Oppressors among Us

We’ve all had to deal with “that” person.

You know, the times we need to get something done quickly and find out how what seemed straightforward is anything but. Sometimes there’s understandable reasons, life offers up a lot of complications in unexpected directions.  It’s frustrating, but it’s not usually infuriating.

It’s the times where we need to get things done, or see a path of opportunity in front of us, when “that” person steps in to make difficult what should have been easy.

It doesn’t take long to think of “that” person in your life.  We all have specific people come to mind, and even if we don’t know their name because they’re just a cog in an established system, we know they exist and they’re adding to our problems.

Sometimes they have good reasons, and we need to slow down or step back from our course of actions.

Often, however, they’re slowing or stopping us because it gets in the way of their goals, or their progress, or even more frustrating, their whims.  They get in the way just because they can. Their whim is more powerful than our need.

You can use all sorts of titles or names for these kind of people.  Sometime “boss,” or “clerk,” or “administrator,” or “teacher,” or “guy in the blue car driving 58mph next to the other guy driving 59mph on an otherwise very free-flowing 2 lane highway.”

We can, and often do, use other names, the kind that I probably shouldn’t write out here if I want to keep this blog open for google searching and save me from getting a concerned email from my mom.

My term for these kinds of people, the very focus of my project, is “oppressor.”

I know, I know, that word immediately raises all kinds of flags. Or, maybe more devastating for my project, causes people’s eyes to glaze over. “Oppressor” is often, after all, included in conversations that are filled with a whole lot of other poli-social analyses that sure seem to use a crazy amount of words without really saying anything immediately helpful.

The trouble, and this is definitely some trouble I’ve gotten myself into, is that it’s so easy to just assume a definition and then keep driving farther and farther without realizing that most everyone has been left behind.  Which is, I’ve realized in a moment of Amy-induced clarity, an act of oppressing itself.

Talking about oppressors can be an expression of being an oppressor?! Even my brain hurts at how easily knotted these discussions can get, and never leave me as simply an objective observer of “that” person  over there. Who can save us from this body of verbiage?!

I use the term “oppressor” even still in order to tap into a wide and longstanding discussion.  Not just an academic one, either. 

In Psalm 72, we read: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.


The subject of oppression, oppressed and oppressors, is throughout the Bible.  It’s something we pay attention to because of our experiences, and something God pays attention to because of his experiences with us.  Not just pays attention to the oppressed, offering salvation, also paying attention to those who oppress, offering salvation sure, but also judgment.

“Don’t be an oppressor” is a really good rule if you want to stay on the right side of God.

I can’t hear or see you right now, but I’ll guess that I’m getting an Amen from that last sentence, or at least a nod in agreement, because again, we all know “that” person or “those” people who seem to always get in the way, causing difficulty, crushing imagination and prospects, and otherwise making life more difficult.

The trouble is, and I admitted it already myself, is it’s not always about “that” person or “those” people who fill out the parts of oppressors in society, standing against the way of truth, justice, and the… right way life should be experienced by all.

The trouble is that every time I got to honing the definition of oppressor, it kept including me in the list. Not because of a certain category I’m in, though there may be elements of that, but because of what I am.

Hi, I’m Patrick. I’m a human being.

In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard highlights the fact that we’re all trying to be kings of our little kingdoms. As he puts it, “Our ‘kingdom’ is simply the range of our effective will. Whatever we genuinely have say over is in our kingdom.”It’s definitely true that some people have larger (and even literal) kingdoms than others.  But no matter our status in life, we all have wills and areas within range of our wills that we try to protect.

But, of course, we have reasons why our oppressing is acceptable. Or do we?

We definitely all have reasons why we tend to indulge in oppressing. And like the notion of kingdoms, some people have much larger zones of oppressing than others.

It’s not a binary, either one is or one isn’t, it’s a reality of human life, more specifically what we in Christian theology call human sin.

That’s why it’s an issue in the Bible, because humanity has a tendency to make things harder than they need to be for others, for God, for ourselves, all while justifying our actions based on some kind of rationalized criteria.

My wrestling with the very term “oppressor” for the book has never really stopped. I’m continuing to see how it takes shape in this world, in the usual ways we might identify, and also in my contexts, and even (more vulnerably) in my own actions.

Here’s the quick definition I came up with:

An oppressor is someone who has freedom to make choices and uses their freedom to negate others.

That’s a loose definition, and one that needs a lot more discussion to really sort out, since there’s reasons why we might negate others that are good (stopping oppressing, for instance) or ways in which seemingly “freeing” behavior is really more negating or diminishing their personhood (getting someone hooked on drugs, for instance).

More frustratingly, and pervasive, is how oppressing gets hidden beneath what seems to be socially acceptable patterns.  Here’s where bureaucracy or “processes” can become the dwelling place of oppressors.

I think here of someone like Pilate in the New Testament. He wasn’t necessarily the villain, taking a direct stand against Jesus. He even seemed to like Jesus, or at least didn’t really care to punish him.

But he pursued a course of actions that was justified by application of the law and the process. He washed his hands of it, thinking that he wasn’t responsible.

Of course he was. As anyone knows, direct oppressing isn’t nearly as common as the rationalized excuse “I’m just following orders” or “I’m just following the process.”

In this, the oppressing is excused by making oneself and others assume that this is how things have to be, this is how things are done. It’s just business. It’s just the cards life has dealt us. It’s a way of asserting power, actually oppressing, while removing a sense of guilt and responsibility.

This happens everyone, but most frustratingly in the places that otherwise seem to speak of freeing or benefits for others, in government yeah, but also in churches, and (as I know so well) academia, where power structures develop that actively undermine the stated goals, pursue oppressing through asserted power and control, and then offer “solutions” to the very problems they have been perpetuating.

Oppressors love to come across as benefactors.  Meanwhile, they’re not actually committed to freedom but are locked in the patterns of an oppressing system, finding their identity, value, even future in their success within this system.

Meanwhile, Jesus–who is God–did not see his authority something to be taken advantage of but sacrificed himself for the sake of others.

And that leads to what is even a more driving definition for me as I keep thinking about who is an oppressor.

Jesus invited everyone to peace, and took on the burden of this peace himself, bearing the weight and lifting the weight from others so they can experience peace.

Oppressors seek peace for themselves, and make others around them bear the weight of keeping such peace. They have privilege and maintain this privilege by causing others to bear the penalties of their decisions and actions.

Who indeed will save us from all this? Can we even speak of hope to such people as this? To such people like me who is tempted every day to let go the way of peace for all and just try to grab whatever privilege I can for myself?

I speak of this hope because I need it. I wrote about this hope because I realized that the Bible, indeed the message of God to this world, is that the oppressed need hope and the oppressors likewise need hope, because both experiences are that of death not life.

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