The hallmark of an oppressive system is that it benefits some people while harming others. Because the system does provide benefits to some people, many believe that the system is fundamentally good. The fact that the system harms some people is attributed not to the oppressive nature of the system, but to the failures of the people who are being harmed. This has the effect of shoring up support for the system, even among those who are harmed by it because to admit that you are suffering is to admit your own unworthiness. Any evidence of harm being done by the system becomes evidence that the system is required to protect what is good about the system from those who are unworthy.
Those who are unable to hide the extent to which they are suffering are unlikely to stand up for themselves, because as members of the human race, they inevitably will have faults and failures. Sometimes they themselves believe the narrative which says they are to blame for their own suffering. Other times they are resigned to suffering in silence, knowing that however unjust it may be, their faults and failures will be used to condemn them and dismiss their complaints against the system.
We see a prototypical example of this sort of oppressive system at work in the book of Job. Job’s friends believe that suffering is caused by sin, that this is as it should be, and that Job’s suffering must therefore be the result of some secret sin on Job’s part. In the story of Job, we see that this is not the case. Job was specifically identified as a good man and God himself rebuked Job’s friends for suggesting otherwise. However, rather than understanding God to be rejecting the oppressive habit of blaming suffering on sin, we tend to read this as the story of a man who was an exception to the rule that you get what you deserve in life. A caution against relying on the system to excess rather than a denunciation of the system entirely.
At the other end, oppressive systems claim that those at the top are owed a larger portion of the benefits from the system because they are simultaneously very good and very bad. They are very good in that they are smarter, more ambitious, more fierce, closer to the divine and capable of wielding more power than the rest. They are very bad because if they are not amply rewarded, they will not use those abilities for the good of others. Their demands are allowed to grow, unbounded by anything outside of themselves as the people who support the system trust them to provide for their wellbeing, provided their demands are adequately satisfied.
An oppressive system always relies on an idol at the very top in order to operate. The idol allows the men who benefit from the oppressive system to lay claim to their right to power as the result of being the living embodiment of the idol. An idol may be a god or spirit, such as the ancient pagan gods or anthropomorphic spirits of the earth even ancestor worship. Or it may be an idea about the proper ordering of humanity such as in monarchies, gender roles or caste systems. Or the idol may be a virtue which is elevated above all others such as intelligence, ambition or strength.
Idols, of course, are by definition false gods, unworthy of worship and unable to provide what they promise. The systems which grow out of them are inevitably oppressive, providing benefits to some while leaving others to suffer. Frequently this suffering is incurred in service to the system itself such as those who sacrifice their children to idols or who work themselves into an early grave providing for families they barely know.
While many today view Jesus as either harmless or an advocate for the system de jour, in reality, Jesus subverts every oppressive system. He demonstrates that only God is worthy of the devotion we humans habitually give to idols. Unlike the idol, which is functionally viewed as simultaneously very good and very bad, Jesus shows us the face of a God who is good in all his ways. He does not provide for us according to our fealty, but causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on all the same. Rather than demanding disproportionate benefits in recognition of his worth and power, God demonstrates his worth and power by giving up all benefits and sharing in the lowest human’s suffering.
Jesus’ ministry was to set humanity free from all oppression. Like Job, he could not be blamed for his own suffering. And by declaring our innocence before God, secured by the work of the cross, he gives lie to the very idea that even imperfect, fault filled humans have earned their suffering. To claim otherwise is to deny the work of the cross and therefore to deny God’s power, faithfulness and promises.
The bible states very clearly what is at the root of every oppressive system; the love of money. M. Scott Peck puts an even finer point on it when he identifies the root of humanity’s evils as an avoidance of suffering. You see, we love money because money provides security. Security means we do not have to deal with the suffering which comes when the sun that shines turns into drought and the rain that falls brings floods.
Helen Keller once said, “security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, not do the children of men as a whole experience it.”
We humans suffer because we have rejected the reality of how God created the world, as an insecure place to live. In its place, we cling to a myth; that we can, through service to an idol, be an exception to the created order. This is why when God answers Job, he points to the created world. “This,” God says, “is the world I have made.”
But still we refuse to accept the reality of our insecure existence. At one point in the book of Job, God asks Job:
Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket? Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?
I have never heard a Christian comment on this without making the claim that it is God who provides prey for the lioness and food for the raven. But that’s not true. Animals starve all the time. What God provides to them is the same thing he provides to us: a world where sometimes the sun brings life and sometimes drought. Where sometimes rains being new growth and sometimes devastating floods. And it does so without regard for the good or evil of any living creature.
If you go back to the fall, when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their eyes were opened. And the first thing they saw was their nakedness. To be naked is to be vulnerable. And they rejected their own vulnerability, attempting to cover it. It was the point at which humanity became slaves to the fear of death.
In that story, Eve observes that the fruit is attractive, nourishing and useful for gaining wisdom. What she did not understand was the price to be paid in gaining those things. But she wasn’t wrong. Today, we are far more powerful in a physical sense than humanity has ever been. Human history has long been one of starvation, with the human population being reduced to 10,000 individuals at one point. Now we produce enough food to feed all 7 billion of us. We build great and beautiful cities. We can cure and prevent sicknesses that were once lethal. We have obtained for ourselves beauty, nourishment and wisdom over the millenia.
The problem is that we have relied on oppressive systems to do it. We have allowed those whose main objective is to avoid sharing in the suffering of humanity to control the process and the benefits obtained through the process. And out of this has come every kind of evil.
If you look at the world around us, you will see two kinds of evil at work among men. One is the evil of those who are determined to obtain security for themselves without regard for the harm they cause other human beings in the process. They take the products of the earth, meant for every man, good or evil, and hoard them for themselves, thus depriving humanity of the benefits of human development. This evil is the evil we reward, often out of a desire to obtain security ourselves.
The other evil is the evil which is perpetrated by those who have been harmed by those seeking security for themselves. This is the evil we condemn and use to justify the oppressive system. We like to think that every person can and should deal with oppression without failing or falling. But the truth is that the suffering we humans visit on each other can destroy us. If all the children of a tribe die because there is no food, that is a tragedy of the sort that befalls the good and the evil alike. If some of the children die while a few survive because their parents took food from the rest, that is an injustice that can twist the human heart.
As much as we like to think that some people are just bad and do evil because of the evil in their hearts, I have spent time with criminals and mentally ill homeless people and addicts. And I’ve never encountered one who had not been severely damaged long before they turned on their fellow man. The oppressive systems we humans divise for ourselves create the very evil they claim to be protecting us from.
The thing about systems is that they are designed to be durable. They are set up to protect themselves. As long as those who are being harmed are powerless, oppressed, fearful or few in number, their power to disrupt the system is very limited. As long as those who are neither benefiting disproportionately nor being egregiously harmed are too fearful, comfortable or blind to oppose the system, the system will stand. And as long as those who obtain power and accrue benefits place their security and survival over their fellow man’s, even disruptions will be nothing more than one oppressive system replacing another.
What makes Christianity and the Way modeled by Jesus so powerful, and so frightening to the powers that be, is that it provides the one narrow path out of the oppressive systems we humans create and rely on. It tells us to eschew security in favor of Godliness. It tells us to imitate God’s perfection by loving and providing for our fellow man, without regard for how worthy or unworthy they might be. It tells us to keep nothing beyond what we need for today, and accept that like the sparrow and the flowers of the field, our lives are short and precarious, but precious in God’s eyes nonetheless. It tells us to reject every idol and serve Love alone, even though doing so likely means incurring the idol’s wrath.
At this point, 2000 years after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we may well ask whether it is either effective or worthwhile to follow this path. The oppressive systems we live with are probably more powerful and impenetrable than anything humanity’s ever experienced before. The mess we’ve made is overwhelming. Opting out is nearly always a fool’s errand. But, later this week, I will explain why it’s all an illusion. As I’ve said before, there are things happening today that are unique in all of human history. Change is coming. Now is not the time to be making peace with or defending the oppressive systems all around us. Now is the time to learn God’s ways and make peace with them. Because ultimately, all our oppressive systems can are nothing more than supersticions of our own making.