6 min. to read.
Today is the 19th day of Lent. Today I’m reading Luke 13:1-5, a strange little interaction where Jesus talks about tragedy and repentance.
Someone told Jesus the latest news. Roman soldiers had killed a group of Galileans on the temple grounds. Someone in the conversation suggested these folks got killed because of their sin. Jesus asked, “Do you think they suffered because they were worse than you?” Then he pointed to a recent disaster that killed eighteen others and repeated himself. “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus shut the conversation down. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Because we’ve grown up in a culture saturated with the assumptions of modern American Evangelicalism, it’s hard to see where this text is headed. Jesus used the magical Evangelical word, “Repent!” Suddenly, all we can see is a formula for getting to heaven. Repent of your sins. Ask Jesus into your heart. Do this, and you won’t perish eternally. Repent. Don’t Perish. But Jesus isn’t having a conversation about salvation.
Some commentators, looking to the historical context and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, hear in Jesus’ words a prediction: “You will all perish just as they did.” Brian Zahnd, for example, suggests that Jesus is warning Jerusalem about the consequences of pursuing a path of violence against Rome. For Pilate to kill people on the sacred Temple Mount would have required something on the order of armed rebellion. Jesus had been teaching a path of peace and reconciliation. So the repentance he calls for here is to turn away from that path of violence. If the people of Jerusalem won’t turn away from that path, they will surely die by violence themselves. This is exactly what happened when the 10th Roman Legion leveled Jerusalem, killing most of those still in the city.
I am coming to these texts with the Lenten filter. Lent invites us to let go of those things that obstruct our encounter with Jesus. That filter prompts me to see something more current and universal in the text. Jesus’ words touched on the connection between sin and suffering. We don’t hear the question that prompted Jesus’ response, but his answer gives us clues. “Do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Someone thought that. Perhaps they had muttered a spiritual accusation of the sort we so often hear.
If only they had been more pure, more holy…
If only they had prayed more…
They shouldn’t have been wearing clothes like that…
They should have spoken up earlier…
They should have just complied…
They should have known better!
Because we can’t abide the discomfort of an uncertain world, we want to believe that God is in control of every single detail. Because we don’t want to imagine bad things happening to us, we buy into a theology that God protects good people from harm. When terrible things happen to others, this theology requires validation. So, we blame the victim. This sort of thing won’t happen if you’ve done the right thing, played by the rules, or been suitably devout.
The only explanation that preserves our certainty is that this terrible thing happened to them because of what they did.
Rubbish, the lot of it. Jesus shuts the conversation down by pointing the questioners back to their own lives. Please stop your attempts to sort out how and why these people deserved what happened to them. Focus on your own heart instead. Trust me. There is plenty there to occupy your attention.
When a woman reports sexual assault or rape, don’t evaluate her clothes or whether she was drinking. Another human being chose to violate her. Period. Ascribe culpability elsewhere is a mental game meant to make you feel like it couldn’t happen to you. It’s a comfortable illusion.
When a police officer kills a black man in the course of an arrest, don’t focus your energy on justifying the officer’s actions. There’s plenty of evidence that police can successfully arrest all manner of violent suspects without killing them. A police officer is not a judge and jury. Their badge is not a license to kill. The blame game is a distraction so that we don’t have to talk about more complicated and painful issues like poverty, police abuse of power, and systemic racism.
Don’t even get me started on Christians who blame hurricanes on the gay people or suggest the California forest fires are God’s judgment for the state passing legislation that protects the rights of trans people. This is spiritual abuse of the most absurd sort.
When bad things happen, some of us rush to blame the victim. If we can attach the guilt to the victim, we wrap the tragedy up in a nice bow. Yes, something terrible happened, but it happened to the right person, see? It happened because of what they did.
For those of us who follow Jesus, all of this is an egregious violation of the core ethic he gave us. He commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Apostle Paul reframed this by saying that we obey “the law of Christ” when we bear one anothers’ burdens. Loving a victim never looks like blaming. Bearing the burden of someone injured in a tragedy never looks like using their circumstance to justify ourselves.
When we blame the victim, we reveal that Jesus’ way has not penetrated our hearts. We are stuck in a world of self-righteousness and self-justification at the expense of others, even going so far as to use their pain as a way of proving that we’re right. That sickness of the soul is something we need to repent from.
Lent invites us to give up blaming victims. This way is life.