Several conversations lately have left me staggering to make sense out of how we assign blame to people who are suffering.
The first came as we were discussing the plight of minimum wage workers and the current debate about raising the federal minimum wage. In the midst of the conversation the subject of the woman who died while napping in her car between jobs (she had a total of four jobs) came up. One of the participants in the conversation shut down the whole thing by loudly and defiantly proclaiming, “She should have gotten a better job. If you can’t make ends meet on minimum wage, get a better job. If you can’t get enough rest safely because you have to work four jobs, get two jobs that pay more. Period. Problem solved.”
We gasped–but we fell silent because not one of us were willing to be dragged into what we knew would be an all-out fight with this woman and her negative attitude about the very people who work so hard to make her life easier every single day.
It seemed no more than a couple of days had passed before I found myself in the midst of another conversation. In this one we were lamenting the loss of a young and promising life of a local boy who had tried to break up a fight and was fatally wounded himself. As we began to address the very serious problem of violence in our society one of the participants said, “Well, anyone who’s going to a bar is just looking for trouble.”
In this case, I shut down the conversation when I pointed out that as a teenager and early twenty-something, I too frequented bars with my friends. I wasn’t a drinker. I was usually the designated driver. But I was certainly NEVER looking for trouble. And I don’t think that on any of those nights when I was out having fun with my friends that I deserved to die just because I had crossed the threshold of a bar.
Something about a pastor confessing that she used to frequent bars seemed to silence the whole dialogue. It wasn’t my intent, but the conversation moved on to more lighthearted subjects.
And then last week I found myself in yet another group discussion, this one about Jennifer Lawrence demanding the police look into the case of her leaked nude photos. I gave her kudos for refusing to choose silence out of a embarrassment and being willing to label the even for what it really is: a sex crime.
But one of the elderly people in the conversation with us seemed horrified that Jennifer Lawrence had allowed anyone to take pictures of her naked and that they were on her phone. In her opinion, if JLaw didn’t want anyone seeing naked pictures of her, she shouldn’t have taken them.
Of course, I argued that privacy is privacy and no one has the right to violate someone else’s. I argued that just because we don’t like what a person might be in possession of doesn’t make it right for anyone else to take it without permission and expose it to the whole world.
Besides, I said, I have all sorts of weird photos on my phone-granted, none of them naked (I’m practically a never-nude anyway), but many of them I wouldn’t want made public because I find them embarrassing or unflattering. I would be horrified if someone broke into my phone and posted all those horrible pictures.
So why don’t I delete them? she wanted to know.
Because, I argued, they are my private property, and I can keep them forever and ever if I wish. What I do with them is my choice and no one else’s. I don’t need to have a reason. I don’t need to justify it to anyone else. Because no one else has the right to do anything with my private property without my express permission.
But that’s what much of our finger-pointing in our society does–it misses the point.
Too often we want to turn blame back onto the person who is suffering so that we don’t feel obligated to seek any sort of justice for the wronged.
As a result, when we hear of a woman who has to work four jobs to make ends meet, we blame her for her untimely death. Of course, we ignore the fact that if she were to have shed two or three of her jobs and taken welfare, we would have labeled her lazy and a user. We would have snidely told her to get another job. But when she literally works herself to death, we don’t want to think about all those times we were silent because we were making ends meet and didn’t feel the need to speak out on behalf of those earning less. We didn’t consider the massive amounts of profits she was helping to create for the companies for which she labored while she herself couldn’t even afford to go home and take a proper nap.
As a result, when a kid steps up to the do the right thing and stop violence when he sees it, we blame him when that violence steals away his life. Why was he there in the first place? we demand. He must’ve been up to no good.
And when a sex crime is committed against someone we have a hard time seeing as a human being to begin with because we’ve already objectified her as a celebrity, we refuse to see the scandal in the sexual misconduct committed against her.
It’s easier to point out fingers back at the person demanding justice, but the when we do that, we’ve missed the point.
I didn’t notice Jesus looking at the woman caught in adultery and saying, “You brought this on yourself with your sleeping around.”
I didn’t notice Jesus telling Mary Magdalene that she deserved those demons that had tormented her.
I didn’t notice Jesus tossing aside the cross and telling us that we committed the sins–that we made our bed, so we’d better just lie in it and stop crying out for help and hope.
Always, Jesus’ response was one of mercy and grace–and he sought justice for those who were suffering. Justice wasn’t going to come from blaming the victim, no matter what they might have done leading up to the moment of oppression. Justice was only going to come by shrugging off the preconceptions and blaming of this world and to seek God’s will instead.
So when we hear about a young man struck down in a moment of violence, we should be outraged that we’ve lost another young man. We should be asking difficult questions, like why is young men are more likely to die in violence than other groups? What is it that our society is teaching young men that make them think violence is a solution? And how do we change that? And do we need to change anything about our own ideas and attitudes and lives in order to make that happen?
When we hear about a woman who is literally worked to death in the land of plenty, we should be asking why any human being needs to work four jobs just to make ends meet? Why is it corporate CEOs are making record waged and profits while the people doing the labor are forced to work FOUR jobs just to survive? What is it about our society that devalues low-wage earners to the point that we don’t even think they have the right to be able to exist within the same family and life structures that we exist in? (i.e. Why do we assume we have the right to work, come home, relax, enjoy time with a family, and sleep comfortably for eight hours or so before doing all over again while the poor have to sleep in cars between jobs and possibly never see their families?) What might we have to give up in order to ensure that others aren’t being crushed beneath our luxuries?
And when we hear about a woman whose body has just been exposed to the world against her will, without her permission, we should demand to know why it is media outlets and entertainment outlets would even think that was acceptable? What is it about our society that would allow us to sell a woman’s body against her will for the curiosity and pleasure of others? What are we teaching each other about the value of human life when we turn our heads and look the other way when a person is subjected to such sexual humiliation and harassment? What are we teaching women about their own value when we don’t become outraged by that sort of violation against her?
In the end, I can’t help but think that the very reason we like to point our fingers in blame at the people suffering the most is because it is far easier than having to assume any sort of responsibility–responsibility for our complicity to these injustices, responsibility for our silence in the face of injustice, or our responsibility to our fellow humanity. It’s just easier to shake our heads and pretend they’ve gotten exactly what they were asking for and walk on.
But that’s not what Jesus would’ve done. That’s never what Jesus did. And if we are going to have the audacity to live bearing his name, we’d darned-well better be bold enough to live for the sort of Godly justice for which he carried the cross.