June 8, 2020

The Loneliness of Oppression

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. (Ecc. 4:1)

The author of Ecclesiastes, probably King Solomon in his old age, is observing a world that refused to acknowledge or worship God. It’s a dark and foreboding world. It’s a world haunted by oppression.

Even though they were written some 3,000 years ago, the words of Ecclesiastes read like a commentary on our time.

Ancient Problem

As King Solomon surveys the world around him, he sees exploitation and humiliation. He sees the powerlessness, loneliness, and hopelessness of the oppressed. 3,000 years later, as we survey the same earth upon which Solomon walked, we have to ask ourselves: Has anything changed?

A white police officer—employed to keep people safe—wickedly abuses his power by kneeling on a black man’s neck until he can breath no more. Shooters kick in a black woman’s door without even a knock and swiftly take her life. A black man jogging is shot in the back because two white men thought he didn’t belong in those streets.

There are unique and deep-seated challenges, formed by layers upon layers of abuse, exploitation, and systemic racism in the U.S. We might read the headlines and think, What is happening to America? How can we still be fighting this injustice? But injustice, racism, and oppression are not uniquely American problems.

Unjust World

When we survey the entire world, we’ll find drug cartels in Latin America trading young girls for money; the Uigher people in China herded into concentration camps all because they are not like other Chinese; the people of Hong Kong being mowed down by water cannons and bullets on their own streets; people in Ukraine being blown up by Russian bombs; Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria setting whole villages ablaze. Tragically, our world is full of genocide, ethnic cleansing, civil wars, and despots oppressing their people by lining their own pockets and palaces with wealth while their people die of starvation.

There is so much injustice. The rich become richer at the expense of the poor. The powerful exploit the powerless. The majority overtly and implicitly rig the system against the minority. And we wonder why there is so much fear, hate, and anger on our streets.

As one who is privileged, I don’t know what it’s like to be systematically oppressed or exploited. That being said, I have had a chilling taste of it. I vividly remember the feeling I had while in a closed country. I got off an overnight bus ride that landed me in a city in the middle of the desert. I was the only white guy around, in a community known for hostility against Christians and Westerners. Were I to be attacked, neither the police nor the government would come to my defense, for they were equally hostile—so much so that mobs could burn Christians alive and fire bomb churches without any fear of arrest.

As I stood on that desert street, I was surrounded by people, and yet felt utterly alone. I knew I was powerless, and it was terrifying. Everyone who looked at me seemed to stare with a level of distrust and suspicion. Were one of them to attack me, I had nowhere to run. No one would defend me. It should be utterly shocking to us that many African Americans still live with that sense of fear and powerlessness right here in America. Whenever they get in their car to drive to work, or sit in a restaurant to eat, and certainly when they see a police officer pull up alongside their car—fear grips them.

Fight Oppression

It is beyond time for the church to wake up to this tragic reality about life in America today. As teachers, employers, friends, and neighbors—do we use our positions of influence to alleviate the injustice around us? Or do we turn a blind eye to it, excuse it, act indifferent to it? All abusers operate in a cone of silence and implicit acceptance. To deny the ongoing reality of racism and exploitation on our own streets is to become culpable of it.

Are you quick to call out your relative at the family gathering when he tells that racist joke? Will you walk away from the conversation at work that is clearly prejudiced against a colleague? Will you actively work to speak up for the powerless and to challenge injustice? Not just in moments when there are videos of police brutality on our Twitter feed. It’s easy to like a Facebook post when all your friends are doing the same in a moment of collective disgust. But what about the next time you have a friend that shares a racist meme about Muslims or posts an inflammatory statement about immigrants? Will you lovingly and gently rebuke them too?

What strikes me about Ecclesiastes 4:1 is that Solomon focuses on one aspect of oppression that seems to get to the core of it—they had no one to comfort them!” The true tragedy of oppression and injustice is the sense of being alone in it. It is the sense of being vulnerable, unloved, even unwanted.

God of All Comfort

But God does not leave the oppressed without a comforter. Those who are in Christ are called to open our homes and our hearts to the powerless. All Christians are to provide comfort for the oppressed, not excuses for the oppressor.

We are to extend hands of peace, friendship, and acceptance to those who don’t look like us, may come from different traditions than us, or may even hold different values to us. After all, true and lasting diversity doesn’t start in classrooms, pulpits, or even acts of Congress. True and lasting diversity starts around a kitchen table, as a meal is shared between friends.

As Christians, we worship the God of every tribe and tongue. We express the very character of God as we embrace the tapestry of colors, languages, accents, and personalities that He has created. I’ve had the unusual and incredibly blessed experience of sitting in a Filipino Jungle and a Brazilian Favela; I have walked the streets of a Kenyan slum and drank tea in a Japanese tea garden; I have walked through a Chinese wet market and dipped my toes in cold Norwegian waters. Across the earth is a sweet tapestry of humanity and each and every person reflects the glory and beauty of God in vivid colors, sounds, tastes, and smells.

The truth is, there is nothing exceptional about any one race or place. To think that is to deny the true beauty of all that God has created. But, the church of Jesus Christ is absolutely exceptional. The true beauty to be found on the world’s stage is not in a person’s race or ethnicity or language or culture—true beauty is found in the grace of Jesus Christ that penetrates cold and dead hearts from every tribe and tongue so that they might worship Him as one people.

There is only one exceptional kingdom on earth, and it is the Kingdom of Christ the Redeemer. A kingdom established by grace, justice, mercy, and love. A Kingdom that shows no partiality—not between black and white, rich and poor, or young and old. May it be said of us, and of our churches, that we work tirelessly to confess, rebuke, and stamp out the sin of partiality. “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” (James 2:1)

There are protests across America today in part due to the collective outrage at yet another example of unchecked police brutality against African Americans in America. As I write this, I look at the news and see images of buildings and vehicles set ablaze. The truth is, those fires will stop burning. But I pray that the outrage against inequalities and injustice will never cease to burn within the heart of the church, no matter where it exists in the world.

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