Biblical Oppression and Liberation

Earlier this month, both the House and the Senate of the state of Tennessee voted to make the Bible its official book. Neither vote was particularly close.

If it hadn’t been for the Governor’s veto, the people in power would have passed the bill. The Bible would have become the official state book because of a vote that put the opinion of the majority over and against the protesting minority.

Which is horribly ironic when you consider that the Bible is a collection of books written by an oppressed people, written about their oppression, to an audience of people who are experiencing that oppression.

It starts with a people group, known then as the Israelites, whose corporate identity began as slaves in the land of Egypt. The beginning of the Israelite story is one of slavery, humiliation, and oppression. Even after their liberation in the Exodus, the rest of the Old Testament reveals how the Israelite people were constantly under the threat of violence from the nations that surrounded them. Many of the Psalms and prophets are records of the Israelite people crying out for relief from the oppression of their neighbors.

Even in the New Testament, Jesus’ life and ministry is among a people who are under Roman occupation. So when the Son of God is born to a Jewish teenage mother and her carpenter husband (who isn’t Jesus’ father), he is born on the very bottom rung of societal influence and power. The book of Acts and the letters of Paul and the other apostles also reflect a Christianity of minority and oppression. The New Testament writers often remind their audience to be faithful in the face of persecution and oppression.

Which puts me in an odd place when I, as a White American Christian, try to put myself in the position of the Israelites and Early Christians. I am not an oppressed minority (despite what The Blaze will tell you), but I read the story of an oppressed minority as if it was my own story.

The hardships in my life are the hardships of a person in power who has never experienced oppression and dehumanization at the hands of someone like me. And when a majority people who hold power and influence in their culture read the Bible without acknowledging their own disconnect from the central characters in the Bible, they cannot really understand how or why God interacts with God’s people.

If we don’t acknowledge that, we will misinterpret the story because we have more in common with Egypt than with Israel. We are closer to Pharoah than to Moses.We are more similar to Nebuchadnezzar than to Daniel.  More like Pilate than Jesus.

So how can we possibly hope to understand the perspective of the Jewish people and their Messiah, if we have more in common with their enemies than we do with them?

First, we can recognize our position of privilege. I know people hate that word, but it’s an accurate term. White Christians in America enjoy unprecedented privilege, where we hold the majority opinion. Nearly all of our national leaders have been white Christian men. Most of our legislators are Christians. We live in a society where Christianity is not only accepted, it’s given preferential treatment–particularly if you’re white and middle or upper class. We can at least acknowledge that privilege and try to read the Bible with consideration to the fact that we aren’t like the people we’re reading about.

Secondly, we can identify contemporary voices to help us understand the perspective of the text better. White Americans have, in the not-too-distant past, been literal oppressors of other groups of people. People whose relationships with God were greatly impacted by the oppression that they experienced. If we want to understand the plight of an oppressed minority, the Church ought to be paying more attention to minority theologians and perspectives. There’s a whole branch of theology known as Black Liberation Theology which addresses the themes of oppression and liberation in the Bible through the lens of slavery and the black experience that white Christians ought to be engaging with. We ought to be in dialogue with Native American Christians, who continue to experience the effects of genocide and forced relocation that white American Christians inflicted on them.

Thirdly, and perhaps most difficult, we can surrender our need to hold onto positions of privilege, especially if our position comes at the expense of someone else. The American Church can never hope to really be like Christ if they refuse to join in his persecution. When Jesus tells his followers that they must take up their cross and follow him, he’s asking them to embrace oppression as a core part of their identity. And to do that, we have to stop calling foul every time somebody wants us to bake them a cake. We have to stop trying to institute laws that prevent other people from exercising the same rights we have. That’s what the oppressor does.

And in the Old Testament, God doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about oppressors. God occasionally uses a Babylon or a Persia to accomplish God’s purposes among the Israelites, but at the end of the day, the harshest judgments in the Bible are reserved for those who use their power and influence to suppress and dehumanize others.

If we really want to understand the Hebrew story, we have to be willing to join in it, even if it means we experience oppression ourselves. We have to be willing to join others who experience hardship and suffering, even though it will mean abandoning our own positions of privilege. It means going against a system that treats us preferentially, and working toward a system that benefits all of its people. And we do that the same way Jesus did – by becoming one of the oppressed and helping lift others out of suffering–even if it means taking their suffering on for ourselves.

I don’t doubt that the lawmakers in Tennessee who voted to make the Bible the official state book did so out of a desire to show respect to the Bible. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their faith. But perhaps a better way to show respect for the Bible and the way it shapes the lives of Christians is to engage in service that lifts people out of oppression. Perhaps a better way to pay homage to the Hebrew testimony of God working in their history is to allow God to continue to work among us, seeking to bring liberation and relief for people who continue to suffer now.

And perhaps a better way for all of us to read the Bible is to let it compel us to take action on behalf of our oppressed and suffering brothers and sisters. The Bible is the story of an oppressed minority being liberated by an all-powerful and all-loving God. What if we joined in?



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