attribute any undesired condition, be it pregnancy, depression or athlete’s foot, to an individual or region’s own sinful agency. They can find Biblical support. All over the Bible, there are proclamations that God makes sure the wicked, and even their children, suffer while the righteous thrive:

Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same. [Job 4:8]
One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord. [Deuteronomy 23:2]
Surely you know how it has been from of old, ever since mankind was placed on the earth, that the mirth of the wicked is brief, the joy of the godless lasts but a moment. [Job 20:4-5]
So the concept is Biblical. Ah, but it is far from Christian.

After all, there are many things lauded in the Bible that are no longer considered Christian–anti-miscegenation laws, subjugation of women, and slavery, to name a few. Most Christians have had the sense to move along from the oppressive context in which their religion was born toward the more compassionate and just world to which it points, as Jesus himself did when he said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God. [Matthew 5:3-5]

Blessed. Not “cursed.” Not “punished.” Not “deservedly murdered in the act of peacemaking.”

But it’s hard to remember that victim-blaming is anti-Christian, since so many high-profile religious operatives engage in it.

So, for all of the peacemakers who get mistaken for weak, for my friends and family who live in hurricane-prone regions, for my LGBT friends, for my siblings born out of wedlock, for the disabled, the despairing, the unlucky, and anyone else who may need a little help remembering, I humbly offer a Bible-based rebuttal, which should apply to all of the victim-blamers, since their argument is always the same, even if they don’t refer to God. Feel free to plug in the specifics and use it however you like.

Dear [Victim-Blamer],

I read with interest your recent declaration that the [tragedy] in [location] was that [person or region]‘s just dessert for their sin of [perceived infraction]. I find your notion that victims deserve their suffering fascinating. Let’s explore it further.

Here is a list of crimes noted in your favorite book, the Bible:

  • Eating shellfish [Leviticus 11:9-10]
  • Women getting haircuts [1 Corinthians 11]
  • Working on the Sabbath [Exodus 20:10]

Given these crimes, let’s ask ourselves which of the following events is justly deserved and which is not:

  • A man who eats shrimp gets into a crippling car accident.
  • A woman who cuts her hair has a miscarriage.
  • A football referee who works on Sundays gets cancer and dies early.

Which of these people deserve their fates because of their infractions? How do you distinguish among them? How do you know which to condemn?

Scriptural location of the laws in question?

That would put #2 in a bad position, since the prohibition against haircuts for women is in the New Testament. In fact, each of these crimes are is as clearly marked as any other, and even more clearly marked than some of your favorite bugaboos, like being gay or liberal or getting an abortion.

The person’s repentance?

I can tell you that only the man who has to work on Sunday has any regrets at all. This idea of “mocking God” is a favorite of yours, but I’ve seen men and women “mock god” all my life by proudly eating fat (prohibited in Leviticus 7:25) right there in church.

Whether the person is a Christian?

Let’s stipulate that they are. I certainly know Christians who regularly do far worse.

Because there’s no consistent answer that you can give, I know what your fall-back answer will be, since, believe me, I’ve heard it before:

“Satan himself can use the Bible to confuse and to deceive.”

Yes, but who’s the deceiver here?

No matter what you tell yourself, the victim-blaming world-view you’re using against people runs absolutely counter to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Living with a theology that said sufferers, even the disabled, were merely reaping what they’d sown, the religious leaders of ancient Israel came into constant conflict with Jesus:

  • They said not to touch the leper, for he was unclean, but Jesus touched him anyway. [Matthew 8]
  • They said the man born blind was paying for his father’s sins, but Jesus healed him anyway. [John 9]
  • They mocked Jesus for his own suffering on the cross, yet you who blame the sufferer today today still call him “blameless”.

But you know all of this, already, since you readily apply a graceful Christian theology to your friends and allies. In fact, you only apply your victim-blaming theology when the victims are safely and clearly foreign to you (Haitian, Gay, Secular), and when the disaster is big enough that you may grow in wealth and notoriety from the controversy (9/11, Katrina).

You’ve been running this dual-wield theology scam for awhile and are quite aware that what gets you a fat wallet when applied to a gay man’s AIDS will get you a fat lip when applied to Sister Lou’s diabetes.

So Sister Lou is kept comfortable in a theology of grace, while you use cherry-picked scripture, fear of disaster, and prejudice against the foreign to enlist and extort her help in applying your victim-blaming world-view against others.

You’re engaged in a theological protection racket, profiting from the claim that you can predict, understand, or control fearsome, unseen forces.

But Faith is based in hope, not fear. What you’re doing is mere superstition.

Superstition prays to ward off bad luck and invite good; Faith prays to give comfort and peace. Superstition does right in order to get reward or avoid punishment. Faith does right because it’s right. Superstition works for gain; Faith works for justice with a little humble effort each day, knowing that actions often have predictable, observable consequences that result from cause-and-effect, not inscrutably divine retribution or favor.

No matter who you are or how you pray, unsafe sex is risky, rape can cause pregnancy, violence begets violence, and being told over and over how sick and worthless you are may drive you to despair.

And using God as a boogey-man in order to scare people into doing your bidding? Well, that will have its predictable consequences, too, as when Fred Phelp’s “God Hates Fags” crew started picketing military funerals.

It’s called backlash.

Every day, fewer people are buying what you’re selling, so please take the hint and go away.


[Your name] and Wayne Self

That will bring us back to Bo, whose claim about LGBT suicide rates merely proves that, like all humans, LGBT people require compassion and dignity, and that we’re currently not getting it. As it is with Bo, so it is with the politicians who seek to benefit from today’s attacks. Only a sociopath would see human suffering as reason to scorn the sufferer. We despair because we are human; he uses our despair against because he is not.

If you happened upon this post and you struggle with suicidal thoughts, if someone somewhere has been telling you that the violence done against you is your fault, that you’re sick or unlovable or worthless, or that you deserve to feel that way, please know that you are far from alone.

See, once you start adding us up: peacemakers, soldiers, gays, women, disaster victims, the disabled, the poor, the sick, the illegitimate, the hopeless, the foreign–all of us who have been told that we deserve our suffering–suddenly, we are legion. Suddenly, we’re in unexpected places, saying unexpected things, like:

“My dad is Nigerian. My mom is Irish-American. I kind of never fit in, kind of had to find my own niche and find my own way. So i’ve experienced discrimination at a young age, and it’s made me the person who I am today…. I see it a little bit broader than everybody else, but there’s always been someone that’s been discriminated against. … Right now it’s the time for gay rights and it’s time for them to be treated equally …in the name of love.” – Baltimore Ravens Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo

Like Ayanbadejo, those of us who’ve faced violence or discrimination know there are times when we have to find our way. Feeling what you feel doesn’t make you weak or bad or defective. If you believe in God, please know that you are God’s beloved child, that no human cruelty can remove you from that love, and that the very soul of the universe has cared for you enough to place help at your fingertips. If you don’t believe in God, know that, no matter what you’ve been told, there’s are thousands of people out here who love you enough to be ready, willing, and waiting to stand up for you. All you have to do is ask.

Call the Trevor Project Lifeline at 866-488-7386. You’ll find someone to talk to that you can trust.

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