Moral Theology Politics & Social Issues Spiritual Formation The Problem of Suffering and Evil

Childhood Trauma, Social Justice and The Tragedy of Guilt Transference

Victim and Non-Victim Groups

I’m of the opinion that the culture we find ourselves in, the culture of social justice “warriors,” snowflakes, safe spaces, gender sensitivity training, “perceived” realities, and “felt needs,” is often, but not always, the result of one group of people (call them the “victim group,” or VG) who in their childhood years were, in some very real way, abused or neglected; and, in carrying that sense of abuse or neglect into their adulthood, these VG people have literally lost the ability to give people they meet as adults the benefit of the doubt with regard to their intentions. 

Now, take another broad group. Call them the “non-victim group” or NVG. Those in the NVG did not experience childhood neglect or trauma, at least not in any egregiously damaging way. Let’s assume then that adults in the NVG group were sufficiently provided for in the four cornerstones of any healthy childhood: they felt physically and emotionally safe, they felt personally valued, they were taught that life has a purpose and told that they have the capacity to accomplish that purpose, and they were modeled hope, meaning they were taught to believe that things, in general, turn out for the best (even if they don’t).

Before I continue, however, I need to make two qualifications to these generalizations. First, not everyone in the VG will necessarily have experienced childhood abuse or neglect. There are other reasons one might be motivated to identify with a VG, some more noble (e.g. there is real social injustice), some quite ignoble (e.g. there is notoriety to attain). One example of the former might be Fr. Theodore Hesburgh’s affiliation with the Civil Right’s Movement of the 1960’s. For sake of not wanting to sling mud, I won’t mention any examples of the latter, i.e. someone associating with a VG for the sake of notoriety. However, simply let your mind run free and in seconds I’m sure you will think of one.

Second, I am also not saying that everyone in the NVG has had a childhood free from abuse or neglect. Some folks who find themselves in the NVG as adults have overcome incredible instances of abuse or neglect, and that overcoming is itself a defining feature of their identity of non-victimhood. However, that there could be a set of people who generally feel or see themselves as victims and a set of people who generally feel about themselves or see themselves as non-victims, seems plausible.

Guilt-Transference and Social Justice

That said, however, it seems to me that many people who often feel themselves the victims of offense, folks who tend to be hypersensitive to common acts of speech, to micro-body movements or even to the lack of hearing the “right words” or receiving verbal or non-verbal acknowledgement, are not really victims of the person or persons they are in immediate contact with. Rather, as victims of someone from their past (usually a parent), someone who truly is guilty of abusing them but whose abuse cannot be addressed directly by the victim (either out of fear, or distance, or some other factor), VG members simply transfer the anger aimed at the real abuser and ascribe intentions based on that anger to the NVG person with whom they now have direct contact (e.g. a colleague in the workplace, or classmate at school, etc.).

One of the best literary dramatizations of this tendency to transfer guilt from a real offender to an innocent one is found in Charles Dicken’s classic Great Expectations, where Mrs. Havisham, the paradigm example of a jilted lover, dedicates her entire, miserable life to one single-minded mission: carrying out vengeance not against the particular man, Compeyson, who actually did the jilting, but against any man, in this case the unfortunate Pip just who happens to cross her path (via the lovely Estella).

Thus, if this relational dynamic of VG people accusing, often without remorse, and sometimes without evidence, those in the NVG is not stopped either by producing the actual facts of the matter (something which tends to only happen in courtrooms and with expensive lawyers), or, better yet, through “strong” Christian love found in a church setting, then there will be a persistent and persistently devastating dynamic of people who have not been abused or neglected as children (at least not egregiously so) being unjustly accused, and, these days, even socially and economically ruined by people who have been abused, but whose abuse happened in the past, and at the hands of another. 

In short, happy, well-adjusted people get screwed over because they fail to undo what has been done to someone who is a real victim, but not their victim. Moreover, those who are happy become recipients of the same “Pipian” injustice, while Compeyson continues to get off scott free, and Mrs. Havisham descends deeper and deeper into bitterness and contempt. If such a dour relational dynamic is not alleviated within the safe confines of a Gospel-filled, Spirit-empowered church, then it will be hell for the saints, but heaven for the lawyers.

Lord help us all!

“Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:4-6)

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