June 2014

Permissable victims

Permissible victims are defined as those whose life and dignity is violated with very little notice, outrage or public protest, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

Only once have I been ‘bumped off’ a plane. It was in the USA on a 6am domestic flight.

I recall the sequence of emotions: surprise, dismay then anger as I became acquainted first-hand with the airline practice of over-booking planes to guarantee full flights. The airline officials were regretful – professionally so – for any inconvenience that I might subsequently experience.

A minor incident with no long-lasting consequence. However, it was a sobering experience to be treated as a commodity. I was simply a ‘permissible victim’ of the airline’s policy and business plan to maximise profit.

More broadly, permissible victims are defined as those whose life and dignity is violated with very little notice, outrage or public protest. They are the expendables, a by-product of a ‘whatever-it-takes’ mentality that enables others to achieve their goals.

Think permissible victim and think sexual abuse victim, John Ellis, eclipsed by the Church’s concern for reputation and material assets. Think permissible victims and think asylum seekers who attempt to come to Australia by boat. “Stopping the boats” may be a worthy goal, but spare a thought for those who pay the price for this policy and are now housed in harsh, remote off-shore detention facilities for an indefinite duration.

Permissible victims are those who lack leverage and influence, those whose potential for being forgotten and discounted is great. More often than not they are the voiceless, the faceless, the weak and the poor – in a word, those least able to defend themselves.

One definition of a prophet is one who stands in solidarity with permissible victims. The Old Testament prophets railed against the ruthless pragmatism of a society, similar to ours, which creates ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and their ilk, including the wonderfully named Obadiah and Habakkuk, weren’t liturgical police; their message wasn’t “you’ve forgotten the rituals of the temple” or “you’re not reading the Scriptures”. Their consistent message was “You are creating permissible victims by forgetting the poor”. God doesn’t want sackcloth and ashes, holy days and sacrifices, good as these things are, says Isaiah. No, God wants us to free captives, break bonds, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.

This is the prophetic message, manifesto and mission of Jesus, the prophet of the Reign of God. José Pagola’s Jesus an Historical Approximation, a book as refreshing as it is illuminating in exploring the pre-Easter Jesus, portrays Jesus as an itinerant preacher and healer who stands in solidarity with the permissible victims of his day. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are signs that the reign of God had come to the most alienated sectors of society.

Pagola says that Jesus’ behaviour was strange and provocative on two counts: he flouted the establishment’s prevailing social and religious codes of conduct, and he befriended undesirables. Jesus was shockingly inclusive, surrounding himself with society’s dregs including tax collectors and prostitutes. He fraternised with Middle Eastern ‘bogans’ and beggars, the socially marginalised and sinners. He interacted with women in culturally inappropriate ways and, my goodness, accepted them among his disciples.

There was nothing haphazard about the way Jesus did these things, Pagola claims. Jesus was intentionally saying that God’s reign is open to everyone, with no one excluded or marginalised. God’s schema does not allow for any permissible victim. Each person is precious in God’s sight.

Jesus’ modus operandi was extremely threatening to the priestly aristocracy. With the support of Roman officialdom they conspired to eliminate him. “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,” observes ruthless Caiaphas (John 11:50). Jesus becomes the scapegoat, the permissible victim. Pragmatism reigns supreme.

It’s all too easy to create permissible victims. We do it constantly and by diverse means.

1. We create them when we adopt a differing scale or different criteria in assessing who is worthy of human dignity, security, access to resources and who is not. We may muse, as some commentators have done, that it’s “regrettable” that four-year-olds in Pakistan may have to die in US air strikes so that American four-year-olds do not become victims of terrorism. In the ‘war on terror’ the Pakistani four-year-olds simply become that most ugly of euphemisms, ‘collateral damage’.

Foreigners who fly to Australia, overstay their visa and then seek asylum are deemed, by some odd Down Under logic, more worthy than those who board the proverbial leaky boat in an attempt to reach our shores.

2. Permissible victims are less likely to be ‘one of us’ and more likely to be ‘one of them’. Would our country’s shameful indifference to the loss of life of the Siev X, which sank in international waters just south of Java on October 19, 2001, killing 146 children, 142 women and 65 men Middle Eastern asylum seekers, been as great had those on board been carrying British passports? I think not.

3. Stereotyping and labelling creates permissible victims. Once we ascribe a person with our label of choice – “bleeding heart”, “ultra-conservative”, “red-neck” – it is easy to dismiss them and ignore their contribution. Apart from being evidence of sloppy thinking, stereotyping and labelling, it causes us to close ourselves to the unique mystery of the other. We fail to acknowledge their full personhood.

4. Bad religion and bad nationalism create permissible victims. We build straw gods to justify political action. For decades Scripture was used to justify the apartheid regime in South Africa (for example, Romans 13:1-7). We readily recognise the false god of the Islamist suicide bomber and we see it on ‘our side’ as well. George W. Bush said that God guided his decision to bomb Afghanistan and that “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq”. Such a god and not the God of Jesus Christ, justifies the creation and extermination of permissible victims.

5. We create permissible victims when we make ourselves the centre of our universe. We greedily take for ourselves the greater bulk of the earth’s resources. We ravage the earth with hardly a thought for other species who share our planet home. We scapegoat, we wage war, we allow torture, and we turn a blind eye to the desperation and needs of others. We have done this in Syria and Manus Island.

From the lofty realms of my moral high horse, I readily point the finger at those who create permissible victims. Yet honesty demands that I acknowledge how seamlessly I slip into the practice. I have betrayed and victimised as many people who have betrayed and victimised me. I have labelled others as often as they have labelled me. My contempt for others is the corollary of my self-righteousness.

My practice can be subtle and sophisticated. It is de rigueur for me ‘to have a go’ at this person, to make that group the butt of my jokes, to rail against the treatment of this group, but not care a slither about that group, to dismiss what someone has got to say even before they’ve said it.

What to do?

I can try and be more mindful of the reality of permissible victims. I can choose to stand in solidarity with one particular victimised group. Rather than skimming and scanning I can commit to the careful reading of news reports for this group. I can be grateful that God’s ways are not my ways and pray for a deeper sense of kinship and empathy with others.

I can also hope that the next time I’m metaphorically ‘bumped off’, I can try and redirect my anger away from my own self-pity and spare a thought for the real permissible victims in my world.

I can but hope and try.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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