March 24, 2019 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Year C, 3 Lent, Revised Common Lectionary

Exodus 3:1-15
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8

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A little over a week ago we heard a spectacular and repellent example of something human beings are all too prone to doing: the phenomenon of “blaming the victim.”[1] It happened after the horrifying murders of Muslim worshipers in Christchurch, New Zealand. An Australian senator named Fraser Anning posted a statement saying the attack happened because Muslim people had chosen to immigrate to New Zealand in the first place. Other public officials rightly condemned his remarks, and you may have seen the viral video of a teenager hitting him with an egg a few days later—maybe not the ideal method, but an understandable reaction—and the senator responding by punching the teenager, spiraling from violent words into violent action.

Blaming the victim. It happens all the time. It happens when a woman is assaulted, and people begin asking questions about what she was wearing and whether she should have been more careful. It happens when an unarmed black man is shot and people begin asking questions about whether he was dressed in a hoodie or whether he reached for his wallet too quickly. It happened famously in 2001 after September 11, when the fundamentalist pastors Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson suggested the terrorist attacks were God’s wrath on America for tolerating homosexuality and abortion.

It’s easy to point the finger at Jerry Falwell or Fraser Anning—and yet to some extent blaming the victim is something all of us are tempted to do. Psychologists suggest we have a tendency to want our world to be predictable and controllable.[2] It upsets our sense of order and safety to think that bad things can happen whether or not they’re expected, whether or not they’re deserved.

Now of course there are times when we do contribute to our own misfortune. We make bad choices or take foolish risks. But so much of the time disaster strikes with no rational explanation and no sense of justice. The cancer diagnosis, the freak accident, the sudden act of violence, can come crashing into one person’s life or another with no apparent rhyme or reason. As Rabbi Harold Kushner’s bestseller put it back in the 1980s, there are times when bad things happen to good people. I know how badly I myself want that not to be true. I’d love to live a nice, orderly, predictable life where my family and I are safe and nothing bad happens ever. And so it’s a common cognitive response when something bad happens to someone else to assume that there must have been a reason for it. Maybe they should have been more careful. Surely they must have done something wrong.

Today we heard Jesus reject that kind of victim-blaming. One group of Galileans has been massacred by the Roman governor Pilate; another group in Jerusalem has been killed by a collapsing tower in an apparent freak accident. “Do you think they were worse offenders than anyone else?” says Jesus. “No, I tell you.” And then we have to pay close attention to what Jesus really says next, because the word that gets translated “repent” doesn’t really convey what the English word “repent” suggests. It sounds punitive when Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” But the Greek word metanoēte doesn’t mean “repent” in the sense of feeling bad about yourself or saying you’re sorry about something. It means “reorient yourself,” “change your way of thinking.” It means a complete change of outlook, a transformation in how we perceive and act in the world.

Part of that transformation means an end to the illusion of blaming the victim. It means giving up the luxury of believing that we can control our lives through our careful planning or good behavior—and that people who suffer must somehow have contributed to their own predicament in some way. It actually means giving up judging other people altogether.

Jesus offers us that transformation of our whole way of thinking. The place where he does it most of all is at the cross. At the cross Jesus himself became an innocent victim. When we look at Christ crucified we see not a criminal who had it coming but God’s beloved one bearing the weight of undeserved evil. And when we see Jesus that way, it starts to train our eyes, our minds, our whole selves to realize that God isn’t a cosmic dispenser of punishment for bad behavior but the never-ending source of life and mercy and compassion. And if we see Jesus that way, that means we start to see others that way too.

Jesus goes on to tell a parable. And if we think God is a cosmic punisher, we might assume God is the landowner in the story, who sees his fig tree not bearing fruit and gives it the punishment it deserves. But that’s not the only way to read this story—and I think there’s another way that makes more sense with what Jesus has just been saying. This landowner is blaming the victim. He thinks the tree must be at fault. It doesn’t occur to him that the tree might be suffering the natural effects of inadequate soil and lack of care. So all he can think of to do is to rip it out. What if God in this story isn’t the landowner, but the gardener? If we read the story with God on the other side, we see a God who stands on the side of the tree and against the punishment of the innocent. We see a patient God, a caring God, who wants to tend to our roots and fertilize our soil.

“Unless you repent,” says Jesus, “the same thing will happen to you as happened to those others who perished.” In other words, unless we break out of the illusion of wanting to be right, wanting others to be wrong, wanting victims to be punished, we’ll be stuck in the same cycle, trying ineffectually to stave off our own suffering by self-righteousness, and then when we finally fail and life happens to us too, having others blame us for our suffering just as we blamed others.

There’s an alternative. It’s the transformation Christ offers us, softening our hearts and fertilizing our souls. If we accept it, our lives won’t be safe, or secure, or predictable. But we’ll see things more clearly. And God may use us to make the world a more compassionate, more loving place.

[1] This sermon is inspired primarily by another fine sermon, preached by my friend and colleague Daniel London at Christ Church, Sausalito, CA, February 28, 2016: https://deforestlondon.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/from-blaming-the-victim-to-subverting-the-system/.

[2] See, for example, Kayleigh Roberts, “The Psychology of Victim-Blaming,” The Atlantic (October 5, 2016): https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/10/the-psychology-of-victim-blaming/502661/.