What does that word evoke for you?
I typed oppression into Google, clicked Search, and it returned 36.5 million results.
There is a lot being said about oppression.
And Scripture says much about oppression, too. In fact, the word oppression appears nearly 4,500 times there.
The first Bible story about oppression details the plight of the Israelites in Egypt and the beautifully momentous exodus that set them loose to chase the everlasting land and the everlasting covenant under the everlasting God.
It’s a wonderful story, but it begins with oppression.
To Be Helpless, to Be Afraid
In the story of Israel in Egypt, we see heartbreaking things. The descendants of Joseph—the inheritance of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—are not there by choice. They didn’t choose to live in Egypt any more than those living in poverty on Peruvian mountainsides or in the Kibera slums of Nairobi chose their destiny.
They were born there, into whatever “there” had to offer.
Granted, for years they had lived under Pharaohs who accepted them, but the new administration had become suspicious of Joseph’s kin.
What if they outgrow us?
What if they take over?
What if we lose our place, our power, our way of life?
The story of the exodus may begin with oppression, but the backdrop is fear.
Fear is a human emotion that can drive us to vote for people with whom we disagree profoundly because they can name, share, and promise to address our fear. Fear comes when we’re confronted with change. Fear names our enemies.
What is oppression? Some think oppression happens “over there”—in countries with tyrannical leaders and weak economic structures—but that it doesn’t happen here.
Some equate persecution with oppression. Some say discrimination—racial or gender bias—is oppression.
But I believe oppression is a problem more basic and more pervasive than any of those examples.
Oppression and Our Spirits
Oppression is a spiritual issue. It is my spiritual issue. It is our spiritual issue.
Here’s the reality: most of us don’t know how our attitudes are oppressive because we don’t know the oppressed. Like Pharaoh, we begin to dwell on all the “what-ifs” about those who are different from us, and all those negatives motivate our politics and practicalities on a daily basis.
It’s important to remember that Jesus was far more likely to be found in the party of the poor than the palaces of the powerful. Jesus was not considered to be against the oppressed, because he was one of the oppressed. He became one of the oppressed, accepting bodily limitations, in order that the oppressed might be freed (Luke 4:18)
When we walk with Jesus, we will find ourselves in the midst of those who are under the thumb of someone for some reason—whether because of their race, gender, political perspective, poverty, or sexual orientation—and so we need to address the ways in which we stand beside Jesus and either encourage or inhibit that oppression.
To do that is a question of heart.
Married couples do a dance of the heart every time they say things like, “Were you planning on going to the store today?” It’s interesting because no one on earth believes the one asking is simply looking for scheduling details. There’s an underlying reason. If I ask the question, I’m probably interested in my wife picking up ice cream or pizza (or both!).
My question reveals my motivations.
Jesus knew how to deal with motivations. In an interaction with the Pharisees and a man with a withered hand, Jesus chose to heal on the Sabbath. The Sabbath itself had become a device—a ritual of exchange, of trying to fulfill an obligation—that was so tightly pressed onto people that they couldn’t even consider the good of a man with a crippled hand.
Jesus, before he healed the man, identified the motivations. Luke 6:8 says, “But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Get up and stand in front of everyone.’”
The “they” in the passage were the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and here’s what they were thinking: This man is unclean, fractured, a cripple—it isn’t worth breaking a known and vital law for him. When the system becomes more important than the soul, oppression is present or knocking at the door. The motivation was preservation of a system and the positions of power it offers.
A Moment with the Mirror
One way we can begin to think about the oppressed differently is to carefully and prayerfully consider ways in which we are oppressors. How do our actions, attitudes, and approaches push an individual or group down in order to keep ourselves up?
Let’s begin with our speech. The Scriptures teach that our speech is critical to our faith. For example, James paints the vivid picture of the tongue as a spark that spawns forest fires (James 1:26; 3:5), Jesus teaches that our words show the world what is boiling over out of our hearts (Luke 6:45), and Paul indicates several times that speech is a good and holy way of changing the lives of others and that we should tend that gift well (2 Corinthians 6:7; 8:7; 1 Timothy 4:12).
We also do well to remember that, as people created in the image of God, we inherit speech as a way of “world making.” Since God created the very good world by speaking it into being (Genesis 1, 2), isn’t it possible you and I could create worlds of hope and worlds of horror in the same way?
So husbands, examine the language you use about your wife. Do you tell stories that put her in a shameful or lesser light? Why do you do this?
Wives, do you do the same thing with your husbands? Do you engage in bashing your husband to be a part of the conversation?
Or how do you refer to groups of people—whether in conversation or on social media? How often do you use the terms “they,” “them,” or “those people”? These terms can be ways of removing a person’s individuality so that they can be dismissed as a group.
Do we laugh at or share jokes that demean or ridicule a group or gender? If so, what picture are we painting of Jesus? I’m not opposed to humor, but there’s a point at which humor is not used to lighten the heart, but as a weapon to destroy and devalue others. Our humor could use some thoughtfulness, discipline, and clarity.
Here’s a suggestion that may help push against our own little “inner oppressor.” Begin a practice today, either with a journal or digital document, where you record every time you use phrases such as “they,” “them,” and “those people.” Who were you referring to? Did it paint that person in a good light or a negative light? Were they life-giving words or death-dealing words?
Me but Not You
To be sure, it’s difficult to discuss oppression, and more specifically, the definition of the “oppressed.” How much easier it is to claim oppression than to acknowledge the oppression of another.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We will continue to despise people, until we have recognized, loved, and accepted what is despicable in ourselves.”
Regardless of what we may believe about politics or economics, the reality is that the end of oppression begins when Jesus speaks to the Pharaoh that lives inside all of us and says, “You are already free. Let the others go as well.”
Casey Tygrett serves as spiritual formation pastor with Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois.