If you are, as I am, bewildered at the sight of biological males competing in female athletic events (e.g., track, wrestling, and weight lifting) or by the sight of wealthy, privileged Yale undergrads screaming at faculty members (for writing a memo asking for toleration of diversity in Halloween costumes), or by the prospect of a leading scholar and physician of gender dysphoria being banned from social media platforms for daring to suggest that minors should be required to wait until age 21 before undergoing permanent sex-reassignment surgery), or by rhetoric that implies that the social and economic conditions of ethnic minorities in the USA is virtually unchanged since the 1860s, there are two words that provide at least a partial explanation: subjectivism and oppression. In Europe, beginning just before the 20th century and intensifying after World War I there was a marked turn among philosophers and scholars and by laity to various forms of subjectivism, the notion that one’s personal experience defines reality. This turn to subjectivism gained influence in the USA beginning in the late 1960s and washed over American universities like a Tsunami in the mid-1980s.
A corollary to the rise and triumph of subjectivism is the Late-Modern turn to therapeutic categories for understanding problem. Pastors begin to sound, in the pulpit and in print, more like therapists than preachers of God’s law and God’s gospel. Civil authorities issue policies not on the basis of what is objectively just (after all, who believes in objective truth or reality any more?) but on the basis of how a word might make someone feel. This is how is has come to be considered a crime in some places to “misgender” someone, i.e., to refer to them according to their biological sex (objective reality) rather than addressing them according to their subjective identity. This is how one is able to ”identify” with a sex or an ethnicity to which one does not actually belong. In the therapeutic paradigm, the most important question is not “is this actually true?” but rather, “How does this make you feel?”
This subjective turn, where one’s feelings and self-identification are treated as though they are objectively true even though everyone knows that they are not, helps to explain how we got to such a place. If you are still struggling to understand the categories, think of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. In that story, all the grown ups knew that the emperor was a fool and going about naked but only the child who still believed in objective reality dared speak up and say what everyone else knew to be true. This is where were are. Many of those who teach in universities and colleges, who write our television and movie scripts, who write policy, who run corporations, in short, those who shape our culture, are determined to convince us that the naked emperor is actually well dressed.
How does subjective turn and the Triumph of the Therapeutic (Philip Reiff) intersect with oppression? That is the question and “intersection” is essential to the answer. Under the new subjectivist therapeutic regime, it matters less whether one is actually being oppressed and much more whether one feels oppressed.
What is oppression? The Oxford Dictionary of English defines it as “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority.” Under subjectivism, refusing to allow a biological male, who identifies as a female—but who is not actually, biologically female—to compete in female athletics is considered “oppression.” By contrast, before the therapeutic revolution we considered the Nazi occupation of Poland (1938–45) or the Japanese colonization of Korea (1910–45) or the Soviet Occupation of Eastern Europe (1945–91) to be examples of oppression. Islamist tribes murdering Nigerian Christians, something about which one reads little in the mainstream press, qualifies as oppression. The enslaving of Africans in Britain and the US was real oppression. The Jim Crow system that prevailed in the American South for a century after the American Civil War was a form of oppression. In these examples oppression is not defined subjectively. It is objectively true, i.e., it is true regardless of how one feels about it, that Poles were abused and cruelly treated by Nazis. Polish Jews were subject to mass murder. Africans were stolen and transported to America and denied the natural liberties (i.e., the relative absence of external restraints) that the American Declaration of Independence says belong to all humans made in the image of God. They were not free to enjoy life, freedom of movement, association, religion, commerce, expression etc.
Under the intersectional definition of oppression, however, one assesses one’s identifies—not what is objectively true, mind you, but what is subjectively and affectively true; how one identifies one’s self and how one feels (hence affectively)—and counts one’s identities and/or victim statuses the various ways one feels oppressed. Hence the image of the “Oppression Olympics.” The intersectional (subjective) understanding of oppression rewards people for finding (or inventing) identities and ways in which one has been oppressed. The one with the most oppression medals wins.
Contra the subjectivist-therapeutic and/or intersectional model, as we have already noted, there is real oppression in the world. Scripture is quite realistic about its source, its nature, and its affects (how it makes one feel) and effects (its objective consequences). Scripture speaks plainly to Christians about the sin of oppressing others and promises a glorious liberation to those who, in this world, for Christ’s sake, are oppressed and we will consider what Scripture says below.
The Reality Of Oppression
As noted last time, oppression is real. The enormous, almost unthinkable, death toll produced by various oppressive regimes in the 20th century stand as a stark witness to its reality. The Nazis murdered no fewer than 6 million Jews in an effort to exterminate an entire people group (genocide). The Soviets murdered 20 million farmers. The Turks murdered a million Armenians. No one knows how many millions Mao murdered in China. One of the greatest and quietest acts of oppression continues today. Americans have murdered more than 60 million infants since 1973. Perhaps more people were killed by oppressive regimes in the 20th century than in any other century in human history. That is not a record of which Modernity may be proud. At the moment the entire globe has become conscious of the evil of human trafficking. Remarkably, in what is supposed to be an “enlightened” age, we are still struggling with ancient and persistent evils.
This is because oppression, of course, did not originate in the 20th century. Cain oppressed Abel: “Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him” (Gen 4:8; NASB). Scripture characterizes Abel’s murder as an act of oppression and injustice: “He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground (Gen 4:10; NASB). Our Lord Jesus (Luke 11:51) lists the murder (might we call it a martyrdom?) of Abel as one of the injustices with which his generation will be charged. The Apostle John’s interpretation of Abel’s murder is instructive: “not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous” (1 John 3:12; NASB). Abel was righteous and Cain was unrighteous, “of the Evil One.”
The Evil One is the source of oppression. It is not that he is some deity parallel to the sovereign, Triune God who spoke creation into existence and who redeems his people by the blood of Christ. It is, however, that the Evil One is a liar and an oppressor. He promised a false liberation to our first parents, Adam and Eve. He promised that, were they to enter into covenant with him rather than to keep the covenant of works with Yahweh Elohim, that he would grant them power to be as God, “knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). He promised them eternal life (3:4). It was an alternative covenant, a false covenant, and a lying covenant. Of course, the outcome was entirely predictable.
We understand by observing daily life. Drug dealers make lying promises. They promise that meth, weed, cocaine, heroin, oxy, and booze will set you free. Lots of drugs produce an initial euphoria but, of course, it cannot last. Once one is hooked, one is a slave. Take a look at the before and after pictures of meth users.
The Egyptians oppressed the Israelites for 400 years (Ex 1:12; 3:9; Deut 26:6; Judges 6:19; 1 Sam 12:8). The Lord told Abram (Gen 15:13) that the Jews would be oppressed: “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers ina land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed (וְעִנּ֣וּ) four hundred years (NASB). God repeatedly said to his people that they must not oppress others because they themselves were oppressed and were liberated by God’s gracious power. More on this next time. The same verb translated with “oppress” in one form is also used to for rape (Gen 34:2; Deut 22:24, 29).
The Israelites were genuinely oppressed. Scripture says:
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them (Ex 1:8–14; NASB).
This went on for 430 years (Ex 12:41; Gal 3:17). Things began badly after Joseph’s death and they got worse. At one point the Egyptians slave masters made the Israelite form bricks without straw (Ex 5:7–18). We use this as a figure of speech when our bosses give us extra work without any additional help but it was literally true (as distinct from figuratively) for the Israelites. They were forced to make actual bricks without any actual straw.
Salvation From Oppression
The Israelites did not have to discover or invent an identity or an intersection of identities to find or invent ways in which they were being victimized. Every time a slave master’s lash hit the back of an Israelite, they knew they were being oppressed. It was so hopeless and they were so helpless, of themselves, that only God could save them and he did.
Just when he had promised all those years ago, Yahweh did deliver his people by his sovereign power. He sent 10 plagues upon Egypt. He hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:16). Finally, Pharaoh released them and then, of course, changed his mind. There they were with their backs literally (not figuratively) to the Red Sea (or the Sea of Reeds). All looked lost but it was not:
But Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. As for you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, and the sons of Israel shall go through the midst of the sea on dry land…Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. The sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left (Ex 14:13–16; 21–22; NASB).
That is the nature of salvation from oppression. The Lord does it by the power of his Word, through a mediator. The ground of their deliverance was the blood of the lamb (Ex 12:21–32) and signified and sealed by water baptism (1 Cor 10:1–4) and by a supper afterward (Ex 12:42–51).
Redemption is just as real as oppression. Just as the Israelites were not able to redeem themselves, so it is with us. We need the Lord to go before us. We too need the blood of the lamb, a Mediator, baptism, and a feast. Praise God he has given to his people all these things: “…Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Hebrews says, “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the Mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises” (Heb 8:6; NASB). The pastor who was writing to the Jewish Christians was contrasting the Aaronic (Mosaic) priesthood with that of Jesus’. Moses was a mediator. Aaron was a mediator but Jesus is the Mediator. They were only foreshadows of Jesus.
Jesus spent his ministry liberating the oppressed. In the gospels, however, the language of oppression is not applied to the socio-economic condition of the Jews (who were being oppressed by the Romans) but to their spiritual condition. People were being oppressed by the demons. When Jesus came, bringing the Kingdom of God and heaven with him, it provoked a mighty spiritual conflict.
Matthew chronicles Jesus’ repeated exercise of power and triumph over demonic powers (Matt 4:24; 8:16; 15:22). Peter characterized Jesus’ entire ministry thus: “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him (Acts 10:38; NASB). Those who were tormented by demons (e.g., the Gadarene demoniac (Matt 8:28—34) did not have to invent or discover ways in which he was being oppressed. Neither did he have to invent a Savior. Jesus set him free from his shackles. That is what he does. He frees those who cannot free themselves. This is how Jesus understood his own ministry. In the synagogue he announced:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18; NASB).
This is a series of quotations strung together in a chain (catena) from Isaiah 61:1; Psalm 146:6,7; Isaiah 42:7; and Isaiah 58:6. That last verse refers explicitly to the liberation of the oppressed.
The categories, poor, captives, and oppressed are synonyms but they were not intended by our Lord to be understood socially or politically. When Jesus died, the Israelites (and everyone else in the region) were still oppressed by the Romans. Jesus did not make the poor wealthy. He did not set up any health insurance co-ops, needle exchanges, or clinics. From the perspective of “community activism” and social reform, Jesus was a failure. This one reason why Judas turned on him. As far as he was concerned, Jesus was the wrong kind of Savior. Judas wanted something more earthy and earthly. He got his reward (Acts 1:25).
Oppression is real but it must be understood and evaluated correctly. God the Son did not deliver the Israelites out of Egypt to set an example for social action but to illustrate what he would do for sinners when he came in true humanity. He came, born of a virgin, obeyed, was crucified, dead, and buried. He did it to redeem sinners from the righteous judgment of God. He was raised for our justification.
The consequences of our liberation from the oppression of sin are also real.
Christianity Is Not Oppressive
Above we considered the reality of oppression and true liberation. In this final essay in the series we must consider what are the moral and ethical consequences for those who, by the grace of God alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), have been liberated from oppression.
Under the Old Testament, the Lord who redeemed and liberated his church consistently instructed her (the church) to live in light of that gracious redemption. E.g.:
‘You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord. ‘You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning. You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am Yahweh (Lev 19:11–14; modified from the NASB).
The entire chapter is bracketed by the declaration: “I am Yahweh.” This was a declaration pregnant with meaning. To say, “I am Yahweh” is to say, “I am the sovereign God who freeely entered into covenant with your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who elected and saved you unconditionally. Therefore, out of gratitude, you shall serve me.” We know this is what it signifies because the end of the chapter says this:
You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin; I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. You shall thus observe all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them; I am Yahweh’”(Lev 19:36–37; modified from the NASB).
The ground of Yahweh’s command to the Old Testament church was the same as his command to the New Testament church: the gracious salvation he performed for us who could not save ourselves:
- “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21; NASB).
- “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9; NASB).
The Lord’s Old Testament people were redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone. They were to respond to that grace by being gracious to those within their midst:
“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns. You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets, for he is poor and sets his heart on it; so that he will not cry against you to the Lord and it become sin in you (Deut 24:14–15; NASB).
The prophets prosecuted the OT church for oppressing the poor in their midst: “The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice” (Ezek 22:29; NASB). See also Micah 2:2, Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.
Remember, the OT church was also a nation-state. The USA, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands or no other post-canonical state, not even the “Holy Roman Empire” is or has been God’s national, covenanted people since the expiration “of the state of that people” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.4). The command to relieve the poor thus was not a command that can be transferred from national Israel to post-canonical states.
The command to care for the poor and oppressed in their midst, however, was transferred from the Old Testament church to the New Testament church. We do not see any examples in the New Testament of the churches establishing soup kitchens or general poverty-relief programs but the NT is clear that the church is to care for the poor and oppressed within the church.
The same Lord who commanded that his Old Testament church care for the poor in their midst commanded the same in the New Testament:
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matt 25:35–40; NASB).
The “least of these” must be understood in context. If we start at the beginning of the chapter, we see that our Lord is talking to his disciples about their future life together as the visible, Christ-confessing, covenant community. The phrase, “the least of these” must be understood in that context. Jesus was not laying down civil policy for the Roman Empire nor was he giving instructions for civil governments in the USA. He was instructing his church about how they are to care for one another.
Jesus was not a social utopian: “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me” (Mark 14:7; NASB). He was quite realistic about life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes). He understood the consequences of the fall better than anyone because he was going to bear those consequences unlike anyone before or since.
We know that the Apostle Paul worked for poverty relief in the church. He took up offerings (we used to call them alms) for that very purpose. We know that the Apostolic church shared their goods in order to relieve suffering among themselves, in the church.
Perhaps nowhere is the NT concern for relieving the suffering of oppressed Christ-confessors clearer than in the Epistle of James, where the apostle excoriated the Jerusalem congregation for confessing Christ with their mouths but contradicting that confession by refusing to love their suffering brothers and sisters:
My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well (James 2:1–8; NASB).
James had no agenda for the broader culture. He was not instructing either the Sanhedrin or the Roman governor how to govern Judea. He was, however, furious with the visible, Christ-confessing covenant community for the way they treated the poor in their midst. That, he declared was a scandal. Refusal to relieve that suffering was a flat refusal to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
Christianity is a religion, a theology, piety, and practice of liberation. It is not a religion of social liberation, nor a religion of the liberation of classes of people (e.g., “the oppressed”) from whatever oppression late-moderns have invented or discovered. It is not a religion of national liberation. It is, however, a religion of the liberation of sinners from the coming wrath of God. It is one that says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27; NASB). Those who have been redeemed from sin and death, and (as we see in the gospels), sometimes even from demons, ought to respond gratefully by relieving the oppression of their brothers and sisters, who have also been redeemed by Christ’s blood.
On Social Justice, the Social Gospel