What is the difference between a victim and a martyr. Our age is fond of labeling large swaths of people as victims. Blacks are victims of some imaginary system of systemic racism that keeps them down. Addicts are victims of their own neural pathways that tell them that destructive substances and habits are good for them, and they are powerless to escape the grips of their neuropathologies. People who do not like to deal with the awkwardness of those around them are victims of microaggressions, and need safe spaces free of those who would confront their worldview or behavior. Previous generations were less enamored with the idea of victim and instead focused on the question of martyrs, writing huge books on those who had given their lives for noble causes and thus benefited the world through their choice of the noble in the face of great persecution and death. We do not hear so much of martyrs in our age and hear a lot about victims. This is one of the many ways which shows ours to be an age of decline and decadence. What it is that separates the two, though?
At the heart of the matter, the difference between a victim and a martyr is agency. A martyr chooses a course of action–one that is right and good and noble–in the face of danger knowing that the results could be painful and even fatal. The decision to be a martyr is the result of deliberate steps that one has taken with sometimes predictable results. An Edmund Campion, for example, goes into an England with violently hostile laws and knows that he will likely be found and tortured and put to death and does so anyway. A whole slew of pietistic faiths base their ambivalent attitude towards involvement with the political and social systems of a frequently hostile world to a lengthy tradition of martyrdom at the hands of corrupt and intolerant civic authorities, and yet choose to hold to belief systems that they know to be out of step with the corrupt society around them. A martyr knows that the times are evil and dangerous and does what is right despite the fact that this brings the risk of being targeted by that evil. And thus persecution and tribulation are not a surprise to a martyr but rather a sign that one is doing the right thing and will receive a blessing in heaven as just recompense for one’s present sufferings, and even that the world may be bettered by the example of fortitude and courage in the face of trouble.
A victim has no such agency. Instead, a victim is helpless and lacking in agency and is simply an innocent bystander in the great events going on. A martyr has strength in knowing that present suffering is connected to future glory and that to the extent that we suffer for righteousness sake we share in the experience of our Lord and Savoir on this earth who also suffered to the point of death for the sake of righteousness and who sits in glory at the right hand of Our Heavenly Father. A victim has no such consolation because there was no decision made to stand up in the face of danger and no connection between present suffering and future glory. Thus while martyrology leads one to an understanding of the redemptive path of suffering, for victims suffering is simply unjust and intolerable and without purpose or meaning. The results of this are lamentable but predictable in that victims see no way out of the suffering except to turn those who supposedly have victimized them into victims themselves. They project their lack of agency on those who have supposedly done them wrong and believe that justice demands an overturning of the system to assuage the feelings of weakness and powerlessness that come from being victimized. And so the victim becomes the abuser in the guise of the social justice warrior.
How is it that a victim can regain one’s agency without giving into the dark side of the search for power to torment one’s tormentors and further increase the amount of evil and violence that exists? What is necessary for the victim to regain agency is not power, but rather insight. There are many layers that this insight can take. For example, we may see that life in a world that has devoted itself to rebellion against God and against God’s ways is dangerous and that we may occasionally suffer from life in such an evil place. We may, if we are wise, recognize that we are of the same sort of human nature as those who have abused us and that we have the same potential for darkness and evil inside of us that others have, and this may moderate our own pride and self-regard and lead us to restrain our conduct so that we do not do unto others what has been done unto us, as we are well acquainted with the horrors that unrestrained evil can bring into the troubled and tormented minds of survivors. This insight restores to us our agency, our realization that we must control ourselves, and that those who seek after the power to exploit and take advantage of others do so out of weakness and not out of strength and that there is a better way for us to follow, and this connections our present suffering to future glory and to a vision of a better and non-exploitative world to come while reminding us that we are imperfect and flawed beings ourselves. Therefore let us no longer be victims. If we must suffer, let our suffering be part of a larger context in which we know that the sufferings of this present existence are not worthy of being compared to the glory that is to come, as part of a story that has an ending we know in advance, that we win, and that no evil will be allowed to survive into the world to come, not even the evil inside of ourselves.