The situation described in the following letters continues to be entirely fictitious, including persons, names, crimes, sins, relationships, circumstances and all particulars. The kind of situation that is described, however, is all too common and my hope is that biblical principles applied to this fictitious scenario may be of some help to individuals tangled up in a real one.
So your questions are fair, and totally to be expected. If I understand you rightly, you believe that it is grossly unfair that you, already victimized by a predatory male, have to be the one who is then exhorted (by Dutch uncles or by anyone else) to watch for this and to be careful about that. Doesn’t this move the burden for avoiding future harassment, or molestation, or even rape, from the perpetrator, where it belongs, to the victim where it most certainly doesn’t? And isn’t this just one step away from blaming the victim, shaming the victim, and so forth? Have I captured your question rightly?
Like many of these questions, the two basic answers reveal completely different worldview assumptions—about the nature of the world, the nature of man, and the role of our personal responsibility in avoiding harm.
Christians believe two things about the world, and we believe them simultaneously. We believe that the world is a gift from God, along with everything it contains, for which we are to give constant thanks, and at the same time we believe that the world has been radically broken by the sin and rebellion of mankind. The end result is the kind of thing you see in the response of the hymn-writer, who once wrote “where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.” So on the one hand you find us delighting in creational goods, and on the other consistently warning people to be cautious about this particular practice, or that part of town.
Now if the world is such a wonderful place, but with thoroughly messed-up things and people in it, how are we to navigate this latter reality? There are two approaches, and we may call them the responsibility approach and the resentment approach. The resentment approach expects everyone else to fix their problems first, so that I can carry on without any fear of be hurt or assaulted. This is the approach, frankly, of the sentimentalist. The responsibility approach takes the brokenness of the world as a fixed given, and modifies its own behavior accordingly. The responsibility approach wants to transform the world also—which desperately needs to be transformed—but decides to begin with the one part of the world it has actual control over, and that would be over its own choices and actions. Start where you can actually do something.
Now one taunt that is immediately thrown at the responsibility approach by the resentment approach is that we are somehow justifying the thieves and robbers, the rapists and the murderers. The jab is that we are somehow secretly rooting for them. By assuming they will always be there, we are letting them always be there. And we let them do that, then this is the result we must somehow want.
No, of course not. Crimes are not zero sum games—it is not as though responsibility for “the incident,” whatever it is, has to add up to a total of 100%. If that were the case, then if we ever found any fault with a victim, who left his bicycle unlocked, say, or his wallet on the seat of his car, it is not as though finding fault with him at 10% means that the thief is now only responsible for 90%. Not at all. The thief is simply a thief. The thief should receive the same penalty whether his victim was a fool or took every reasonable precaution. The guilt of the perpetrator is constant.
So whenever a crime is committed, if the victim put himself in harm’s way foolishly, that is his own problem, and has nothing whatever to do with minimizing the responsibility of the one who took advantage of him. There is a difference between saying that a victim deserves to be a victim and saying that he shouldn’t be surprised he is a victim.
Advocates of the resentment approach will often use lurid statistics in order to motivate us all to take corporate action to fix the societal problem, but the difficulty with their figures is that they prove far too much. For example, those who argue that we live in a patriarchal “rape culture,” are saying this because they want programs and measures and laws that will (so they say) deal with these problems in the culture at large. But in the meantime, when they say that one in four women attending college will be raped, what they are telling me as a father is that I would be out of my mind to send my daughter to college. Those are terrible odds.
But if I respond that way, I immediately find myself attacked for “blaming the victim.” A girl should be able to go to college, they say, without having to worry about a thing like that. This is quite true, but it should not be a thought crime to notice that, in the meantime, these same people are telling me that the current odds are appalling. It is not possible to argue that one in four women are raped if we are talking about the programs we wish to see instituted, but if we are talking to parents at prospective student weekend, the campus is now totally safe. Corporate, societal problems (real or perceived) will result in changes of individual behavior.
And remember, to change behavior on an individual level, in the interests of self-preservation, is not to bless the criminal’s efforts.
I know that you have had dealings with folks who think like this. They want us to treat society-at-large as though it were two completely contradictory societies, one laid on top of the other. Depending on the subject under discussion, they want to toggle back and forth between these two societies—the safe one and the awful one. But when you say that the world is simply unsafe, period, and take whatever responsibility for your own safety in it you can, they say that this is an intolerable burden for you. You shouldn’t have to bear that, they say. And those who urge you to pick up this responsibility, as I did, and bear it cheerfully, without resentment, are thought themselves to be a big part of the problem. This is why I label this outlook on the world as the resentment approach. It does nothing itself, expects everything else and everybody else to change first, and complains loudly when it doesn’t ever change. What is that if not resentment?
The next time you are in a discussion like this—and I know you have been in them already—here is something you could do that illustrates the problem well. When the people around you are talking as though the world is nothing but a grim and evil place, and how every man is a potential rapist, just add to the discussion by cheerfully agreeing and saying that this is why you are a big believer in the Second Amendment. This is why you are going to be getting your concealed carry permit before you leave home. The ensuing conversation will be interesting. They cannot accuse you of taking the side of the rapist when all you have done is avail yourself of the means to shoot the rapist.
One last thing. You mentioned in your questions, and you still might feel, that the whole thing is unfair. But that is exactly my point. When I say that the world is a sinful place I am saying that the world is an unfair place. Yes, exactly. Sin refuses to treat people with equity. If it were equitable and just and fair, it wouldn’t be sin. Not only is the world an unfair place, but it looks to remain that way throughout my lifetime and yours. And as long as the world remains sinful and fallen, it will be unfair.
If the world were fair, I wouldn’t have to lock my car doors. Women wouldn’t have to carry pepper spray in their purses. We wouldn’t need lawyers to draw up contingencies in case of culpable defaults. We wouldn’t need security checkpoints at airports. But the world really is unfair. If the world suddenly became fair overnight, a good portion of the economy would collapse.If the world suddenly became fair overnight, a good portion of the economy would collapse.
Going back to the theme of my previous letter, if the world were fair, you wouldn’t need to worry about smiling at boys. You wouldn’t need to make sure you had your own car, or a safe ride home, whenever you agreed to go to a party. You wouldn’t need to worry about your father’s old college friends—yes, I heard about them—complaining that he is in jail because you led him on. None of this is fair, and I grant it. The world is unfair, and as Christians we are called to fight that inequity. But we fight it by starting with ourselves, and by refusing to resent the fact of evil. We fight evil; we do not resent it.
But the fact that circumstances are unfair does not mean that they might not get even more unfair. The world is a rocky slope, and all I am doing is asking you to bring your climbing shoes. Showing up in heels and complaining about the rockiness of the climb is simply making a difficult problem worse than it had to be. Remember, no problem is so bad but that you can’t make it worse. And on that cheerful note, I think I will sign off for the present . . .
Cordially in Christ,