Victimhood, Empathy, and the Invention of New Villains

Mark Pellegrino is an actor best know for playing the bad guy. Among many other villainous roles, he’s played the abusive ex-husband (Dexter), the vaguely supernatural entity responsible for a plane crash (Lost), a murderous vampire (Being Human), and even Satan (Supernatural). In a 2011 interview with Frances Atkinson from the Sydney Morning Herald, Pellegrino said, ”I like playing those parts. They drive the story and they test the mettle of the protagonist. There’s no hero without a villain.”

That last line stuck out to me: there’s no hero without a villain.

Every good story requires a villain. We are intuitively drawn to them. The greater the villain, the greater the hero. One can even find articles online ranking the “The Best Spiderman Villains of All Time” or the “10 Best Star Wars Villains Ranked.” Villains propel the story forward and highlight the nobility and character of the hero. As a child, I grew up watching old Westerns. They were before my time but were nevertheless a staple in our household. The hero stood tall, confident in the rightness of his cause. His clothes were clean, and his cowboy hat was white. The villain was dressed in black: black leather vest, black shirt, and a black hat. His eyes were devious. Unlike the hero who insisted on giving the villain a fair chance, the villain had no qualms about shooting a man in the back. The greater the villain, the greater the hero.

Biblical villains

There are all kinds of villains in the Bible. These include rapists (2 Samuel 13), seductresses (Genesis 39:7-17), adulterers (2 Samuel 11:2-5), sexual perverts (Genesis 19:4-10), men who solicit prostitutes (Genesis 38:12-19), those leading rebellion (2 Samuel 15:-12), murderers (Genesis 4:1-16), liars (Proverbs 12:22), rulers who accept bribes (Isaiah 5:23), gossips (Proverbs 20:19), those who take advantage of the poor (Isaiah 3:15), or disregard the need for justice (Micah 3:1).

There are, of course, biblical villains who stand above the rest. These are specific individuals whose evil is so great they become arch-villains in the biblical story. Delilah tricked Samson into cutting his hair (thus sapping his strength) and then betrayed him into the hands of the Philistines (Judges 16). Hamon, who was an early version of Adolf Hitler, plotted to wiped out the Jewish people simply because Mordecai the Jew refused to bow to him (Esther 3). Jezebel was a heathen Queen of Israel (by marriage) who introduced idol worship and hunted down God’s prophets (1 Kings 18-21). Pharoah enslaved the people of Israel, killed an entire generation of Hebrew male infants, and heaped cruelty and hardship upon his Jewish slaves (Exodus 1-12). After hearing about the coming Messiah, Herod was so paranoid about a challenger to his throne that he ordered to slaughter of all newborn Jewish male infants (Matthew 2:1-16). The Gospels regularly portray the Pharisees as those who oppose Jesus, care little about the difficulties of others, and heap burdens upon the shoulders of those already oppressed (see especially Matthew 23).

According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, all the human villains mentioned in the Bible are, in one way or another, mere variations on the original humans who rebelled against God. Adam and Eve are the prototypes [1]. In other words, one of the main reasons the Bible lists so many villains is to teach us that we are the villains. Our sin is the problem, and all of us are tainted with it. We are both the villains in our story, and therefore also the victims. Yet, behind this stands an even greater villain: Satan. While we remain culpable for our own sins (and the resulting oppression it brings as a consequence), the Devil is presented as someone who stalks after people, seeking to devour and destroy (1 Peter 5:8). For this reason, the apostle Paul forbids us from seeing our fellow humans as enemies. He writes, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).

The Search for New Villains

Despite this clear command, I grew up in a tradition that routinely “exposed” human enemies of the Gospel. Liberals, homosexuals, and Communists were chief targets for Christian outrage. They were coming for our children, and it was the duty of faithful pastors to expose their agendas. These were the “spiritual forces of darkness” that Paul wrote about.

I don’t mean to imply that wicked people don’t exist or that they don’t have agendas. But the major problem with this kind of thinking is that it does the exact opposite of what Paul commands. We want to find the ‘villains’ who are part of these spiritual forces of darkness. Yet, Paul explicitly tells us not to see other humans this way. This isn’t because they are not sinful (they are), but because it takes our mind off the true enemies: our own sin and the Devil who seeks to destroy us all. That sin is often manifested in our own selfish attitudes, particularly our lack of compassion for others and refusal to come alongside those who are hurting.

Yet, that old fundamentalist desire to find new enemies looms large today. We are always seeking new enemies to defeat, even if we have to create them ourselves. In 2004, Al Mohler was featured on an episode of Family Life Today. In his pre-recorded speech, he decried a then-recent report indicating that the national average age of men getting married for the first time had risen to 28 (women came in slightly lower at 26.4). He told his national radio audience, “The sin that I think besets this generation…is the sin of delaying marriage as a lifestyle among those who intend to get married but they just haven’t yet.” Following this speech, Dennis Raney echoed Mohler’s sentiment, adding that those who marry in their late 20’s “have just decided to go off and live their lives and decide they are going to reject God’s design for who they are.” Coincidentally, not a single Bible verse commanding us to marry in our early 20’s was used to support this bold pronouncement of a supposedly ‘biblical violation.’ Of course, no such bible verse exists, but in the quest to invent a villain, few have ever really sought God’s permission.

For Doug Wilson, enemies of the faith are found even in unlikely places. Responding to the recent “Let’s Go Brandon” chant, Wilson said, “if you don’t think that’s funny, then you have a heart of stone and I think you’re probably not a Christian.” Strangely, he made that comment immediately after admitting the phrase was most likely a violation of Scripture’s command to “honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Simply put, if you don’t think using a euphemism of the f-word against the President is funny, you’re an enemy of true Christianity.

Over this past year, I’ve made a running list of “sins” I’ve seen conservative pastors and theologians denounce as enemies of the Gospel: voting for Joe Biden, believing in systemic racism, advocating for racial justice, believing black lives matter, allowing women to teach adult Sunday school classes, women wearing pants, wearing a mask, getting the vaccine, and reading a sociology book. My more progressive friends sometimes do the same. Their list of sins include voting for Trump, not wearing a mask, not getting the vaccine, supporting limited immigration, opposing universal health care, etc. Each list sounds surprisingly similar to what one hears on Fox News or MSNBC, respectively.

There’s no hero without a villain

Why do we do this? Why do we seek out new spiritual villains, even if we have to invent them out of thin air? As an accomplished actor and student of human behavior, perhaps Mark Pellegrino understands something about human motivation that tends to escape us as Christians. Maybe in our quest to find and create new villains to oppose we are merely trying to become the heroes in our own story. Underneath all the pious language of faithfulness and the loquacious defenses of God’s glory, perhaps a driving motivation has always been our own glory. This is especially dangerous for Christian leaders (pastors, theologians, heads of Christian organizations), as we are expected to guard the flock. There is a relational and emotional reward (perhaps even a financial one) for being the one who discovered a new threat to God’s people. There’s no hero without a villain.

New Villains Discovered:

Early last year, Joe Rigley (former student of Doug Wilson and current President of Bethlehem College and Seminary) set social media ablaze with a series of articles arguing that empathy was a sin. Please note, he did not say empathy could be a sin, or that it is sometimes a sin, or empathy can be misused in a sinful manner. He flatly declares it to be a sin. Always and in all circumstances. Leaving no wriggle room, he refers to it as “the demonic distortion of the virtue of compassion.” In short, sympathy is godly but (to Rigley) empathy is from the Devil.

The connection to the Devil looms large in Rigley’s articles. Channeling C.S. Lewis’s style (though not Lewis’ thoughts), Rigley writes as an experienced demon giving advice to a younger demon. His demon character describes empathy this way: “Empathy is a power tool in the hands of the weak and suffering. By it, we can so weaponize victims that they (and those who hide behind them) are indulged at every turn, without regard for whether such indulgence is wise and prudent for them.”

In this understanding, the sin of hurting people is that they lust for “power.” Empathy is, per Rigley’s understanding, simply a manipulative tool used to acquire this power. What this “power” entails we are not told (presumably he believes it is for some nefarious purpose, which apparently is something other than simply no longer wishing to be abused). When empathy is the villain, we naturally must suspect any individual who is experiencing and expressing pain. These aren’t merely victims. Rather, they are manipulative power-grabbers who present a danger for the Church. For most folks, when someone breaks their leg we expect them to cry out in pain. But to Evangelicals who’ve declared war on empathy, those screaming in pain are the ones we must be on guard against.

It is in this light that many found Kevin DeYoung’s blog post last Fall troubling. In an article titled “What Does It Mean to Weep with Those Who Weep?”, Kevin presumably is writing in response to the fallout that ensued over Rigley’s articles on empathy. While many outraged at his article missed it, DeYoung opening words may have been a gentle (but unstated) push against the anti-empathy crowd. He writes, “Oftentimes the first thing we must do with sufferers is simply come alongside them, acknowledge their pain, express our condolences, and assure them of our love.”

The majortity of the article is about Romans 12:15, where we are commanded “to weep with those who weep.” The article offers sounds advice and, by and large, is free from the hermeneutical extremes found in Rigley’s articles. However, DeYoung nevertheless caused understandable alarm when he wrote we are only to “weep with those who have good, biblical reason to be weeping.” There is a sense in which this is certainly true. On a few occasions I’ve been asked to provide counseling to men who’ve sexually molested young children. In each instance, these men lamented and mourned the ‘unfair’ treatment they were receiving. I certainly wasn’t weeping with them. But we also must notice a significant shift has occurred in DeYoung’s exegesis. While Paul’s focus in Romans 12:15 is solely on our need to weep with the hurting, DeYoung has shifted to focus to the assumed greater need of adjudicating the legitimacy of the one hurting.

An overall picture is emerging. Denny Burke, a theologian at a flagship Southern Baptist institution and personal friend of both Joe Rigley and Kevin DeYoung, explicitly read DeYoung’s article as supporting Rigley’s “sin of empathy” stance. It should be noted that Burke has repeatedly and voraciously defended Rigley’s articles.

Within institutions like Bethlehem College and Seminary and the Gospel Coalition, there is an emerging pattern of distain for empathy and the victimhood of others. In a 2020 article titled “Beware the Dangers of a Victim Mentality”, author Akos Balogh narrates his own personal journey of allowing the injustices committed against him to overwhelm his spiritual life to the point where he developed a “victim mentality.” While he admits there is no standard or accepted definition of what constitutes a victim mentality, he nevertheless has no qualms against telling us it’s unbiblical.

Balogh, of course, concedes that real victims exist. These victims get a few sentences of acknowledgment before Balogh immediately returns to the dangers of the new villain on the horizon: the “victim mentality.” This new enemy has gone “mainstream here in the West” where it’s “the ideology commonly known as ‘identity politics’, which neatly divides society in victims and oppressors.” He continues, “It’s an ideology that tells various minorities that they’re hapless victims of an oppressive system” whether of racism, heteronormativity, or sexism.” At times, it was hard to tell if I was reading a religious article by a theologian or a political opinion piece by Tucker Carlson.

Baglogh concedes minorities have experienced harship in America, but this acknowledgement get one brief sentence. He writes, “Again, this isn’t to minimize the suffering of such minorities.” Yet, this concession isn’t explored further. Why? Because a “victim mentality” is the real enemy, not the hurt caused by systemic racism.

The remainder of the article is meant to convince us that a victim mentality poses a real spiritual danger to Christians. Nevermind there isn’t a single Bible verse warning us of this danger. Baglogh’s appeals to verses about rejoicing in our suffering are taken as sufficient evidence that a victim mentality is unspiritual. Of course, it’s still unclear what is even meant by having a victim mentality, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the mere acknowledgment of victimhood is enough to warrant the label. Over the past few years, I’ve seen countless pastors and theologians (many who I consider friends) confidently call on hurting Christians to reject the label of ‘victim’. Jesus, these theologians tells us, was not a victim and neither are we!

St. Augustine would be perplexed by the idea that Jesus wasn’t a victim, as would most Christians throughout history. That is, quite literally, the enire point of the Gospel story. In his confessions, Augustine wrote, “For our sake he stood to You as both victor and victim, and victor because victim; for us he stood to You as priest and sacrifice, and priest because sacrifice, making us Your children….” Scripture tells us “he was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). It adds that he was “pierced” and “crushed” (Isaiah 53:5), and “oppressed and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:7). A Jesus who isn’t a victim is a Jesus who cannot be a victor.

“Strongman” Theology

Behind all of this is an approach to theology that is uniquely American. We are attracted to the concepts of spiritual victory, the conquering of sin, and maturity. All of these, of course, are excellent and clearly rooted in the biblical text. Scripture tells us to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10). John tells us, “everyone born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4). The Old Testament teaches us, “The LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory” (Deuteronomy 20:4). Paul reminds us, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). We could spend a lifetime finding and cherishing these texts (and should).

It is in the context of these passages that some Christians leaders are now espousing what I call a Strongman Theology. A true Christian, or at least a mature Christian, is one who throws off the identity of weakness, suffering, or hurt. Supposedly, that is not who you are in Christ. You have a new identity as a child of God. You are redeemed, renewed and forgiven. You are part of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. In this new identity, any identification with your hurt or suffering is sub-Christian, or even anti-Christian. Why, it is asked, would you identify yourself as a victim when Scripture identifies you as a conqueror?

The problem with Strongman Theology is that it only allows certain types of biblical data into its matrix. All other biblical data is excluded. While Scripture certainly has much to say about the victory and strength found in our identity in Christ, it also says much more.

Several months ago, I was doing research on Matthew’s Gospel for my doctoral dissertation. I came across a passage I had read many times, but somehow the words grabbed me in a way I never previously experienced. Matthew was portraying Jesus as fulfilling a prophesy from Isaiah 42:1-4, specifically about Jesus’ compassion for the hurting. One line struck a cord: “a bruised reed he will not break” (Matthew 12:20). Only then did I see what perhaps has been blatantly obvious to most readers of Matthew. Jesus sees me as a bruised reed. In fact, I am so bruised that he promises to treat me gently and not cause me further harm.

This drove me to other scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 12:9, Paul tells us “but [God] said to me, my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I had always previously read this as a verse about how strong I was in the Lord, only to now realize the entire point is based on my weakness. God is strong, but I am not. Paul even adds, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly in my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” For those piously claiming “I am not a victim”, Paul adamantly disagrees. Only when we embrace these identities can we ever really pursue biblical maturity. Or, as Paul puts it, “I delight in weakness…for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Jesus sees me as a bruised reed. In fact, I am so bruised that he promises to treat me gently and not cause me further harm.

Yet, there is more. The Psalms tell us “The LORD is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in Spirit” (Psalm 34:17) and “my flesh and my heart fail, but God is my strength” (Psalm 73:26). Paul tells us “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26). Peter acknowledges that believers will continue to have anxiety, telling us to “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). The myth of the Christian ‘strongman’ is just that: a myth. It is a form of the American prosperity gospel. While the proponents of strongman theology might eschew the prosperity gospel’s emphasis on physical strength and material wealth, they nevertheless expouse a form of this with their unrestrained emphasis on spiritual strength.

The real problem with Strongman Theology is that, by creating fictious villains, it offers itself as a hero who doesn’t actually do anything (for Veggie Tale fans, the “pirates who don’t do anything” is a fitting metaphor). The Strongman ‘hero’ doesn’t have to come alongside people in pain. He simply needs to chastise the hurting for expressing pain. This ‘hero’ doesn’t have to stand against injustice or seek to aid someone in their distress. All he must do is denounce the leftist ideology of “identity politics” (a.k.a. victim mentality) and summarily declare that a true Christian is “strong in the Lord.” This hero doesn’t have to protect the bruised reed from further hurt. He can conveniently pretend the hurting person isn’t really bruised, and even if she is, the top priority isn’t understanding her pain or advocating for justice, but rather her repudiating the mindset of being a victim.

A Concluding Challenge

The Babylonian Talmud contains an interesting story about two rabbis who were arrested by Roman authorities for their faith. One was arrested simply on the charge of studying the Torah while the other had multiple charges, all of which related to living out the Torah’s commands for acts of compassion and loving-kindness towards others. While awaiting sentence, the first comforted his friend with these words: “Fortunate are you, as you were arrested on five charges but you will be saved [i.e. in eternal life]; woe is me, as I have been arrested on one charge, but I will not be saved. You will be saved because you engaged in Torah study and in deeds of loving-kindness, and I engaged in Torah study alone” (Avodah Zarah 17b). Immediately after this exchange, the Talmud records these words: “As Rav Huna says, anyone who occupies himself with Torah study alone is considered like one who does not have God.” The story serves as a warning for American Evangelicals: stop using biblical truth as an excuse to not see and have compassion for the hurting.

The myth of the Christian ‘strongman’ is just that: a myth. It is a form of the American prosperity gospel.

When we treat empathy as the enemy, truth becomes a weapon that can only damage and abuse. Likewise, when victimhood become the villain that must be destroyed, all we do is further damage an already-bruised reed. The Old Testament understood that genuine believers could experience situations that were so oppressive and anxiety-producing that they became helpless. In those situations, it was the obligation of other believers to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8) and to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless” (Psalm 82:3).

Throughout Scripture, we see God moving towards the hurting. Jesus sees the suffering of the crowds and is filled with compassion. He sees us as bruised reeds that need coddling, compassion, and the strengthening presence of the Holy Spirit. For some, “coddling” is something liberals do. Yet, how else would we describe the mental picture being painted in Matthew 12:20? Here, we see Jesus as one who notices a small reed that has been trampled down by some external force. He stops everything he does and makes it a priority to guard that reed from further injury. If we don’t see ourselves as being coddled by Jesus, then we don’t see Jesus.

In light of these truths, empathy cannot be considered an enemy. Neither is sympathy, compassion, or tenderness. Scripture holds together all kinds of seemingly opposing ideas: immanence and transcendence, holiness and tenderness, empathy and truth-telling, being a victim and being a conqueror. None of these are set in opposition to each other but rather exist alongside the other. Nowhere are we command to chastise believers for experiencing or acknowledging their weakness or victimhood. Scripture doesn’t call on believers to deny this painful reality, but rather to embrace it and see Jesus in that painful space.

A small but vocal group of Evangelicals are trying to convince God’s people that victimhood and empathy are villains to be destroyed. Yet, one can read Scripture from beginning to end without finding so much as a single verse against these so-called ‘enemies’. However, we do read much about those who refuse to come alongside the hurting or fail to acknowledge (and then respond to) the victimhood others are experiencing. For some, the goal has become trying to convince hurting people they are not really hurting, or that they don’t ‘deserve’ to be hurting. Generally speaking, this is foolish and disobedient. It causes spiritual harm as it lays a burden upon broken people Scripture never demands.

Jesus didn’t come to break the bruised reed, nor does he allow us to do so. He came to protect the bruised reed so it wouldn’t be damaged further. Perhaps it’s time we did the same.

1 Leland Ryken et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 914.

3 Comments

  1. oh my… don’t know how many times the “victim mentality” has been used to dismiss/discredit those who have suffered abuse by those in power & excuse the leaders’ lack of response on behalf, but also enable resistance to seeking justice! it is the DARVO MO!

  2. thank you! I struggle w our battle is not against flesh & blood, yet, the wolves & those who are compromised & in church leadership that are adding to the harm often done to the vulnerable…

  3. Thank you for sharing. I was not aware of this push against empathy. Although as I read through your article I was reminded of many times when I have wondered at some Christian’s lack of kindness/empathy. I am thankful you have brought this to my attention so I can both guard against this mindset as well as speak the truth in love when I come across others who seem to be led astray by this.
    May God continue to bless you with wisdom and compassion.

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