From Victimhood to Servanthood
by Gregory Thompson
What do we do when we realize that the forms of Christianity we inherited are either insufficient for—or opposed to—the Christian mission to which we are called?
As I have wrestled with this question over the past 20 years, I have come to believe that the Church in America, if it is to truly be a people of repair, must deliberately undergo a number of shifts in both the substance and the structure of its life.
In previous articles, I explored the shift from Dominion to Communion, a shift in the purpose of our faith, and the shift from Myth to Truth, a shift in our interpretation of the context in which we live out our faiths. In what follows, I turn to the shift from Victimhood to Servanthood—a shift in our very identity.
From Victimhood to Servanthood: A Shift in Identity
One of the most tragically evident features of a great deal of American evangelical Christianity is its obsession with its own victimization. Indeed, if one listens to sermons from our pulpits, prayers from our pews, or soundbites from our leaders, it is difficult to avoid the impression that American Christians are under relentless attack from all manner of cultural enemies. We are, above all things it seems, besieged. And, in my view, this quality of besiegement has become a treasured form of identity.
There is a sense in which this victimized form of identity was inevitable. After all, our (previously considered) commitments to Dominion and Myth teach us not only to believe that the purpose of our faith is to extend God’s dominion through power but also that we do so against the backdrop of a binary world full of endlessly creative enemies who seek not only to thwart our labors but also to bring us into bondage under dominions of their own. There is a very real sense in which American Evangelical Christians are predisposed to view ourselves through the lens of victimization.
In fairness, I wish to concede that both the teachings of the Bible and the history of the Church assure us that the Christian Church will, at all times, face deep forms of opposition. Indeed, our commitments to the centrality of God, the reality of sin, the futility of self-righteousness, the necessity of the cross, the triumph of resurrection, the priority of love, and the coming of judgment guarantee that it cannot be otherwise. Nor, given our faith in the crucified Lord, should we expect it to be otherwise.
It is important, however, to remember that circumstances of opposition and an identity of victimization are not the same thing. Indeed, in the mirthful and surprising logic of the Christian faith, they are unrelated. In 2 Corinthians, for example, even as St. Paul teaches us that followers of Jesus will always have trouble, he also teaches us that—precisely in the midst of that trouble—we are also a people of joy. Afflicted in every way? Yes, but not crushed. Perplexed? Yes, but not driven to despair. Persecuted? Yes, but not forsaken. Struck down? Yes, but not destroyed. Sharing in the death of Christ? Yes, also sharing in his resurrection. All of this to say: Opposed? Yes. But not victims. Never victims.
How is it that so many of us have, nonetheless, come to see ourselves as victims? How is it that we, in the midst of our suffering, have drawn the wrong conclusions about its meaning? The simple and straightforward answer, I believe, is that we have made it about ourselves—and have done so in two ways.
1) By focusing on our own suffering.
As I said above, some form of suffering for the Christian church in this world is inevitable. But the suffering of our neighbors is also inevitable. They too are born in the image of God and made for wholeness. They too are weighed down by the pain of sin—in all of its guilt and corruption. They too bear the burdens of futility. They too are vulnerable to the abusers of power. They too live under the shadow of death. And yet, in so much of our private thought and public discourse, our neighbors—insofar as they enter our minds—exist not as bearers of their own suffering, but merely as abstract villains lurking behind our own.
2) By prioritizing our own relief.
One of the saddest features of much of the American Church at present is the extraordinary degree to which our social and political energy is explicitly devoted to alleviating the suffering—both real and imagined—of the Church. Consider again the sermons from our pulpits, the prayers from our pews, and the soundbites from our leaders. Do we not hear in these not only an obsession with our own grievances but also a telling silence regarding the griefs of our neighbors? Does this not betray the belief that the work of God in the world and the concern of the Church in the world consist largely of our own vindication?
This obsession with our own suffering can only create a self-absorbed community characterized by joyless grievance. Indeed, it has done so in our very midst.
If we are to become the people of repair that God calls us to be, we must renounce this identity of victimhood and work to replace it with the only holy alternative: Servanthood. Indeed, this is precisely the shift that Paul urges in the passage above: “We proclaim not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Why? Because it is only through embracing the identity of a servant that we can turn from cataloging our own suffering to considering the suffering of others. It is only through embracing the identity of a servant that we can renounce our small and quavering obsession with our own relief and give ourselves wholly to relieving the suffering of both our neighbors and our enemies.
This, I believe, is one of the central tasks of the Christian Church in our time: to actively put off the identity of victimhood that has so deeply disfigured us, and actively cultivate the identity of servanthood that will—in time—shape us into the very figure of Christ.
Thompson will explore more shifts needed to repair the world in the weeks to come.