What moral issues ignite your outrage? For many evangelicals the list rightly includes abortion, the redefinition of marriage, and threats to religious liberty. What about issues of human oppression? The news cycle is filled with stories of domestic violence, police brutality, racial or ethnic discrimination, and government corruption. What does God’s Word say about these?
Various forms of the word “oppression” occur 123 times in the Bible and tell the story of God’s perspective on the human misuse of power. Commands against oppression permeate the Law of Moses. “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” (Exodus 22:21–24). “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Exodus 23:6–8; see also Leviticus 19:13–16).
Because these laws were so deeply woven into Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, it should be no surprise that the covenant enforcers–the prophets–made oppression a central theme of their indictments against God’s people. This applied to political leaders: “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” (Isaiah 10:1–2) It also applied to employers: “‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3–4). Finally, it applied to individuals: “Let everyone beware of his neighbor, and put no trust in any brother, for every brother is a deceiver, and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer. Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity. Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit, they refuse to know me, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:4–6).
Thus the prophets’ call to repentance included a command to cease oppression and make the needs of the oppressed their concern. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:16–17). “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6–7) “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever” (Jeremiah 7:5–7, see also 22:3).
This is a small sample of what God says about injustice and oppression. As we prayerfully consider what it means to be God’s faithful people in this world, let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus–whose experience of oppression redeems us from our sins (Isaiah 53:7-8), let us keep our eyes open to oppression that exists around us, and may God’s Spirit empower our lives to reflect the heart of the One “who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry…watches over the sojourners [and] upholds the widow and the fatherless” (Psalms 146:7, 9).