Victims and Justice

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In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Edmund betrayed his sisters and brother, he did so because he felt that he was the victim. This is how the world of rationalization, revenge, and treachery work. And this, of course, has a profound effect on perceptions of justice.

In his book The Scapegoat, Rene Girad refers to the naive persecutor, the persecutor who does not understand that he is not the victim. “Naive persecutors are unaware of what they are doing. Their conscience is too good to deceive their readers systematically, and they present things as they see them” (p. 8). At the end of his book, Girad refers tellingly to the place where Jesus taught us that “the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 16:2). Nothing can be clearer than the biblical teaching that in a fallen world, understanding of justice is just as fallen. But as the need for the Golden Rule illustrates, justice is an arch that has collapsed, but it is still standing on my end. In the things that concern “me,” we all have a robust sense of justice, together with all the nuances. What we refuse to do, and this is where grievous sin comes in, is apply that same standard to our adversary or enemy.

Of course, the Holy Spirit is given to us in order to restore the image of Christ in us. This means that we are regenerated by Him and taught by Him to be ashamed of ourselves when we give way to simplistic finger-pointing — as though all the sin were over there.

So it is not the case that there are two categories of people in the world — the sinners and the righteous. It is more nuanced than this. We actually have sinners who refuse to see it and sinners who have been given the gift of seeing it. Those who have received that gift do not forget what they have been delivered from.

Those who are in the grip of sin, but who refuse to acknowledge it, perceive themselves as righteous. And the reverse is also true. The publican in the Temple who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” went home justified. The Pharisee who prayed, “Lord, what a good boy am I” went home unjustified. The sinner was not a sinner and the saint was a sinner. The one who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

One of the means God has for doing this is to write His story in such a way as to reveal different purposes for the Author and some of the characters. Jane Austen and Mr. Collins were both responsible for his words and responses. Austen’s purpose was to reveal him as a thundering buffoon, and Mr. Collins’ purpose was simply to . . . well, who knows what he was thinking. But he was thinking something, and it all made sense to him, and off he went. As God writes dialogue, this is a frequent device of His. He writes a story in which clowns think themselves shrewd, and persecutors think themselves victims.

This latter phenomenon is the reason for many gross miscarriages of justice throughout history. What did the high priest do at the condemnation of Jesus? He tore his robes. “How dare you affront us in this way? How dare you speak your blasphemies in such a way as to defile my priestly ears? And look what you did to my robes!” The high priest was in anguish, and there were people alive at that time, looking at that scene, who would have felt sorry for him, and not for Jesus. But as Girard implies, time goes by, and all the delusions evaporate(delusions that afflicted some of the witnesses caught up in that frenzy). But for that time, a bad man had done bad things to the high priest, and to all the holy things of Israel. The high priest was in anguish and pain.

What bad things? Well, no need to muster specifics and arguments — “you all heard what he said! It’s in the public record.” When they had previously assembled their witnesses, attempting to actually prove something, they were all falling over each other, contradicting each other, to such an extent that it was even embarrassing to the kangaroos in robes running that show trial.

Godly Christian churches have to deal with two kinds of discipline cases. The first has to deal with straightforward breaches of the black letter law of God. Someone in the congregation is discovered to have been knocking over convenience stores, or cheating on his wife, or selling cocaine. Caught and confronted, he won’t repent, his violation of the law of God is established in an open and fair church trial, and he is disciplined.

But the second kind of situation is when you must deal with a divisive brother. In this situation, unlike the first, the sin is not something that comes before the session the same way problems from the first scenario do. It is actually a dispute for the control of the session. “I’m not the defendant,” the disrupter proclaims. “It may surprise you all to learn that I ought to be the judge.”

Over the years, various people have tried to set up a circumstances where they can say that in Christ Church it is an ecclesiastical crime to “disagree with Doug Wilson.” In the course of trying to provoke our session into proving their point, usually by triple-dog-daring us, they have said and done some outrageous things. The point is not that some form of discipline should not be applied, for it should be, but it will not look the same as disciplining an unrepentant adulterer or bank robber. A divisive brother has to be handled with love and firmness, and Scripture gives specific instructions on how to do it, but the circumstances vary. For just example, a divisive brother that nobody is listening to is not really divisive, and the church can afford to be more patient.

But this brings me to the point of this line of argument. The point here is that there is one common feature I have noticed in all this. The men and women who have made appalling and unsubstantiated charges share something in common. Invariably, having delivered the charges (in different venues), they assume the role of victim. In the thirty years of our congregation’s existence, we have probably excommunicated about eight people. All of them were for objective violations of God’s word — things like desertion of a spouse. The people concerned were unrepentant, and didn’t like what we did, but they did not play the victim. But the various people who have heaped all manner of calumny on our heads have done so while feeling themselves victimized. Most did this after leaving our church (and were therefore not fit subjects for discipline), but the handful who have done this kind of thing while still members have been treated with extraordinary patience and forbearance. When such accusations have been made, our session has acted with great tact and pastoral care.

When we have been wrongfully accused, this does not make us “victims” in the sense that word is being used. And yet those who accuse us, mysteriously and immediately, become victims in this sense. And so the lesson should be that when you wrong someone else, apart from repentance, there is a profound need to believe that he wronged you. This is an ancient temptation, an ancient failing, as old as dirt.

But God has given us a new commandment, that we love one another, that we learn how to live in community, that we learn how to avoid feeling like a victim because of the wrong things we have done to others.

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