Overlords and underdogs

No one can read the Bible without recognizing that God is concerned for the plight of the oppressed. The first five books of the Bible tell the story of God delivering his people from oppression in Egypt. So central is this story for both Judaism and Christianity that it has been cited as prototype for God’s deliverance of his people at several stages in the biblical narrative. Nevertheless, we need to be cautious in our use of oppression and liberation as political categories, because they can lead us astray.

Reformed theologians in particular have emphasized that the Bible is not simply a collection of pious ancient writings but a unified story of God’s redemptive acts in history, culminating in our salvation in Jesus Christ.

A biblical rubric
As we read the Bible through this redemptive-historical lens, we will recognize that, yes, God hates people oppressing others but that the primary form of oppression from which he liberates us is that of our own sinful nature. Indeed, it is sin against God and neighbour that fuels every other form of oppression.

What exactly is oppression? An online dictionary tells us that it is “the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control.” The Bible points to a number of evils that add up to oppression: to render perverted judgements (Ps. 82:1), to take unfair advantage of the widow and orphan (Isa. 1:17), to take what is not rightly yours (1 Kings 21), to tempt others to do wrong (Ps. 125:3), to kidnap and enslave others (Ex. 21:16), and even to express hate for someone else (Matt. 5:21-26).

Here is where things get tricky. The items that fall under the biblical rubric of oppression are also in effect prohibited in the Ten Commandments: You shall not steal, bear false witness, covet or murder. To oppress another is to deny her what she is due. In other words, given the universal reality of sin, there are no clear lines in the real world between oppressors and oppressed, contrary to the claims of so-called cultural Marxists in the universities and elsewhere.

As Bishop Lesslie Newbigin points out, “while oppression and injustice are undoubtedly an important part of the human scene, most people are in an ambivalent position, oppressors in some situations and oppressed in others.” Though there is much to be said biblically for taking the side of the poor and the oppressed (e.g., Ps. 72:4, 13-14), we must recognize that the status of being oppressed does not exempt anyone from the all too human tendency to sin and to commit injustices against others. A key reason why the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians has proved so intractable is that both sides view themselves as victims and underdogs, blind to the possibility that they themselves might be guilty of oppressing others.

Yet as Newbigin observes, “Before the cross of Jesus there are no innocent parties. His cross is not for some and against others. It is the place where all are guilty and all are forgiven. The cross cannot be converted into the banner for a fight of some against others.”

What does this mean politically? It means that we should definitely work to rectify oppressive circumstances, recognizing, of course, that ending all oppression outright is as utopian as an effort to stamp out sin in a fallen world. Furthermore, we should acknowledge that not every undesirable outcome constitutes oppression. Someone expressing disagreement with me, failing to approve my lifestyle, or simply not letting me have my own way, is not oppressing me. And, finally, we need to keep in mind that every one of us is both oppressor and oppressed, equally dependent on God for forgiveness of sin and salvation in Jesus Christ.  

  • David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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