Jerry Falwell’s Perverse Need to be the Victim

There is something profoundly disturbing in the trend among self-proclaimed “conservative Christians” who use the troubles in their life as a shield against criticism.

Today Jerry Falwell revealed that his wife had an affair. Now, I’m a fan of transparency, so I applaud the dude coming forward and saying he’s been suffering depression after her brief affair with a family friend and the friend’s subsequent alleged blackmail. I can even feel bad for him.

But his response has been right in line with the trend among at least 35% of this country, who have a victim fetish. “I have suffered and therefore you cannot hold me accountable for my actions!”

Perhaps the fetishism grows directly out of their view of Jesus as a victim, a martyr, rather than a teacher and leader. Certainly Catholicism spent at least a millennia fetishizing victims by martyring a whole bunch of people. If you are a saint for how you die, then the worse the death, the greater the saintliness.

This stems from the idea that suffering ennobles, which is a crock. Suffering can be a crucible that reveals character. But suffering does not, inherently, ennoble. Bad things happening in your life does not mean you are noble or better. How you respond to those bad things determines your nobility.

Last week we heard a lot about how Joe Biden responded to suffering — with compassion, with love, with growth, with understanding, and with humility. But here’s the thing — he never once has declared himself a victim. Because he understands that bad things happen to everyone at some point. There are a couple events in my life that have knocked me down, hard. But I have never viewed myself as a victim, and nowhere in there did I think that they made me a better person. How I chose to respond may have been a crucible, leaving me more understanding, crystalizing my thoughts. But just like Catholics believe that faith alone cannot lead to salvation, it takes good works, so too does suffering alone not lead to good character, it takes growth and grappling.

Part of the reason Trump is so successful with that 35% is that he is forever and always a victim. He is betrayed. He is attacked. He is never at fault. Indeed, he freely says he takes no responsibility. The good things in his life he earned, the bad things were all done to him. And that resonates with a wide swath of society who do not like being asked to take responsibility for their actions. It is so much easier if they are victims, helpless to control their lives. Hurricanes hit, those are natural disasters. To say that we could have been curbing climate change is to remove their victim status. Poverty is something done to them — which is totally true! But telling them that it will take voting and activism and protesting to reverse it means they could change things, and it removes their victim status.

And if their faith tells them that suffering is noble, that their pain will be rewarded in the next life, then what impetus do they have to act in this one? Their suffering is God’s plan.

I have kidney stones. A lot of them. And I take a perverse pride in being able to take the pain and power through them. I’ve performed plays with stones, taught classes with stones. See how tough I am? Don’t you feel bad for me? It’s an entirely unhealthy way of thinking, I know. So I’m talking to more doctors and trying to figure out how to prevent them. There are some who would call that weak, that suffering pain is a show of strength. But I’m not a victim of these damn things, they’re just something that happens and if I can make it stop, wouldn’t that be great?

Suffering can reveal nobility. But suffering alone does not ennoble. And it is certainly not an excuse, a shield, a rebuttal. Everyone suffers. Doesn’t make you Jesus.

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One of the things I often heard from my conservative Christian friends about Mel Gibson’s religious snuff film The Passion Of The Christ was that it was proof how divine Jesus was because “look at how he suffered!” There were two other people crucified beside him. Was their suffering somehow less because they were less divine? What about the Sparticani, crucified every hundred yards along the Via Appia? What about the Knights Templar, tortured to confess heresy? What about Gul Rahman, tortured by the CIA in our lifetime? Is he divine for enduring what we did to him?

Jesus was important to the Christian faith for how he lived, what he taught. Yet we fetishize his death because we like a good story. We respond to suffering. We feel bad, and yet grateful that it’s not happening to us. It’s Aristotle’s catharsis, which explains why we enjoy Tragedies like Hamlet or King Lear. But we do not want to emulate the dane or the mad old man. Whereas some versions of Christianity hold up Jesus as a model, not how to live and treat people, but of how to suffer.

So while I can empathize with Falwell here, I cannot sympathize. Because this revelation is meant, not to take ownership of his own actions, but to excuse them because he is a victim.

Dude, your wife cheated on you. You’re not a martyr. Try just being a good guy.

Actor. Author. Father. Husband. In reverse order. Latest novel: WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR.

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