Lent: Fasting from Victimhood

An Immodest Proposal for Understanding Christian Faith

Allow me to do something immodest at the beginning of Lent 2024: Try to say what Christian faith is all about, and why it matters. To do that, let me first introduce myself the way I usually introduce myself to strangers: Hi, I’m Michael Coffey.

Most people who know me personally know me as Mike, and that’s right. I do like Michael, also, but that’s not why I always introduce myself as Michael. I had numerous experiences of introducing myself as “Mike Coffey” and people hearing it as “My coffee” and they wonder why I’m talking about the beverage in my hand. The “k” sound at the end of Mike and the hard “c” sound at the beginning of Coffey elide and it becomes “My coffee.” So, to eliminate this silliness from my life, I’m Michael Coffey. Nice to meet you.

One of the other funny things about my name is “Coffey” the Irish name has nothing to do with the drink. The spelling should be a clue, although there are some “Coffee” people out there, too. One of them was a famous African-American rodeo clown in Texas, and I met his niece once, but that’s a story for another day. The name “Coffey” is an Anglicized form of the name Cobhthaigh, which is derived from the Irish word for “victorious.”

And that leads us into Lent, the cross and resurrection, and the Christian faith. I have often complained that Lent often becomes an extended meditation on the death of Christ, six and a half weeks of Good Friday. I have never found that helpful, and it is not the reason for the season. Lent is meant to be a season of preparation for renewal in Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter, either through baptism or renewal of baptism. Lent is the preparation part, culminating in the great three days of Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), Holy Friday (or Good Friday), and Holy Saturday (or Easter Vigil).

The preparation time of Lent of course means preparing to go deep into the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, so that means, yeah, contemplating the significance of the death of Christ, not separate from the resurrection of Christ as is often done, but as the unavoidable part of the transformational journey of faith in Christ.

So what do we do with the death of Christ, the crucifixion of Jesus, as we look for deep meaning in our Christian faith and life? Well, first we don’t separate it from the resurrection. It is not an isolated and complete thing in and of itself. Those first disciples spent Friday to Sunday morning thinking it was an isolated and complete event, and that led them to their utter despair and sense of abandonment. They, for that brief period, saw Jesus as the ultimate victim of the religious and political powers that had always created victims in order to remain in power. They were likely tempted to see themselves as victims, too, and maybe for about 36 hours give-or-take they did.

But after experiencing the resurrected Jesus they no longer could see him as a victim of the political and religious powers. He was the victor, the one who conquered the victim-making powers, and there was no going back to victimhood if you trusted and followed the resurrected Christ from that day forward. Being baptized into Christ meant giving up your victimhood identity and living in the victor identity of Jesus.

My proposition, then, is that Christian faith is about moving from a victimhood identity to a victor identity. Christ saves us from the victim-making powers of this world by submitting himself to their pointless power, and showing it to be utterly powerless and foolish. Identity in the paschal mystery of Christ means letting go of all the victimhood identities we have been told define us and living in the victor identity of Jesus, the true power of God at work in the world.

There are several problems we must address in order for this to be the truly transforming good news of Christ. The first, which is probably the most controversial, is that we are constantly tempted to cling to our victimhood identities. There is something empowering, but falsely so, about claiming victimhood as our primary identity, but it is not life-giving and transforming of ourselves or the world. It simply perpetuates the ways of the world that are killing all of us. And too often, victimhood leads to defeating the victimizers only to perpetuate the cycle of creating new victims.

Let me be clear: there are many victims in this world. People suffer because of the power exerted by individuals, religions, corporations, governments, and societies. People are marginalized and left out of the flourishing of life God intends for us all because of greed, accumulation of wealth by a few, and the many identities we cling to (nation, tribe, ethnicity, class, gender, race, language, religion, political group, etc.) in order to have dominance over other identities. There is nothing good about any of this, and if I am honest, if we are honest, we probably participate in and benefit from some of the victim-making powers of this world, even if we suffer from some other victim-making powers.

I’m not talking about denying any of that. What I am talking about is not allowing ourselves to be defined by our own experience as victims. It is an utterly life-stealing belief to see ourselves primarily as victims, to seek empowerment through victimhood, and to be stuck in our reactions to it. There is a lot of this going on in the world, especially in this highly divisive cultural moment in the United States. Whether on the right, left, or center politically, there are people who see their primary identity in their victimhood and then let that define everything about who they are and how they live. It feels like a powerful thing especially when it creates identity groups of victimhood. And there can be power in it, and some of the power can be harnessed to address injustice and give voice to political grievance. But in the end, it is dehumanizing and severely limiting when it is our only or primary identity as a person.

Jesus is God’s transforming power to live by a life-giving identity outside of and beyond victimhood. He himself is the ultimate victim of political and religious powers. His whole life leading up to his unjust execution was focused on connecting people to God and to each other in a community of love, grace, service, generosity, and hope. It was an empowering message that pulled people into their true identity in God, not into their victimhood identity created by the society around them. And then in becoming the ultimate victim, God raised him to new life to offer the true fullness of life as God intended it: not as an eternal victim, but as the victor whose life of selfless love empowers us all to life the same kind of selfless love in this world.

How can you tell Christ is no longer living in his own victimhood, but instead as the victor in God’s resurrection power? Because he did not rise up to go back and try to get revenge on his enemies. He didn’t tell his disciples to seek some kind of earthly justice for the horrific injustice of his own crucifixion. He sent them to love, forgive, and work to end victimization by living in an utterly different reality called the reign of God. Faith in Christ is important because it means giving up our own victimhood identities and our own desire to seek retribution on those who have harmed us, and instead to seek to bring everyone into a new identity of neither victim nor victimizer, but victor in God’s love in Christ. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be earthly, civil, governmental ways of seeking justice for victims of every kind. It means knowing that even that does not ultimately give us the fullness of life or define who we are in God and in community with one another. 

It's hard to have selfless love for others when you’re stuck in a victimhood identity. It is draining, it fosters resentment, and it erases the full and deep truth about your own full human identity in God. It is always tempting to remain a victim, and it can be incredibly difficult to escape that victimhood identity when you have been so deeply wounded by powers that victimized you. Many of us need years of therapy and lots of time and patience with ourselves to even begin to have a different, non-victimhood identity. But giving up victimhood through the power of the paschal mystery of Christ is the truly empowering good news we need.

You can be angry at me for saying this. You can say I’m just a privileged person who has never experienced victimhood and doesn’t care about victims. You’d be wrong, of course. Even in all my privileges I’ve experienced being a victim of institutional and personal power others have wielded against me. I’ve suffered personal and familial tragedy. I’ve had cancer. I’ve been tempted to cling to that victimhood because it feels empowering. But the truth I’ve realized in myself is that it never gives me life, it never empowers me to love others, it never sets me free.

My proposition, wonderful person who has kept reading to this point, is that you and I can be truly free in Christ’s death and resurrection because we can give up clinging to victimhood as our true or primary identity. Lent can be our time to ponder all this in anticipation of our personal and communal renewal at Easter. It’s probably painful and hard work to do because it feels like letting go and losing. I’m going to work on that, because honestly, I’ve been clinging to a few victimhood identities I’ve had. The pain has been real, but clinging to it has only hurt me even more.

We can be free in Christ the victor to be victors with him. We can let Lent be a time to slowly let go of the grip of our own victimhood, even when we have every right to cling to it. It can be our time to find true transformation and empowerment in Christ the victor.

Of course, that means I might have to start introducing myself as “Michael Victor” which is actually my name in Irish already. But now, you and I, can be victors of another kind, victors in Christ who are able to love more, hope more, and live more than we ever imagined.


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