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Victimhood and Justice

Many psychotherapists tend to overplay the effect of upbringing on their patients’ problems. In their quest to assign blame, some experts even venture to label more than 90% of all families dangerously “dysfunctional.”1 As Roman Catholic psychologist Paul Vitz observes, “[T]here is strong social pressure for each member of a recovery group to give testimony about how bad their family was” in order to confirm the idea that deviant behavior is merely the byproduct of undeserved suffering.2

Well, certainly, the world is filled with true victims who deserve sympathy and care. The abused child, the abandoned wife, and the defrauded investor all suffered legitimate ills and need help. Yet believers must be very cautious about assuming a victimhood mindset, for it can be used to sidestep the reality of sin in their life.

In Exodus 20:5, God says that he “[visits] the iniquity of [idolatrous] fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation.” A man’s sin has dreadful consequences upon his children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, and some of the damage is psychological. But these grandchildren cannot use his offenses as an all-purpose excuse for their own waywardness. Ezekiel said as much when he rebuked the captive Israelites for playing the abused child. He had had enough of the favorite excuse for their troubles. They constantly whined, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” but He reminded them bluntly that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:3-4). In the end, one can blame only himself.

Today, appeals to victimhood are legion. For example, when caught making obscene phone calls, Richard Berendzen, the president of American University, attributed his behavior to childhood abuse and checked himself into a hospital for “treatment.” Convicted murderer Robert Alton Harris argued in court that he was a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. And perhaps most notably, San Francisco Supervisor Dan White argued at trial that he killed the city’s mayor and a fellow supervisor because he was victimized by junk food addiction. Allegedly, a steady diet of nutritionally vacuous fare clouded his brain and triggered the deadly outburst. Observers dubbed White’s explanation the “Twinkie” defense.3

One pundit quipped that adding up all the groups considering themselves victimized yields 374% of the American population.4 Thus, it should not come as a surprise that an FBI agent sued to be reinstated after he embezzled $2,000 from the government, lost it all in an afternoon of gambling in Atlantic City, and was fired. He claimed to be the victim of an uncontrollable propensity to gamble using other people’s money—and he won.5 Indeed, a whole body of literature has arisen on the subject of victimhood.6 In this day, the Prodigal Son might well return home from the pig pen with the words, “Father, you have sinned and are no more worthy to be called my father.”7

Responding to the culture of victimhood, columnist Peggy Noonan referenced the movie “Black Hawk Down” about the U.S. Army’s 1993 Battle of the Bakara Market in Mogadishu, Somalia. In one scene, a colonel is leading a convoy of humvees back to base under heavy fire and yells at a bleeding sergeant, “Get into that truck and drive.” The sergeant replies, “But I’m shot, Colonel.” So the colonel answers, “Everybody’s shot, get in and drive.” Noonan rightly noted the metaphoric value of those instructions, for everyone alive has been wounded somehow and justifiably could claim victimhood. Yet rather than blaming one’s failures on those wounds, the believer should move as quickly as possible past the excuses and refocus on the needs of others.8 Victimhood is real, but the greater problem is submission to the victim mindset with its array of spiritually destructive alibis.


Paul C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 63.


Ibid., 64.


Charles J. Sykes, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), 13.


Ibid., 12-13.


Ibid., 3.


For more examples, see Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Free Press, 1991).


Vitz, 65.


Peggy Noonan, “Everybody’s Been Shot,” Wall Street Journal Website, January 11, 2002, http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=95001715 (accessed May 21, 2010).