The Surprising Place I Learned About Oppression

The cycle of oppression is nothing new. We see it in the Hebrew scriptures as we watch the Israelites move from slaves to nomads to oppressors to exiles. We see it in contemporary politics as the minority party chaffs against perceived injustices of the majority, only to perpetrate their own set of injustices once they receive the power.

As Christians we aren’t immune to this cycle. I believe our participation in it is due to a misunderstanding of the truth of God’s character, and the truth of our neighbors’ stories.

God, in God’s love and care for the world, is calling each of us toward right, loving action that will move our communities closer toward being a reflection of the Kingdom to come. So what does right action look like? Our desire to find a single, ultimate answer to this question runs counterfactual to the story of the Gospel, God’s work in the world, and our unique experiences.

Losing My Voice at Seminary

I went to a very progressive seminary where those often considered in the minority for a variety of reasons – based on belief, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, etc – were welcomed and supported in their educational and vocational pursuits.

It is a seminary oriented toward social justice, toward activism and reconciliation. It is the home of James Cone and Cornel West, of womanism, feminism, and liberation theology, of Bonhoeffer and Tillich. It holds a sacred space for theological ideas that push the current cultural boundaries.

Great, right? What better way to usher in God’s upside-down kingdom of grace than to empower those culturally designated “the least of these” to think, speak, and lead for themselves?

But I noticed a strange thing happen. Seminary is its own culture, and within it exists its own set of social norms and rules about power. I was a woman, yes, but I was also white and wealthy, from a less progressive background and much more orthodox in my beliefs than many of my classmates.

In this environment of empowerment and justice, I lost my voice.

There is a place for saying those who typically hold the power sometimes need to lose their voice, to fall off their high horse, and learn to just listen and experience. In that sense, I gained so much from my fellow seminarians. I found a new voice with which to express myself and my beliefs in a diverse environment where I had none of my old assumptions or norms to stand on. I was stripped away and built back up and I am absolutely better for it.

But in many ways I didn’t feel like I just needed to shut up for a while and re-learn what I thought I knew.

I felt silenced.

I felt that if I truly revealed who I was, or what I believed, or serious questions I had, I would be shunned. I would be branded, labeled, and discriminated against. I absolutely understand intellectual discrimination is a mere shadow of the day-to-day physical and emotional discrimination many of my peers faced all their lives. My point is not to equate my discrimination, but wonder why there was a need for it at all, especially in an environment built by people who have understood and experienced the worst types of oppression and discrimination.

Why Do We Mistreat Others?

The theologian in me struggles to make sense of this in light of how we relate to God and one another. I’m coming back to the idea I’ve shared in a couple recent posts: most of us are trying to do the best we can. We’re trying to understand scripture the best we can; trying to create healthy relationships the best we can; trying to commune with God and creation the best we can. That has helped me soften my heart a little, in moments of incredulity or frustration, but it hasn’t helped me get at why we mistreat others.

The theological core of my belief and action is that God’s primary essential nature is love (hat tip, Dr. Tom Oord). As image-bearers of the divine, our rightly-oriented nature should be loving as well. With all that love, it certainly seems like there’d be less oppression and discrimination in the world, right?!

Obviously, we don’t get it right all the time but maybe sometimes we don’t understand what “right” looks like.

Test the Spirits

One of the things I learned through my experience in seminary is there are multiple ways to have faith, a diversity of ways to practice “right” belief. It is my responsibility to “test the spirits” (hat tip, Dr. Christopher Morse) in order to determine what practices seem to align more closely with the nature of God which, again, I believe to be one of love. But it is also my responsibility to be open to the practices God may be calling others into that don’t make sense to me on the surface or that I don’t understand.

It’s not a baptism of all belief and all action. It’s a constant dance between keeping our hearts open and being discerning about what it looks like to rightly manifest God’s love in the world. I think if, in my seminary experience, we’d all had a little bit more of this attitude of openness, the environment would have felt less one-sided.

Even as I share my story from seminary I’m reminded that my inquiry into the practice of oppression, love, and right behavior happened in a community. Perhaps not a comfortable one, but a place where I was up-close-and-personal with people who were very different from me. It is much easier to consider that someone’s behavior – though very different from ours – may be the best expression of right action in their context, if we are sitting next to them, studying with them, eating with them.

Building Bridges

Occasionally, we just happen to find ourselves in settings like this: we go to grad school, or move to a diverse neighborhood, or our jobs require it of us. But more often than not we have to create these opportunities, because it’s much more comfortable to surround ourselves with people who look and think like we do. I get it: I’ve since graduated seminary, left New York City, and moved to the South. So here are a few of the things I’ve done to help make sure I’m building bridges to people who are working for right action in contexts different from mine:

  • I got involved with an organization that provides housing for formerly homeless families. When they are settling a new family into a home, they let me know about needs the family has for things like food, toiletries, supplies, etc. and I am able to bring them their necessary items.
  • I became a refugee mentor with Catholic Charities. So far I have been able to help out at a job skills workshop by practicing interviewing techniques with re-settled refugees looking for work in Nashville.
  • I spent time serving meals to seniors as part of an outreach effort facilitated by my church.

These aren’t perfect examples, and I still struggle with feeling like I’m swooping in to do my good deed and then get back to my comfortable life. But hopefully they are helpful for imagining ways you can learn the stories of your neighbors, and build bridges of understanding.

I’d love to hear suggestions of what’s worked for you, as we try to create a more diverse, loving vision of the Kingdom on earth!