I was reflecting the other day on how we cannot really empathize with the oppressed unless we ourselves have been oppressed.
God took this concept seriously enough that he taught the Israelites in the Old Testament to suffer through oppression under the Egyptians. Why would he do this? They were his chosen people. They had not wronged him greatly at that point and it was not a punishment for anything that they had done (as the exile was punishment later for their disobedience).
Apparently the desired end was to teach them compassion for the downtrodden. After their deliverance from Israel, in preparation for their nationhood, God gives them the precepts that he wants them to follow in order to show the world who he is and what he is like. In the books of the law, God showers Israel with commands on how they are to be kind and hospitable to others:
God tells them that because of their experience as an oppressed people, they should know how it feels and avoid wielding their new power to oppress others. Outsiders are to be treated equally, helped and loved with generosity:
Proverbs teaches us how God feels about the oppressed and their oppressors, always showing favor to the underdog:
The Psalms tell us that God is FOR the oppressed:
The prophets warned Israel that their oppression of others would result in punishment, and they were to turn to justice and righteousness instead:
And when Jesus identified himself as the Messiah in public ministry, he quoted Isaiah, saying:
God (through his Word) has so much to say about oppression and justice. He went to great (and painful) lengths to teach the Israelites about justice by subjecting them to injustice, so that they would remember how much they hated it when they were on the receiving end. And yet, as the generations wore on, they forgot, because the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren had not personally experienced it. The carnal desire for power overcame them, and they ended up oppressing their vulnerable just as much as their ancestors had been oppressed under Egypt. Their punishment was the loss of their privilege, nation, and power in exile.
Today we find American Christianity mired in arguments about whether social justice is worth pursuing, and more politically divided than ever. Frankly, the fact that we can even debate it is surprising given God’s unequivocal position outlined above. Could it be that we are so far removed from being oppressed ourselves (and so comfortable) that we have lost our compassion for the marginalized? And if we cannot find it again, what will God need to do to humble and remind us?
If even the Israelites lost their way and became oppressors after centuries of slavery in Egypt, how much less can we understand the oppressed as wealthy and free Americans? How much easier is it for us to become hardened to others and grab whatever power we can get, forgetting that the oppressed are made in God’s image just as much as we are? May God have mercy on us and show us the way back to him. Jesus came to set the oppressed free. If he lives inside of us, we should too.
Quote of the month
""At the margins is the only place the Church will have credibility."