Oppression comes when we prioritize ourselves and our preferences over God and over others. God does not and will not bless our selfishness. But when we follow God, even when we struggle, God will continue to show his compassion and mercy.
“The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished..” (Numbers 14:18)
If this is how God is, why do we people oppress others?
Let’s remember that, in this letter, James is talking to real people with real problems. He is writing and admonishing people who do own indentured (or economic) slaves. He is writing to people who are indentured (or economic) slaves and who have suffered oppression. James talks here about oppression specifically in terms of power or money and specifically in the terms that his audience were living and experiencing. A few thousand years later, we have found even more ways to oppress others, sometimes even in hidden ways!
So why do we oppress others?
- Thoughtless Selfishness. We hate others because they are different from me/us. (Skin colour, ethnic background, political views, religion. No big thoughtful reason—just hate! We want to enforce a strong difference and distinction.
- Carelessness/Indifference. The “other” is no help to me or for me. As a result, I will be careless with them/force them to be helpful to me.
- We feel superior. We need to prove our superiority by making others inferior (bullying).
- We are convinced, “I am right, you are wrong.” Because I’m right, I have the right to do whatever I want to you.
- We feel threatened. Sometimes in the present, but more often, in the future! We are afraid that our competitor will grow more/stronger.
- They are not aligned with me or supportive of me.
- Envy. I want to steal something from them—oppression Is the way.
There are so many examples of oppression in our world! I wanted to use the example of Russia—both invading Ukraine and oppressing its own people through propaganda. I wanted to use examples of racial injustice in the United States. I wanted to talk about the history of Government and Church Partnership in Canada, to fund “Residential Schools” which oppressed more than a generation of indigenous people and robbed them of their identity and heritage. These are all worthwhile and complex case studies of oppression in our world.
But oppression happens much closer to home. There’s a story on Christianity Today magazine right now about Hohn Cho, a lawyer and former member at a famous church of over 10,000 people in Southern California.
The elders had publicly disciplined a woman for refusing to take back her husband. As it turned out, the woman’s fears proved true, and her husband went to prison for child molestation and abuse. The church never retracted its discipline or apologized in the 20 years since.
As a lawyer and one of four officers on the elder board at Grace Community Church (GCC), Cho was asked to study the case. He tried to convince the church’s leaders to reconsider and at least privately make it right. He said pastor John MacArthur told him to “forget it.” When Cho continued to call the elders to “do justice” on the woman’s behalf, he said he was asked to walk back his conclusions or resign.
For this story, CT spoke with eight women who recounted how they and others at Grace Community Church had been counseled to avoid reporting their husbands and fathers to authorities, to accept their apologies, and to continue to submit to them.
The victims were regularly quoted Scriptures on forgiveness, trust, love, and submission—and were told to reconcile and return home even in cases where they feared for their safety and their children’s safety.Christianity Today Online
There is no worse case of oppression than when it happens by the people of God—especially men of God—in the name of God. But I am reminded this week, for a variety of reasons, about the story of how I came to River Park Church. At one point, I considered leaving ministry and pursuing a PhD instead. When I took the call to come here, an elder in my previous congregation asked me why I didn’t pursue an advanced degree. I responded with words that I think were, at that time, from the Lord: “God doesn’t need me to be smarter, God wants me to be holier.” I will never criticize the value of education; I am simply saying that I am here and we are here as a church because God wants to take us on a journey. The journey that God wants to lead us on is not one whose goal is that we become better educated. The journey that God wants to lead us on is a journey toward himself. The purpose of the church is to partner together on a journey toward becoming more holy—a climb where, through learning, through experimenting, through ups and downs, we become more like God and more like the people of God whom God desires us to be.
Oppression Happens Everywhere: In Families, EVEN IN THE CHURCH!
James paints the conflict between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God: he rebukes those who are rich because they are pursuing the kingdom of this world. This kingdom includes gold and silver and fine clothes (wealth)! It includes having many people working for you (power). But it is more than that, too! The kingdom of this world is anyone and anything that is oriented away from God. We can serve idols, serve ourselves, or serve some false god of our age—even while we say that we are doing good, or even while we do it in God’s name! Of the seven heart-situations I mentioned above—all of them happen in the church. They even happen in our church! Thankfully, they are not always fully expressed, but they remain there.
All of these feelings in our own hearts lead us to oppress others—push them down—if or when we have the opportunity. They happen everywhere in the world and even everywhere in our church because sin has pervaded every part of our world and every part of our lives. There is no corner of our world that is perfect!
Yet in the middle of this section, there are two commands:
- Be patient.
- Don’t grumble against one another.
Being patient is not about sitting still and doing nothing in the face of oppression! God’s coming kingdom is not an excuse for us to sit on our hands and do nothing—to wait and wait for God to fix all of our problems! James uses the example of a farmer, who is focused on one goal. He knows it takes time for seeds to germinate and grow—for his purposes and goals to be accomplished. A farmer who is not patient will try one thing, then give up, plow all of his seeds under, and plant something else at the wrong time. He will never have a crop!
Likewise, James says, “do not grumble against one another.” Grumbling against one another shows that we do not see others as equal to ourselves. We grumble against one another when someone is treated well or someone experiences some success and we think they don’t deserve it! We grumble against others when we are envious of their treatment or their success and we make enemies of them in our hearts.
Now here’s where it all comes together: we said that we oppress others when we have the opportunity because, in a word, we are selfish. We care more for ourselves and our loved ones than we care about others. But Christ does the opposite of oppressing. Christ’s heart is against these above reasons.
- We were different from God in every way, but God came to us in Jesus Christ and made no difference, no distance between us and God.
- God was superior to us in every way, but he emptied himself and became like us.
- God is the source of all right and all truth; but he did not force his will on us; he gave us free will to choose to do what we wanted. He chose, in love, to love and care for us.
- God created humanity and, in love for his creation, allowed sin, Satan, and demons to continue growing until the time is right; so that, in love, he might save the whole world!
- God is perfect and complete in himself. God needs nothing from us; but he still chooses to be in relationship with us; to know us personally and to delight in us!
- Despite our rebellion, God continues to work for our good!
- God does not take our good from us or depend on us for his own good—instead, he took all of our shame and sin with Jesus on the cross—and he gives us even more of his goodness—more than we can accept or comprehend!
The apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage, but instead that he became a servant to all. Then he calls Christians to follow Jesus’ example. What does it mean to follow Jesus’ example when comes to oppression and God’s judgment? It’s very simple—write this down. Oppression happens when people in our world are in a position to give to someone else and, instead, we take from them. God has the only right to take everything from us, yet he gives everything to us. Follow the example of Christ!
There is no reason why someone who is not a Christian would follow Jesus’ example consistently. Until God moves in their hearts, it can only make sense to follow the ways of the kingdom of this world. But what is, I think, unarguably true, is that everyone worships something. Because even Christians can follow the kingdom of this world, we must always pray and work to keep our eyes on Jesus more and more. To worship God and worship ONLY God—not ourselves, not power or reputation or money or anything else. This is what the American Novelist David Foster Wallace said in a famous speech entitled, This is Water:
“Here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”David Foster Wallace. “This is Water” speech
Even people who are not Christians recognize that, in the kingdom of this world, wealth rots, clothes are ruined, silver and gold tarnish. To use David Foster Wallace’s words, “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. …you will never have enough.”
The problem with oppression is the problem with all self-serving actions: you will never be able to get enough of what you want most in order to satisfy yourself! If you want money, if you want power, if you want calm. If you want affirmation or good order or the praise of others. Even if you want to help people in order to feel better about yourself: “You will never have enough.”
James’ conclusion is a conclusion that will ONLY make sense to Christians and only be persuasive to Christians: James says we have oppressed even God’s son! Since this is true, we could do a lifetime of good and still not do enough! We can only fall on the grace and mercy of God’s love. We are no better than anyone else. The power or position we gain in this world will not last. What’s more, if we see that we too have oppressed even God’s son, then we too are sinners—just as everyone else—and we have no right to judge or to stand over anyone else.
But Christians are not guided by the wisdom of David Foster Wallace or any other person. We’re guided by the example of God. Will you do more than just avoid oppression? Will you do more than just avoid people who are oppressors? Will do you more than just sit idly waiting? Again, oppression happens when people in our world are in a position to give to someone else and, instead, we take from them. God has the only right to take everything from us, yet he gives everything to us. Follow the example of Christ and his love!
Jesus says this about love:
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.”
Because of Jesus, we do not need to wait for God’s judgement to overcome oppression. God has given us the greatest tool to do it: self-denying love! This is why we must always look back again and again to the perfect example of Jesus
As February is Black History Month in Canada, I want to end with a quote from Pauli Murray, one of the leaders who worked to end the oppression of racial segregation in the United States in the 1960s. She said, “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”
This is how we follow Jesus: to shout for the rights of all humanity and to show to all the life and love of Jesus.
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