I recently wrote about the relationship between the oppressed and the perpetrators, sharing that those who have been oppressed have to be willing to surrender their notions of being a victim in order for true reconciliation and healing to be achieved.
But why in the world would people who have experienced such injustice want to do that? Why would victims of war, slavery, or sexual exploitation ever want to give up their right to feel vulnerable and destitute? Why would persons who have experienced racism and sexism want to relinquish feelings of powerlessness and shame?
I explained that one of the reasons giving up the victim card is necessary is because holding onto it renders people incapable of doing much of anything to change their situation. When we continue to see ourselves as the victim, we end up living out a self-fulfilling prophecy full of continual hurt and pain, and we wonder why we can’t get free. The way we see ourselves and our reality becomes the lens that we see all of life out of, and far too often we act according to what we see.
But there is another reason. When we hold onto our victim card, we also have the tendency to enact the same acts of injustice, if not worse, onto others. We either oppress those we consider inferior to us – women, children and people of other cultures who are not like us all too often fall into this category. Or if by chance the tables ever turn and we are in positions of power over those who have oppressed us, we make sure to do them in good.
We see this happen in coups all over the world, all throughout history. Someone, or some group, disgusted with the treatment that they have had at the hands of the government decides to rebel and take power into their own hands, and usually disposes the people who have done them evil. I believe that this is one of the reasons that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is holding onto his own power so tightly – he knows that in the event that he goes that it is it for him and his family. I also believe that this is one of the reasons that tyrants and dictators, such as Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko, go into exile in another country once they are thrown out of power. They don’t want to suffer under the same hands that they have dealt harshly with.
Treading with great sensitivity here, I believe that this is also the reason that the 1994 genocide in Rwanda took place. The Tutsi’s, after being in power for centuries, were thrown out of power once the country declared its independence from the Belgium. Now that the Hutu’s were in power, they began to oppress the Tutsi’s in the same way that they had been oppressed before, but even went as far as to exterminate them. This happened because the Hutu’s were able to justify these actions in the name of what they had experienced in the past. But what if they had let go of these memories of oppression and opted for a future of healing and reconciliation instead?
There is an absolutely beautiful picture of how this can be done found in the book of Genesis. And the unlikely hero of the story is Esau. Esau’s brother Jacob robbed him not only of his birthright but also of his family blessing (Genesis 25 and 27). To these acts of indiscretion, this is what is said of Esau in Genesis 27.41: “Esau bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him; and Esau said to himself, ‘the days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’”
And so Jacob runs away and rightly so; he does not want to be killed. More than 14 years pass and Jacob is still very afraid of what Esau will do to him. So he sends messengers ahead of him, and divides up his family into four different camps so that if Esau attacks one camp, the others would at least be preserved. Jacob even prepares gifts and makes a kneeling fool out of himself in hopes of appeasing Esau’s anger. But look at what Esau does: “Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept (Genesis 33.4).
Esau had every single ‘right’ to be angry and hold an eternal grudge against Jacob. But somewhere in the course of those 14 years, he learned that stewing in that anger and resentment would do him no good; he gave up his victim card. Perhaps this is why God allowed Esau to prosper himself, because he did not see himself as a victim he could see all of the possibilities that his life could be. More importantly, however, Esau’s surrender made it possible for the two brothers, who were once divided to be reconciled.
In our pursuit of social justice, the picture of Esau and Jacob reconciled has to be what we have in mind. Yes, we want reallocation of resources so that those who are economically vulnerable as a result of oppression have new opportunities. And we want laws and policies that give everyone, regardless of their skin color, gender, or socio-economic background, an opportunity to thrive. All of these are key! But at the end of the day, even after all of these things are achieved, if the relationships between the oppressed and the oppressor are not mended, we have done ourselves a disservice. The restored relationship ensures that the cycle of oppression never begins again.