What about the Victims?

January 3rd, 2011

On any given Sunday the preacher could be looking out at oppressors, exploiters, aggressors, invaders, abusers, rapists, murderers, and more. At the same time, however, the preacher is likely to be confronted with the victims of these sins, so that those who have been oppressed, exploited, injured, invaded, abused, raped, and bereft–as well as their families and friends–are also there, waiting to hear a word from God.

A patient comes to see a doctor. The doctor takes account of the patient's symptoms, diagnoses the ailment, and prescribes a particular treatment. If the diagnosis is wrong, no end of problems could ensue. For example, a medicine prescribed according to that diagnosis will be ineffective at best, and harmful at worst, putting the patient's health in jeopardy. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of a correct diagnosis in healing the patient. If a physician were to diagnose every set of symptoms as belonging to the same disease or condition, he or she would be doing a poor job indeed.

Yet that is exactly what we have done in Christian theology. The pews of our churches are filled with people from all walks of life, and many different circumstances. Everyone sitting in the pew is a sinner, of course, but some of those sins fall into the most serious categories. On any given Sunday the preacher could be looking out at oppressors, exploiters, aggressors, invaders, abusers, rapists, murderers, and more. At the same time, however, the preacher is likely to be confronted with the victims of these sins, so that those who have been oppressed, exploited, injured, invaded, abused, raped, and bereft-as well as their families and friends-are also there, waiting to hear a word from God.

In Christian theology we have used only one term--sin--to describe the problems of these very different groups of people. What's more, we have offered but one solution to the problem, the two-way transaction of God's forgiveness of sinners. We have drawn the map of salvation for sinners and have left those who have been sinned against to find the way themselves. It is time for the church to face this issue and provide its own distinct remedy for it. It is time for the church to give a name to the suffering of those who have been sinned against, and to seek their healing.

Sin and Han

As far as I know, there is no general term in Western languages to describe the wound of victims. Fortunately, Korean does have a term for this woundedness: han. While it is an intricate concept, in short han can be defined thus: the psychic and spiritual hurt caused by unjust oppression and suffering. Han is the suffering of the innocent who are caught in the wicked situation of helplessness. It is the abysmal darkness of wounded human beings. Simply put, han is the anger, shame, helplessness, resentment, and any number of destructive emotions unleashed within the human heart when we sin against one another.

Han has two levels: individual and collective. At the individual level, it is brought about by some kind of private offense or oppression (although it can also be part of a larger corporate or structural suffering). It manifests itself as resignation, regret, diffuseness, absence, bitterness, and the will to revenge. At its collective level, han is the corporate will to revolt, collective despair, communal wrath, group discontent, racial resentment, and racial lamentation. The collective dimension of han encompasses chronic and systemic exploitation and injustice. Both individual and collective han involve conscious and unconscious elements. When we are the victims of sin, we consciously harbor feelings of resentment, anger, and rage. Unconsciously, han causes us to see ourselves as those who sin against us see us, creating feelings of shame and worthlessness.

While it is necessary to speak of han and sin as separate realities, in truth there is a complex entanglement between the two. We both sin and are sinned against. The destructive consequences of sin and han create a vicious cycle. Many people who are oppressed in one aspect of life are oppressors in another. When we are sinned against, the resultant shame and anger of han can lead us to sin ourselves by lashing out at others.

This cycle of sin and han illustrates what is wrong with traditional understandings of sin and salvation. We have often heard that when we sin we fall out of fellowship with God, and we need divine forgiveness to restore that relationship. This is undoubtedly correct, but it presupposes that God is the only one affected by our sin. As we have seen, this is not the case. Our sinful actions and attitudes have real consequences in the lives of others, creating the wound-edness of han, which in turn can lead to more sinful attitudes and actions. If salvation is to take place, there must be healing for the victims of sin and oppression, not simply forgiveness for those who have committed sin. The notion of han can help us transcend a one-dimensional approach to the problem of sin in the world. With the oppressor-oriented understanding of sin alone, the Christian doctrine of salvation is helplessly trapped in an individualistic quest for release from the guilt of sin.

The Victimization of God in the Crucifixion

Another benefit of understanding the broader context of sin and han is that it can free us from the lingering effects of the sin-penalty model, the idea that human suffering is the result of divine punishment for individual sin. Many Christians still believe that when we suffer, we do so because God is punishing us for sin. As is clearly shown in the incident of the healing of the blind man (Jn 9:1-41), Jesus disputed this explanation of human suffering. When the disciples saw a man blind from birth, they asked whether his blindness was caused by his own sin or by sin his parents committed. Although this sin-penalty model (also known as the Deuteronomistic theology, for its prevalence in certain portions of the Old Testament) received explicit rebuttal in the book of Job, the idea of sickness as God's punishment was nonetheless prevalent in Jesus' time. Jesus rejected the Deuteronomistic theology by saying that the man's blindness was neither caused by his sin nor by his parents', but for the manifestation of God's work. By flatly denying the popular belief in the sin-penalty model, Jesus opened up the possibility of a new interpretation of suffering: the suffering of victims.

Yet such thinking about sin and retribution has not disappeared from the Christian church. Our traditional interpretations of Jesus' crucifixion demonstrate this fact. The church has understood his execution in terms of the sin-suffering theology: “People sinned and he died for their sins.” This formula displays the retribution model thoroughly at work: since people have sinned against God, someone has to pay for it. Jesus' death is the penalty God required that Jesus pay for people's sin (the substitutionary atonement theory).

Does God really require people to pay for their iniquities? Does God have to let God's own Son be killed as the penalty for peoples' sin? Setting aside the whole the issue of human sacrifice, we see little of the grace and forgiveness of God in this mode of thinking. If God cannot forgive sinners without the violent execution of Jesus, then God is neither gracious nor merciful, but interested only in retributive justice. In reality, however, our God surpasses the sin-penalty model that we have seen above, and is greatly merciful toward suffering humanity.

Taken as propitiation-fulfillment of God's requirement that someone has to pay for human sin-Jesus' execution is hard to understand, let alone defend. Let's assume, however, that Jesus died to forgive people's sin. Such a death would therefore be only for those who had lived before Jesus' time, because it is absurd that God should forgive sins that have not yet been committed. If Jesus died to forgive the sins of all people, including future generations, people after Jesus should not have to worry about sin and guilt, because Jesus has already paid for their sins. In addition, there is no need of repentance because our sins were forgiven through Jesus' death. It is inappropriate to think that God smote Jesus for the sins that people will commit in the future and that God forgave them before their repentance of sin.

In reality, the execution of Jesus defies the sin-suffering theology, expressing God's han caused by human sins. Jesus did not know sin, yet he knew han through and through. Jesus' last cry was a victim's outcry in han: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34). The cross represents the many innocent victims who have suffered injustice and oppression. It is the symbol of God's han. Jesus' cross does not reveal a God who causes human suffering, but rather a God who suffers alongside us. It is the sign of God's great advocacy for the victims of abuse, violence, and unjust oppression, opposing abusive power unto death. The cross offers healing to victims who see God's solidaristic woundedness with them. It offers salvation to offenders by calling them to repent of their sins. The crucifixion signifies God as the victim because of human injustice and violence. Only when we interpret the crucifixion as the supreme expression of God's woundedness in the world will we see its saving power.

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