Who is the victim?

Back in the 90s, there was a lot of Tory sleaze floating around. And it was quite clear who the victims were in that scenario. MPs broke lobbying rules, tried to hide it and were caught out. When they were found to have broken the rules, they resigned in disgrace. In some cases, they acknowledged fault and apologised. It was all very clear. Breaking parliamentary rules was wrong and those doing so were not victims, but perpetrators who had broken trust.

Today, however, things are somewhat less clear. Owen Paterson yesterday resigned as an MP over a sleaze row. The Times report:

Paterson continued to insist that he was “totally innocent” but is standing down as MP for North Shropshire after what he described as the “indescribable nightmare” of an investigation that concluded he had breached lobbying rules on behalf of two companies, which between them were paying him more than £100,000 a year.

A Tory MP has been found in breach of lobbying rules and yet refuses to accept that he has done anything wrong. He has repeatedly painted himself as a victim, first of a faulty system that he cannot appeal and, latterly, seeking to use the terrible event of his wife’s suicide to elicit sympathy. He insists some ‘mocked and belittled’ her death. He has since argued that the investigation was responsible for her death.

The suicide of Rose Paterson is extremely sad. The Paterson family should have our deepest sympathy for their loss. But, without intending to sound callous, it is not relevant to whether Owen Paterson broke parliamentary rules nor what rightly ought to happen as a result. The two things simply should not be equated. The accusations have to be investigated and, in this case, found that he had broken parliamentary rules. An investigation will cause stress and it is very sad it impacted his wife so seriously. But Paterson broke the rules and thus the stress was induced, ultimately, by him. Even had he been exonerated, these things have to be properly looked into and – stressful as it inevitably is – there is little way around the matter.

But it is notable that, despite being found guilty of breaking the rules, Paterson denies all wrongdoing. Indeed, he continues to assert that he is the true victim. He has since resigned, citing his wife’s death, the good of his family and the cruelty of politics in general as the reason. There is no recognition, or acknowledgement, that he has been found to have broken parliamentary rules. In these modern days of Tory sleaze, the victim is less clear.

I think this shift mirrors something that we see in society more widely. It is well known that Christianized cultures tend to operate on a guilt basis. Personal integrity was valued highly. That is why, though their personal integrity was evidently called into question, it was viewed as ‘the right thing’ to resign when they were found out to have a lack of integrity in the past. If one broke the rules, one bore the consequences. This was deemed the right, and just, outcome.

But our culture has undergone a subtle shift. The guilt-based culture has given way to something closer to the the honour culture more usually associated with the Eastern world. Now, the issue is not integrity, but appearance. The guilt-based culture asks, ‘Is my behavior right or wrong, fair or unfair?’ whereas the shame-based culture asks, ‘Will I look ashamed if I do X?’ or ‘How will people view me if I do Y?’ So, in response to wrongdoing, the right thing to do is secondary to what appears most shameful. And it is this, I think, that drives Owen Paterson not to resign as the right thing to do, but to argue that he has been forced out – the result of a broken system – and to reach for the language of victimhood regarding his situation. If he is a victim, his situation makes him appear less shameful.

But the Christian gospel has something to say to this. Jesus willingly submitted himself to an unjust system, where he was unfairly deemed guilty, so that he could stand in the place of sinful humanity. He did not fight back, or defend himself, but accepted it all. Not because he was guilty or had reason to believe himself shamed, but because he was bearing the shame and guilt of is people in their place. He was accepting the punishment that, rightly, should have been ours.

But to receive Christ’s righteousness and for him to take our guilt and shame, we have to accept that we have, indeed, done wrong. We are not victims, but wrongdoers. We are lawbreakers. We have failed to live up, not only to God’s standard of righteousness, but to societal standards of righteousness and, even, our own personal standards of righteousness. None of us have even kept our own lesser standards, let alone God’s perfect standards. We are guilty and the shame and dishonour is rightly ours. Trying to wriggle out of it is futile; God knows full well.

That is why Jesus went to the cross. He didn’t go for those who are mere victims of an unjust system. He went to the cross for those who acknowledge and own their sin. To receive the righteousness of Christ, we cannot attempt to blame God for the system or brush aside our sin. We must own it, acknowledge it and – most importantly – repent of it. Counterintuitive as it may seem, when we own it and do not seek to hide from it, then Jesus will take our sin and shame and give us his perfect life and righteousness. As 1 John 1:9 puts it: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’