The Difference Between Martyrdom and a Victim-Complex

To be a martyr is to be like Christ: to live by dying and in dying, to find life. Martyrdom is commended to us by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:1, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship.” In the sacramental rites of Baptism and the Eucharist, martyrdom is enacted ritually as we are crucified with Christ. To be a disciple, then, means to heed his call, “take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), a participation in the Christ-story that involves emulating him in every aspect of our lives. The Christian life is the process whereby we attempt to realize our baptisms in the mundanity of the everyday until all parts of our lives are crucified. Martyrdom, then, is not the lofty call of a few blessed saints who appear inaccessible given their super-human holiness; it is the call of every Christian who has passed through the waters of baptism.

Looking at the Church in North America, it is difficult to say the concept of martyrdom has really taken hold. In spite of our collective affluence and social privilege, too many American Christians are quick to throw the word persecution around to describe their experience. According to a 2016 study done by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings, almost 50% of Americans believe Christians are victims of discrimination. The number gets up to 77% when the question is limited to white evangelical Protestants while a substantially smaller 54% of Mainliners, 53% of white Catholics and Black Protestants, and 50% of Hispanic Catholics agree. This mentality seems to be increasingly prevalent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent election, and subsequent political unrest. In response to a parallel decrease of the Church's social and political presence and the increase of secularism and pluralism, the American Church appears less interested in martyrdom than it is in maintaining a victim-complex.

It should be stressed that there is a substantial difference between being a victim and the development of a victim complex. To be a victim is to suffer a wrong that often comes with substantial trauma. Part of the healing process involves an acknowledgment of this to be the case. However, when it is not properly dealt with, that trauma can lock one into a destructive cycle where all of reality is reinterpreted through the lens of being a victim. In “The Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood” Rahav Gabay and her collaborators define victimhood as “an ongoing feeling that the self is a victim, which is generalized across many kinds of relationships. As a result, victimization becomes a central part of the individual's identity.”

They argue that this way of interpreting one's reality is debilitating, resulting in four effects: the need for recognition, moral elitism, lack of empathy for others, and a rumination over personal offenses. It is important to note, too, that Gabay et al. find that one does not have to experience an actual trauma to develop a victim mentality. It is a Christian conviction that special care needs to be afforded to the victimized. Because Christ suffered as the ultimate victim, we identify the suffering of those victimized with his. However, a victim complex is not equivalent to being victimized and it is certainly distinct from martyrdom.

To demonstrate the difference between martyrdom and a victim-complex, the character Father Velasco from Shusaku Endo's novel The Samurai offers a helpful case study. Velasco is a seventeenth century Franciscan missionary intent on evangelizing the nation of Japan—and becoming a bishop in the process—in spite of the country's crackdown on Christianity. Based on the desire to win an internal power struggle against his Order's rival, the Jesuits, and to outmaneuver factions within the Japanese government who desire to persecute Christians, Velasco sets out on a journey with four emissaries from Japan, Matsuki Chusaku, Nishi Kyusuke, Tanaka Tarozaemon, and the main character, Hasekura Rokuemon.

The journey is conducted under the pretense of sailing to Nueva España (Mexico) to broker a trade deal between the Japanese and New Spain. But even the best-laid plans come to naught as the party fails to garner traction in Nueva España and Europe. In his defeat, Father Velasco takes a position at a quiet monastery in Manila until he has an epiphany that forces him to confront the reality that his intentions were based on self-interest and, as a result, his conduct was warped. So, he returns to an even more hostile Japan where he is almost immediately arrested and burned at the stake.

To take on a victim-complex requires an a priori act of idolatry. In Velasco's case, his political machinations stood in the place of God as the ultimate end of his life. He was willing to use his Japanese co-travelers as pawns in his game, convincing them to be baptized without belief in the Gospel but for the utilitarian purpose of keeping “the mission” alive by currying political favor. The only way for Velasco to destroy his political idol is for him to be destroyed by it. This occurs in two ways.

First, in his encounter with the ecclesial authorities of his own Church, he begins to ascertain the insufficiency of the political. In a meeting with a Cardinal at the Vatican, he is told the Church cannot send priests to Japan because they would be throwing away resources. To Velasco, this is akin to the reasoning used by Caiaphas who counseled the Jewish leaders that it was preferable to sacrifice the one for the many (John 18:14), a fact acknowledged by the Cardinal who emphasizes the “obligation” of the Church to leave the one lost sheep for the 99, a complete inversion of the Christological ethic given to us in the Gospels (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7). The Cardinal is revolting because he holds a mirror up to Velasco, showing him how he has treated the Japanese.

The second experience that jars Velasco from his idolatrous stupor is when he is informed of the uptick in the Japanese persecution of Christians. It is here he realizes how stark the battle lines are. The ruler of Japan is not a neutral party who can be persuaded with the promise of trade; he is Nero, a ruthless persecutor of Christianity who desires to snuff out the light of Christ in Japan once and for all. Yet what seems like defeat is what opens Velasco's eyes as he becomes cognizant of the deficiency of his missiological strategy. The contrast between his political mode of thinking and the crucified God-Man is stark:

That plump, Chinese-looking monarch may have conquered us Christians in the political arena, just as Nero defeated the Apostles, but we shall triumph in the world of the spirit . . . It's all an exact replica of the circumstances at the time of the Lord's passion. In the political arena, presided over by the High Priest Caiaphas, the Lord was spitefully used and then tossed aside, and finally hung upon a cross on the hill of Golgotha. But our defeated Lord achieved his victory among the souls of mankind (223).

What is Velasco's response to the revelation of his inadequate methodology? Imitatio Dei. He returns to Japan knowing death would certainly be meeting him there. To the Japanese, this is incomprehensible. Consider this exchange he has with an officer who attempts to persuade him to apostatize rather than being put to death:

“Listen . . . don't you think this whole thing is ridiculous?” On his way out, the official peered sympathetically into my face. “You might have done some good for the Christians and other people if you'd just stayed quietly in Luzon . . . It's almost as though you came to Japan simply so you could be arrested and meaninglessly killed. That's just plain lunacy.”

The exchange continues:

“It is not lunacy,” I replied with a smile. “It happened because of the way I am. It's very much like what your Buddhist priests call karma. Yes, this was my karma. That's how it seems to me. But I believe now that God has made use of my karma to benefit Japan.”

“How do you think your God made us of it to benefit Japan?” the official asked, even more puzzled than before.

And this is the clincher:

“Your question itself is the answer,” I asserted. I spoke with determination, not only so that he might understand, but also to reaffirm my own feelings. “You have said that what I did was ridiculous. I understand that. But why did I knowingly perform such a ridiculous act? Why did I deliberately do something that seems so lunatic? Why did I come to Japan knowing I would die? Think about that sometime. If I can die and leave you and Japan to deal with that question, my life in this world will have had meaning.”

“I don't understand.”

“I have lived . . . Whatever else may be, I have lived. I have no regrets” (255).

The incomprehensibility of martyrdom is its strength as the ultimate testimony. The Gospel does not “make sense” precisely because it is foolishness to human wisdom (1 Cor 1:18-31). It is bizarre, too bizarre to be true because the Gospel forces us to intentionally embrace weakness.

From Velasco's character arc, we can make three distinctions between martyrdom and the development of a victim-complex that can be brought to bear on our present context. Namely, they differ in three ways: mode, manner, and aim. We see the divergence between them in mode by going back to Velasco's use of politics and then his embrace of the cross. In his quest for political success, an ambition he was able to justify through utilitarian reasoning, Velasco's focus was self-centered: only he knew how to properly evangelize Japan, only he should be elected bishop to further the mission.

The perceived attacks from the Jesuits give him a superiority complex and become the focus of his ruminations. This is radically different from the Velasco at the end of the book who has embraced a cruciform life. This enables him to overcome the petty rivalry as he is put to death next to a Jesuit priest and to put the conflict behind him, insisting on their unity in martyrdom, “Tomorrow we will be together in the same country” (264). Even more, the shift to a cruciform mindset enables him to die for the other. The Japanese are no longer the means by which he can receive power and recognition, but they are objects of his love, a love transfigured by God's love for them.

The contrast between martyrdom and a victim-complex is also one of manner. In this way, Our Lord provides an example: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth ” (Isa 53:7). On the other hand, the victim-complex is boisterous because it must call attention to itself. As Velasco battles the Jesuits, he frequently casts himself as the passive victim of their unfair treatment, a view which frequently leads to outbursts. By the end, however, he takes his fate without the need to draw attention to himself. Even when discussing his imminent martyrdom, it is clear his motive is different: his death finds its significance only in that it emulates Our Lord’s.

This leads us into the final distinction that separates martyrdom from the victim-complex: the aim. Actions are directed towards an ultimate end. It is clear that Velasco's aim changes by the end of the novel. What does his political posturing, planning, and use of the Japanese tell us about his ultimate end? That it is himself. He weaponizes religious language and piety in ways that make him hardly different from the Japanese who allow themselves to be baptized to further their business prospects.

Religion is an instrument by which Velasco can catapult himself into positions of power and influence which makes his character's evolution so dramatic: by the end, he destroys this idol as the reality and significance of the Cross really dawn on him. He has tried to instrumentalize God for his purposes but in going to his death, he finally recognizes that he is an instrument to be used for God's purposes.

The American Church often looks too much like the earlier iteration of Velasco, seeking political power. In so doing, it often posits itself a victim, and therefore aims at an ultimate end that is an idol. But Velasco's change is a depiction of the potency of grace: if his victim-complex can turn to true martyrdom, so can ours. This only begins when we, like Velasco, are truly confronted with the emaciated God-Man on the tree whose pervasive presence in The Samurai provides us both an example to which we ought to aspire and a reminder that he is with us always, even to the end of the age.

Featured Image: Lawrence OP, Our Lady of the Rosary (Japanese), taken on 26 September 2020; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC ND 2.0.


Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker is working on his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and is a priest at St. Paul’s Anglican Church (APA). He co-hosts The Sacramentalists Podcast and is an editor at Conciliar Post and Earth & Altar.

Read more by Wesley Walker