Along the Way: Oppression in Operation

I occasionally write that my Sociology major in college has served me well over the years, providing insight into my second major, Religion. At the time I graduated, I had no idea how both would interact to enrich my faith development.

The interplay is happening again, this time with respect to oppression theory—that is, how prejudice and institutional power create a system that discriminates against a targeted group, doing so in ways that demean the targeted group and exalt the oppressive group. [1] We see this being done today, and in the religious sphere it is the often-used strategy of Christian fundamentalists. It is a strategy at work in my denomination, the United Methodist Church, by conservative/fundamentalist groups leaving the UMC or planning to do so eventually.

But current as the use of oppression theory is, I began years ago to think about it through other sources: particularly the nature of imperialism in the prophetic era in the Old Testament which Dr. Walter Brueggemann so eloquently exposes, through studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and through Howard Thurman’s book, ‘Jesus and the Disinherited.’ Other resources (e.g. those that educate us to see injustice and engage us to resist it nonviolently) now accompany these three. Once again, my theological sensitivities have been enlivened by sociological insights.

As with any blog post, I can only get you started so that if you want to go farther, you can. Here is the general flow of oppression that we can discern from Scripture, tradition (historical oppression in both state and church), reason (psychology and sociology), and experience (how we see it operating today). The three terms are my summary. The words in parenthesis are those found in other resources.

Abuse (Violence)….This may occur in all sorts of ways. We see it happening today through vilification and vote. However it happens, a group is singled out as problematic, even dangerous. As the “othering” intensifies, the abusers play the victim card, portraying themselves as the ones who are being persecuted by the designated others (or their advocates and allies), leaving them no option but to stand up for (their version of) democracy and/or religion. Claiming to be abused, the abusers deflect attention from reality and create a false narrative (“sanitized history”) that makes them look righteous and hides (or tries to hide) what is going on. By doing so, they buy themselves more time to continue abusing the designated others, often doing so “in Jesus’ name.”

Anxiety (Fear)….The abuse is publically inflicted on a few who are “made examples of” by the abusers. The limited abuse sends a signal to the rest of the drsignated others—a message which says, “If we got these, we can get you too,” and this turns into chaos theory which goes on to say, “As long as we are here, we will keep acting and/or voting this way, further abusing you whenever we have the chance to do so.” Even as a minority, the abusers keep the anxiety (frustration) level as high as they can.

Abandonment (Exit)….Some of the abused conclude, “There is no safe future here for us,” and they leave. What the abusers know is that you do not have to be in the majority to succeed. So, they stay the course, continuing to create conditions that lead the designated others to go elsewhere. This is essentially a purgation based on a “purity” mindset. [2] And it is bolstered by language that fosters the idea that the abusers are the righteous ones who have “been on the Lord’s side” in keeping the faith.

Our nation’s history is exhibit A to illustrate the flow. Racism (abuse) genetated fear among Native-American and Black people, causing them to leave the South in what was called a “great migration.” So, even though the racists lost, they preserved their power by purging the population of the “undesirables.”

This is the flow of oppression theory. Sociology calks it subjugation. It is the flow which the prophets, Jesus, the first Christians, and Christians since have called out and resisted. It is the flow, whether in the state or the church that we must continue to resist. For at it’s heart is the failure to love (as per the two great commandments and the fruit of the Spirit). And as long as oppression theory is in play, we must resist it until love prevails.

[1] Simply google “oppression theory” and a wide door will open into resources that reveal its nature, history, and strategy—particularly in systemic, institutional structures. Sadly, this includes the Church.

[2] We will never know how many have left, abandoning a particular political party for another or a specific church for another. And sometimes, the picture is even more confused as the abusers decide to create new institutions where they can be free from the designated others. We see this occurring in politics and religion today. Sociologists identify it in survivalist movements.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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