Oppression is chameleon. Throughout human history it has changed its color and adapted itself to every age and every need or right we humans must have. And it’s disguise is always—at first—beautiful, promising. This chameleon usually first promises us safety in a dangerous world, then maybe protection of beloved values, or true peace, or more food, or better wages, and even—paradoxically—freedom. Then somehow, slowly—maybe even unintentionally at times—it changes its color. The trap slams shut and we are caught.
The ancient Israelites came begging Egypt for safety from a famine and wound up enslaved for over 400 years. That was one expensive meal.
In 1789 the French Revolutionaries began an overthrow of a corrupt and absolute monarchy. Freedom, they cried. They wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Then only four years later the Committee of Public Safety began what is now called the Reign of Terror. Up to 40,00 people were killed. The dictator Napoleon followed.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 turned out worse, with an estimated 30 million killed by Stalin’s government. Communist China and North Korea, so-called democratic nations in Africa, and the theocracies of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran have followed suite. To name a few more recent oppressive chameleons. Even the theological American ideal of “manifest destiny” turned murderous.
What is the common denominator in all this oppression? Some today say religion. Others corporations. Some governments. And these are all elements to be sure. But religions, corporations, and governments are made up of people. You and me. Humans are the root of all this oppression.
We are each capable of wreaking it on others or releasing it in the name of getting something we think we need. When I visited that horrific reminder of human oppression, The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, I realized it was not Nazis or Germans who killed six million Jews. Yes, the murderers wore Nazi uniforms and were mainly German. But beneath those uniforms they wore human skin. This the Bible calls sin. And on this level it is hard to deny.
The good news is we are also capable of resisting oppression. Freedom also comes in many different varieties. Though true freedom is never deceptive nor makes promises of mere safety. Some varieties of freedom come harder than others. With a cost.
Political, economic, religious, personal freedom are the most common freedoms we cry out for. But maybe the most precious freedom is one we avoid at almost all cost: The freedom to not be safe, to cry, to struggle, to suffer. This is the freedom Jesus chose as an expression of his love for us. He freely gave his life for you and me.
Note the difference? Oppression promises to give but really takes. And leaves us no choice in the matter. Only God gives expecting nothing in return. Because God needs nothing.
If anyone ever could become a demanding dictator it is God. Often our cries to God for safety, mere happiness, contentment, a cessation of pain and worry are just that, invitations for God to declare universal marshall law in the name of public safety. But how much more would God’s mighty fist crush us if mere humans such as Pharaoh, Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler did such thorough work?
So God continually grants us the freedom to suffer. Knowing this then gives us the freedom to love and live as creatures of love.
The ancient Israelites were mud and brick, hard labor, economic slaves in Egypt for over 400 years. But when God tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go,’” their freedom is not escaping human oppression. God goes on to say, “Let my people go . . . so that they may worship me.” Worship is an expression of love. Soon enough, faced with a barren and dangerous desert, however, the people are crying out for the safety of Egypt. Give us the leeks and onions of Egypt they tell Moses.
Finally, as these people then stand on the edge of the “promised land” which contains not only “milk and honey” but suffering too, Joshua says, “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Those gods, like our gods of protective governments and human systems only take because they cannot give us what we truly need. The freedom to receive and give love.
This freedom is costly. But not as costly as choosing safety and other chameleon promises.
Eugene C. Scott is enjoying the freedom he has and is thankful for both the joy and the suffering it brings. He is also trying to see God in daily life, even in tragedy. Join him in the year The Year of Living Spiritually. You can join the Living Spiritually community by following that blog and clicking here and liking the page. He is also co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church.