Dr. John Young Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville
Victims, Dependence, and Empowerment
Almost no one would choose to be a victim. Generally, people try to be independent rather than dependent. To empower yourself and to act in ways that empower others is a widely shared goal in contemporary society. However, it also appears that many people find ways to present themselves as chronic victims. Modern life often nurtures dependence rather than independence. People spend lots of time, energy, and money trying to limit, constrain, and disable others. Many people also persist with habits that limit, constrain and disable themselves. There are tragedies, ironies, and quandaries in these words and their cultural implications.
The word ‘victim’ has roots in the holy; ideas of human sacrifice to a deity or necessary sacrifices in the performance of a sacred ceremony or ritual. Saint Thomas Aquinas said of Jesus: “O saving Victim, opening wide the gate of heaven to man below.” President G.W. Bush speaks of the “necessary sacrifices of our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the sacrificial deaths people from those countries are making to secure the treasures of democracy.” A victim is “a person who is acted upon by a force or agent, usually adversely. A victim is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed, subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment, even tricked or duped.”
To ‘depend’ comes from roots than mean “to hang upon. Dependence implies that you are influenced, determined, or subject to another. It suggests reliance, trust, and habituation.” Walt Whitman talked about the rest of us depending upon “the youthful, sinewy races.” All of us have been like Blanche in Tennessee William’s Streetcar Named Desire and “depended upon the kindness of strangers,” but most of us, most of the time are uncomfortable when we are visibly dependent upon strangers. Lucretia Mott, before the Civil War, said: “Let women go on—not asking favors, but claiming as a right the removal of all hindrances to elevation in the scale of being—let her receive encouragement for the proper cultivation of all her powers, so that she may enter profitably into the active business of life…Then in the marriage union, the independence of the husband and the wife will be equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.”
Power comes from roots of being “potent and able. It implies control and influence. To empower is to provide with power, with official or legal power, to enable and to promote self-actualization.” Henry Adams said that “the effect of power on every person is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” If this is so, how can we empower others while empowering ourselves? Elie Wiesel pointed out that “victims, rejected and condemned usually do not reject their faith in history and often do not even despair but persist in surviving and testifying. So the victims elect to become witnesses.” 19th century author Charles Baudelaire caught the sense that many of us sometimes have of being both the victim and the aggressor: “I am the wound and the knife! I am the blow and the cheek! I am the victim and the executioner!” However, my objective in this sermon is to argue in the words of 20th century French resistance fighter and Nobel Prize winning existentialist author Albert Camus that “we should neither be victims nor executioners.” He had been both, and he knew the agony of each, and he wanted humankind to empower themselves beyond these false and dead-end dilemmas.
When America was a frontier culture, the average citizen may have needed a gun, but today, I believe there is little doubt that guns in the hands of the average citizen do little good and much harm. The military need weapons and law enforcement needs weapons, but the first step to decrease violence in our society is to eliminate hand guns from the civilian population and to strictly limit larger fire arms to controlled groups strictly responsible for their use. If America and other civilized and ‘so-called advanced’ nations strictly limited the production and sale of ammunition, arms, and explosives and clearly tagged all of them so that they could be easily traced that violence in the world could be cut in half within a year of these actions. This would give the international community an empowered platform for negotiating an end to most other arms production and the military elimination of the rest of it.
Unfortunately, many poor African-American men and some women and poor Hispanics in America are becoming professional victims who are also professional criminals, along with many Euro-American poor. They excuse their irresponsibly: in crime, gang violence, narcotic and alcohol use, and sexual and gender violation, as excused by their poverty and racism. Ignorant, irresponsible children raise ignorant, irresponsible children, dependent upon one form of institutional support after another. This is the opposite of empowerment. You have a so-called ‘culture’ that celebrates violence, violation, and irresponsibility. This will never move people toward achieving Martin’s dream. It is at present a pre-eminent form of racism in America.
Many people have faced tragic violation in their young lives. Certainly that makes life much harder for them. However, some of them never become violent people themselves. Some of them never violate others, become criminals, or act with systematic and long-term irresponsibility. These people are particularly empowered. They have faced real tragedy in their lives, and they have not just survived. They have also not been satisfied to simply be witnesses, telling others of the dangers, noticing the perpetrators. They have consciously and systematically changed their socialization. They could have learned prejudice, injustice, violence, or hate, but, instead, they transformed the strong messages of fear, bigotry, unfairness, violation, and distaste into hope, tolerance, justice, nurture, and love. This happened because of their own strength of character, but also it was often nurtured by a single good role model, by a momentary mentor who took them seriously and gave them hope. Often, it has depended upon only a few lucky breaks. And the truth is that every human being has at least a few good models in their lives, comes across at least a few people that will help them, and gets some lucky breaks. So, the difference is that some people take advantages of those opportunities and others do not. What we can do better as a society is to see that everybody has more of them, and that if someone is living in or likely to return to a toxic environment that we steer them another way.
Because we do not have unlimited resources of time, talent, or money, we need to permanently re-institutionalize at the minimum possible social cost, the small percentage of the mentally and emotionally ill who are a chronic danger to themselves and others, and the most incorrigible violent criminals. We need to discover them as soon as possible in their lives, and see that they do not reproduce. From my perspective, they have a right to life but not to liberty because the probability of their violently misusing their liberty is unsustainably high. They should not have the liberty to inflict themselves at great social cost upon their societies. If we did this, it would change our sense of social responsibility and our views about liberty and individual freedom. We would be taking a first large step toward saying that freedom must always be paired with responsibility. This seems the only long-term sustainable social choice. Obviously, the professionals and researchers involved could always discover that they could transform some of these folks into good citizens and persuade their societies that they were appropriate risks and should be freed. However, I think the burden of proof should be not on keeping them constrained but upon why they had earned their freedom.
If we did this, then we would be in a much stronger position as societies to focus on how to help the many people who simply need an opportunity, who stand relatively ready to profit from productive time and attention. In many of these cases, I think that the needed social change is to help them extricate themselves from their toxic environments. The abused child should not be returned to the abusive parent. The abused spouse should not go back to the violent spouse. The young delinquent should not return to his or her old, crime-ridden gang-infested neighborhood. They need a different environment. Often, these young people are only the tip of the icebergs for the toxic environments. They are primarily victims; they can change. However, the probability that they will change if they return to the very environments that caused and nurtured the problems is small. This again argues for radical cultural changes. Many parents prove themselves to be toxic parents, and they should not have parental rights or privileges. Society should not pay them to make more mistakes. I don’t think that having children is a human right when it is done irresponsibly even with criminal ignorance and negligence. We need to stop compounding our social problems by stopping our social supports for irresponsible birthing and parenting.
Sometimes when people first come to a Unitarian Universalist congregation, they have gotten the idea that anything goes here. One of the things I say to people in our monthly new person’s orientation is that if a person is an overt racist, sexist or homo-probe, they will not find themselves at home and accepted here or in any other Unitarian Universalist congregation. That is not ok for us. We believe in the worth and dignity of every person, but we also expect every person to act responsibly. We do not embrace violation; we do not embrace unjust violence. We do not celebrate oppression. We are opposed to undemocratic relationships. I agree with what American social reformer Lucretia Mott said more than 150 years ago, but I would apply it to all possible human relationships. Let the independence be equal; let the dependence be mutual; let the obligations be reciprocal, or at least based upon equity.
The legacy of Dr. King is a legacy of empowerment, a legacy that asks every victim to outgrow their own tragedies and to move beyond the pain and injustice they have experienced. Neither Dr. King nor I have much sympathy for the too-easily wounded. For the many people in America who have not suffered much and who have a great deal to be grateful about but manage to waste their lives consumed by their perceived grievances. Sometimes the grievances are not even their own, but are what their ancestors or comrades long ago suffered. These professional victims seldom successfully move beyond survival and carry into every situation their carefully nurtured wounds. These become self-inflicted, self-sustaining wounds that seldom heal.
In the 21st century, we need to become both more individually and socially responsible and more realistically aware of our mutual dependence. The future is not a new frontier, not a laboratory for libertarians. It needs to become a community for mutual empowerment and a community of shared responsibility. Let us learn to refuse to remain a victim and refuse, whenever possible, to become an executioner. There is evil done in this world, and evil-doers need to be constrained and injustice does need to be overcome. But if we wisely seek them out and effectively isolate evil-doers and keep them from infecting the larger society, we can do so much to help the rest us to heal, nurture and flourish. This was King’s dream, and it is my own: to isolate the incorrigible, to lift up those who simply need a chance and a helping hand, and to mutually nourish and sustain communities of responsible people.