God of the Oppressed
In an undergraduate Religion class in the mid-1970’s, I was introduced to a book entitled God of the Opressed by James Cone. The basic point of the book was not all that new to me: the oppressed have a special place in God’s heart. It went with the message I had begun to learn from my mentor in high school, Mr. Broome, who was an English teacher and our Key Club Advisor. He encouraged us to think more deeply about those who were marginalized and not to confuse material wealth, power, or status with God’s favor. It was a message I’m happy to say I also heard from the clergy in the parish I grew up in.
The book reached a conclusion, however, that I had never really thought about. If God were to be incarnate in modern American society, Cone speculated, God would come as a black person because Jesus was part of an oppressed group. The 60s and the Civil Rights Movement had certainly begun to help me see that those who are black in America, and certainly in the South, are forced to lead a life decidedly unequal to whites. The book helped me begin to grapple with a truth that continues in our society: not only are African-Americans oppressed but it is, indeed, very dangerous to be black in American society.
Recently the news has highlighted several more cases which invite us to increased empathy and new action. An unarmed black man was shot to death in Georgia while on a run. A white woman in Central Park threatened to call the police on a black man who had asked her to leash her dog, saying specifically that she was going to tell them an African-American man was intimidating her. A black woman in Kentucky was shot to death in her apartment by police officers. A policeman in Minnesota held his knee on the neck of a hand-cuffed black man until that man suffocated. All these incidents reveal the sickening consistency: it is dangerous just to be black in our country. The things I am free to do day in and day out may cost a black person their life. Far too many of our citizens and police officers are permitted to treat people shamefully simply because they are black.
There are many other forms of oppression. It’s not all about race. Women are oppressed. Homosexuals and transgendered people are oppressed. Poor people are oppressed. Immigrants are oppressed. Muslims are oppressed. The list goes on and on. You and I, though we are ashamed of this truth and wish it were different, are somehow complicit. We may feel powerless to stop it but we go along with it and are part of a society that keeps encouraging this. When we react to “Black Lives Matter” slogans defensively by saying, “All Lives Matter”, we encourage oppression. When we view the angry reactions of protestors and call them thugs or say things like “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”, we encourage oppression. When we blame black people for this unfair treatment and ask, “What did they do to bring that on themselves?”, we encourage oppression. Not only do we encourage oppression, we actively oppress with such statements and attitudes.
It’s gone on far too long. It’s got to stop. We cannot treat our fellow human beings this way. These more vivid pictures of oppression should invite us to consider oppression in all forms. Not only does God not wish oppression on anyone, God abhors oppression and dearly loves the oppressed. “Blessed are the poor,” is the first line in Jesus’ first sermon. He is killed for yoking his life with the oppressed. I think James Cone was right. If God were to come to earth today, it would be in the form of a black person.
What can we do about these continued atrocities? We can begin by asking God to help us develop empathy. If all this humbles and saddens you, your empathy is developing. If you just find yourself growing defensive, your empathy needs some work. And let’s admit it, we all have a lot of work to do. “Individually we are members of one another” (Romans 12.5). If one of us cannot breathe, none of us can breathe.
God cares especially for the oppressed. So must we.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.