Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Barack and Michelle Obama, spoke in my town February 7th at the invitation of the local seminary. Along with a crowd of 400, I turned out to hear him.
One of his memorable statements concerned the consistency of liberation in the biblical story. After referring to the work of Walter Brueggemann, Wright said: “Every word in the Bible was written within a context of oppression, starting with slavery in Egypt and continuing on within the empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.”
Mennonites have often been in a similar stance, struggling to remain faithful while living under the oppressive dictates of a ruling power. Within my family history, it was first the Holy Roman Empire, then Prussia, and then Russia. So we could readily conclude this stance is the norm for one who has given his or her allegiance to the God of Abraham and Sarah.
But this raises hard questions for us living in the U.S.A. What is our stance vis-à-vis the power over us? If we do not perceive the U.S. government as an oppressor, is that because of its benevolence or our blindness?
To be sure, times have changed, autocracy has fallen out of fashion, and a democratically elected government is generally less oppressive than one that seizes power through threat of violence. Yet these changes do not make the hard questions go away. Within each of the six empires that reigned supreme during the biblical period, we can be sure there were many who did not experience oppression and instead perceived the empire to be a blessing of the gods. Such is the case under virtually any regime.
So the questions persist: why do our sacred writings ALWAYS portray people of faith as struggling to resist the demands of empire? And why are we Christians in the U.S.A. an exception to this rule? Might we fail to see oppression because like the biblical apologists for empire, we think of our nation as a gift from God?
If that is our current posture, it would explain why our “peace witness” has lost its vitality. For a message of peace, spoken boldly from within the empire’s sheltering embrace, communicates very differently than when confessed by a people on the run (so to speak) because they have earned the empire’s wrath. After all, “peace” has long been a word prized by those in control; witness the Pax Romana established by Emperor Caesar Augustus. But that is not the peace Jesus embodied.
As we ponder these questions, we may find it helpful to reflect on those who do experience oppression with our current context. Who are they? What is it about them that “merits” oppression? What forms does oppression take in their lives?
The discussion that follows such questions is usually contentious and a bit unseemly. We jostle with one another over who has earned the coveted status as “most victimized”. Sexual minorities, racial minorities, religious minorities and legal minorities are sure to be among those suggested. And there will be an element of truth in each claim.
My thoughts take me in a somewhat different direction. What about people of any sexual preference, hue, faith or legal status who do not believe the U.S.A. is threatened by Islamic terrorism? Or who believe the U.S.A. – and not al Qaeda — is the primary source of terrorism in today’s world? Or who refuse to participate in the economic structures of power that give vitality to the empire’s war machine? Do they stand in solidarity with the oppressed we read of all through the Bible?
Sorting this out is beyond my depth. But I yearn for the help of those who are equipped by study or experience. Our biblical heritage is almost entirely one of dissent exercised in ways that the powers despised but could never fully suppress because it was so morally compelling. More than anyone else, Jesus walked that tightrope to the very end of his life and in doing so, saved the world. How do we find our way back to that identity today, living within the most skillfully manipulative power of them all?