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. Continue reading