The Victim Triangle and ‘Accepting’ Evangelicals

In a class at college recently, we looked at something called the “Victim Triangle”, or the Karpman Drama Triangle as it is more properly called. It’s a fascinating concept, partly because it’s so simple, and partly because once you’ve read about it you literally see it everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere, but almost everywhere: it’s incredibly common.

So, what is this triangle? Essentially it’s a tool for analysing human interactions and relationships: there are three ‘roles’, and each party plays a particular role in the interaction. As you can see in the image on the right, these roles are: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.

Now, why do I use the word ‘role’ here? It’s significant, because playing a role doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually are that role. In other words, one party may play the role of Victim without necessarily being a victim. Alternatively, one party may be an actual victim but by casting themselves in the ‘role’ of Victim it has a totalising effect: everything about them becomes an aspect of being victimised. And, of course, if one party assumes the role of Victim – it means there must be a Persecutor.

The whole thing is complicated because one party can play multiple roles across interactions – they can move between being a Victim to a Persecutor to a Rescuer and back again across interactions. It’s fascinating. Mike Ovey’s article “Victim chic? The rhetoric of victimhood” analyses the idea of being a ‘victim’ in much more detail – it’s well worth reading and would give a lot more background to this post.

What I’d like you to do, before we continue, is just to stop and think for a second: does this triangle of Victim – Persecutor – Rescuer ring any bells in your experience? Using it as an analytical tool, can you think of any examples where this kind of thing happens in family life, or at work, or even in society at large?

I can think of several examples. I’d like to talk about just one of them.

One group which I’ve heard mentioned a lot recently is Accepting Evangelicals. This is what they say about themselves on their website:

Accepting Evangelicals is a open network of Evangelical Christians who believe the time has come to move towards the acceptance of faithful, loving same-sex partnerships at every level of church life, and the development of a positive Christian ethic for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

So the key word there is accepting. They accept LGBT Christians, they are inclusive, they are open towards them. These are good things – who wouldn’t want to be accepting, or inclusive? Another similar group on Twitter call themselves ‘Diverse Church‘ – diverse, that’s a good thing, right?

But take a step back for a moment: what’s the logical implication of calling yourself ‘accepting’? That some people are not accepting. That some people are non-inclusive. That some people are against diversity.

Let’s think about this in terms of the Victim triangle. Who is the Victim? In this case it’s the LGBT community. Accepting Evangelicals becomes the Rescuer, and the Persecutor… well, that’s me (and others like me). Ouch. That hurts, because I vigorously deny the charge that I am ‘non-accepting’. People who are conservative on matters of sexual ethics are not ‘non-accepting’. It’s just a completely different perspective.

Last month I wrote about why Evangelicals can’t simply “agree to disagree” about matters of sexuality. I think this is another reason why it’s not possible – the ‘accepting’ rhetoric essentially defines the ‘other side’ as being in the wrong before you even get to the specifics.

In the Victim Triangle, there is a connection between Victim and Rescuer: In order for a party to assume the role of Rescuer, there needs to be a Victim. Victim and Rescuer are united against a common enemy, the Persecutor. The Rescuer and Victim enjoy some kind of non-accountability, because they are by definition the ‘good guys’ – they are inclusive. They are accepting. They are saintly, they include people like Jesus would have done. The Persecutors, those non-inclusive, non-accepting, LGBT-hating people are the ‘bad guys’.

Now, let me be clear: I am massively exaggerating. I’m pretty sure no-one in the ‘accepting’ or ‘inclusive’ camp would actually think that, or put it in anything like those terms. However, what the Victim Triangle has made me more aware of is how we often define ourselves unconsciously using those roles. It is very important for us to be careful in how we choose to label ourselves, because once someone is identified as a Persecutor (or Victim, or Rescuer) it can colour everything else they say.

This is how Mike Ovey concludes his essay on victimhood:

…we must beware entering the Triangle in any role, Persecutor and Rescuer as well as Victim. This would be true of our individual relations, spouses, family members, friends, fellow-believers and so forth, and our collective relations. It is enticing to be a Rescuer, yet fraught with temptation to collude with soi-disant Victims to create real but unacknowledged victims. Perhaps we should analyse the chic Victims of the day with more care, rather than rushing in self-congratulation to be their Rescuers. Perhaps, too, evangelicals should be a little more suspicious of attempts to enlist us within the Triangle as Persecutors, as the proponents of homophobia and Islamophobia, amongst others, have so successfully done. For such depictions of evangelicals as Persecutors tends ultimately to silence them, thereby silencing the Gospel they preach. And the real losers there would be the very groups claiming to be Victims.

The last thing I would want to do is silence someone by casting them as a Persecutor. I know I have a temptation in my own heart to cast myself as Victim – perhaps that’s part of the human condition – and a Rescuer is always an attractive proposition. But a Persecutor? No-one wants to be cast as one of those. Let’s see if dialogue is possible without the casting of roles at all.


4 responses to “The Victim Triangle and ‘Accepting’ Evangelicals”

  1. Hi Phill,

    I think much that you say here is right – especially the last sentence. But to be able to dialogue without the casting of roles means (I suggest) being clear-sighted enough to avoid projections, both my own on to others and others’ on to me; and that in turn means (I think) that prayerful, listening attention is needed. As part of that, it seems to me that a healthy self-criticism is vital – as your penultimate paragraph gets near saying. And something about motes and beams comes to mind…. 😉

    A handful more thoughts:
    – ironically some of your piece above can sound like you claiming a kind of victim status – “those folks at AE are falsely casting me as a persecutor”….;
    – I’m wondering if this could be related to (and deepened by) the thought of Rene Girard? were I less lazy I might try it….;
    – I’m also wondering if one way to ‘dissolve’ the triangle, and towards clearer sight, is penitence? Thinking of Paul as a former persecutor for instance…

    in friendship, Blair

    1. Hi Blair,

      What I was trying to get at in my last paragraph was indeed my own temptation to cast myself as Victim. The triangle is very difficult to get away from. I would suggest, though, that use of “accepting” language does set up the Persecutor / Rescuer roles, and perhaps a more neutral term would have been more appropriate. The use of ‘accepting’, ‘inclusive’ (and so on) language is implicitly claiming the moral high ground, no matter how penitent I or they may be.

      Rene Girard is someone I know very little about – I’m not the one to carry on that line of thought either 🙂


  2. Hello Phill,

    thanks for your reply – perhaps I should say that I mostly agree with your original post and that my comment above was (if you can bear my arrogance) trying to take some elements of it a little further. So I agree that the triangle is hard to get away from, and that “The use of ‘accepting’, ‘inclusive’ (and so on) language is implicitly claiming the moral high ground” – though I would add that conservatives try to claim that same ground, only with different language. (Not so sure about the “no matter how penitent I or they may be” part though… am thinking that if anyone is truly penitent s/he wouldn’t be staking a claim to the moral high ground…).

    I’m not sure that “a more neutral term” is possible – after all if there is genuine persecution happening, then there’s no neutral position (because any ‘neutrality’ would in effect be colluding with the violence – and in any case, in terms of the triangle, none of the three positions is ‘neutral’). But that takes us to an element that your original piece and Mike Ovey’s article both mention – what he aptly calls ‘victim chic’, the question of whether one truly is a victim or is rather grabbing at that role, and playing it for all it’s worth, for it is (as you both rightly imply) a way of grasping at a ‘sacred’ power in our culture. (‘Sacred’ because not available to rational discussion).

    I fear I’m just getting verbose without saying a lot…. but I would commend Rene Girard’s thought to you, and the theological development it’s had from James Alison (and others). Continuing being lazy (but note the time 🙂 ) – the Wikipedia piece on Girard isn’t bad ….but perhaps it’s merely pretentious to point to Girard without doing the work of making links between his thought and the triangle.

    in friendship, blair

    1. Hi Blair

      Thanks for your comment again – I don’t think we’re much in disagreement 🙂

      I still think there is something loaded about using the terms ‘accepting’ and so on. One label I’ve heard used is ‘progressive’ evangelical, which I think is a little more neutral – although, as I think we’ve discussed before, I’m not sure I’m happy with the word ‘evangelical’ being used here.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting, if I get time I’ll look up Girard!


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