How Long A Victim?

(Published by Christian Courier, July 26, 2010, NO.2893)

Reprinted here with permission.

A random pile-up of conversations, events, articles, and books nudged me into thinking about this timely question.

It began with an online dialogue about gender justice in the church. I came across a powerful historical anecdote to buttress my egalitarian argument. My source (Women, Authority & The Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, ed.) described a Scottish woman who delivered twins in the sixteenth century. Somehow it was discovered that she had ingested a pain-killing herb during her labour. Of course, this was against God’s law. The Bible said women must suffer in childbirth. Eufame, suspected of being a witch for her unwillingness to rely solely on God, was burned at the stake for her transgression.

But I was discussing women in the church, today, in the 21st century. Those with whom I was disagreeing might hold to a different interpretation of Scripture, but they are undoubtedly respectful and kind to women. It seemed unfair and inflammatory of me to suggest they were somehow aligned with the extremism of witch-hunters. And, truthfully, I didn’t want to cast myself in the role of a victim like Eufame, either. I didn’t use the material I had sourced.

Then on June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canada to the First Nations people who were harmed by their treatment in residential schools. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to inform Canadians about the injustices that occurred and to function as a catalyst towards improved relations. The first event was held in Winnipeg on June 15, 2010.

My husband was vocal in his frustration about this dredging up of the past. His objection paralleled, to some degree, how I felt about the story of Eufame. Was it fair to hold one another accountable today for wrongs committed by past generations? The concept of a corporate responsibility for past injustices is one that he resists. It’s futile to paste current cultural understandings to the past, he thinks. Revisionist salve. A political placebo that nurtures a “martyr complex” and prevents an individual or people from moving forward.  He’s not the only one who thinks that way. Mindelle Jacobs, whose column appeared in the July 13th Sarnia Observer, reported on a paper produced by the Institute on Governance which argues exactly the same viewpoint: “Aboriginals were historically mistreated but they have to move on, warns Graham. Seeing yourself as a victim is counterproductive, he says.”

While getting my car serviced today, I read the July issue of Macleans. Author Joseph Boyden, in “The Hurting,” relates his highly personal and bleak investigation into high youth suicide rates, unresolved hurt, and lingering cultural post-traumatic stress among First Nations people that he traces, in part, to residential schools. If a national apology and round-table discussion can create an environment where healing can begin, that deserves my support, I thought. It certainly fits within the compassionate framework of my Christian faith. 

CC reported in its July 12th issue on the World Commission of Reformed Churches that met in Grand Rapids last month. The WCRC issued an apology on June 26th for the role churches have played in the abuse of indigenous peoples. Charles Honey, religion writer for The Grand Rapids Press who attended the event, was deeply moved : “The powwow and worship service at Ah-Nab-Awen Park offered a remarkable moment unlike any I have seen in this city. As I sang “Amazing Grace” with the faithful gathered at the shining river, I felt the presence of the American Indians who once fished there, as well as the shared faith of those singing. There was hurt in the history, but healing in the hymn. And, perhaps, hope for a better way.”

It struck me that the dilemma of How long a victim? has universal applicability. I remembered reading about the Holocaust and the belief that it is the responsibility of the next generation to hold the memories of the concentration camp survivors “in trust”. The article appeared in the May 8th  Sarnia Observer. Goldie Morgentaler, a University of Lethbridge prof, and daughter of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, was the speaker at a memorial event marking the 67th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: “As time passes, it takes with it the personal memory of personal experience. The result is that we who have not lived through this ordeal must, however unwillingly, become its historians.” She also pointed out that, not only is it increasingly difficult for successive generations to make sense of the Holocaust the further removed they are from its historical context, but, as the Holocaust becomes fodder for entertainment in movies like Inglourious Basterds, it also becomes increasingly difficult for the non-historian to distinguish between fact and fiction. She spells out the duty of the next generation: “To be a child of survivors is to have congress with ghosts — to be overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility … an obligation to never let the dead be forgotten (and) to defend their honour, their names, their humanity (and) their valour.”

The burden of carrying that past is the subject of Anne Michaels’ grimly lyrical book, Fugitive Pieces, nominated for the ScotiaBank Giller Book Award last year. The novel explores, in elegantly lean and muscled prose, the lives of two men impacted by the Holocaust. Jakob, a child who witnesses the murder of his parents by the Nazis but manages a traumatic escape, is tormented the rest of his life by the fact that he doesn’t know what happened to his sister, Bella. His relentless research unearths Holocaust data that haunts him even further. He lives his life in the shadows, trapped in an emotional prison. Ben, representing the next generation, is the son of Holocaust survivors. His parents’ horrific experience brands him invisibly, a perplexed and wounded carrier of the uncompromising weight of their scarred history.

Interestingly, the redemption the men are finally granted stems from two different sources. Jakob is released from his living nightmare when he shares his tortured memories with someone who truly listens and empathizes: “She has heard everything – her heart an ear, her skin an ear. Michaela is crying for Bella.”  Saved by the loving Michaela who validates his agony and helps him carry his burdensome past, Jakob even achieves the nobility and grace to do the same for others. Ben marvels at his empathy: “You listened, not like a priest who listens for sin, but like a sinner, who listens for his own redemption. What a gift you had for making one feel clear, for making one feel – clean. As if talk could actually heal.” Ben, on the other hand, plummets into a confused grief as his marriage crumbles. His salvation begins when he recognizes, for the first time, that he has his own life to live. He sets aside his parents’ sorrow to acknowledge his own: “In my hotel room the night before I leave Greece, I know the elation of ordinary sorrow. At least my unhappiness is my own.”

Michaels’ book is masterful. She does not choose one approach over the other, but affirms both. Jakob’s healing comes from telling and being heard. Ben’s healing comes from jettisoning victimhood and taking up the challenge of saving his own marriage.

I offer up a third way to deal with a hurtful past. It won’t make the front page of my local paper. That’s because it’s God’s way. Too miraculous for some to believe. Not verifiable by accepted journalistic praxis. Miroslav Volf, Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale, an authentic voice, having experienced interrogation himself at the hands of communist Yugoslavian jailers, addresses this third way in a compelling talk he gave at the Crystal Cathedral ( Volf says what we really long for is a new past, and God can give us that. “The God who makes all things new offers us an entirely new identity. He wipes out our past. He puts our sins behind his back where even he can’t see them.”

There’s a catch, though. We might like God to erase our sins and our painful past, but God offers the same deal to our enemies. He stands ready to forgive and forget the sins of those who have sinned against us, too. That’s the singular and sublime twist in his divine redemption story … mercy trumps justice for all who trust in Jesus, the Saviour “who on the cross a Victim for the world’s salvation bled.” And the afterword? God calls us to also forgive those who trespass against us. And if we fail? There is forgiveness for that, too.

Like a magician, the Alpha and Omega is poised to snap his fingers and make our past disappear. Like a servant, he holds out the spotless robe of his Son to clothe our present. Like a valet, he hurries ahead of us to prepare our future rooms in the mansion reserved for children and heirs. Paul says, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).  In those moments when the Spirit empowers us to glimpse ourselves in a mirror undistorted by sin and evil, unmarred by victimization or victimizing, our unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory. We are free to recognize Jesus in ourselves and others. As God-images we walk and talk and live a hope beyond time. We Christians are, ourselves, medicinal to the world. Amen, I answer myself. Let me live so.