God of the Oppressed

Reading James H. Cone’s book, God of the Oppressed, has stirred some reflections. Cone’s basic thesis is that we cannot talk about God independent of our own history and context both past and present. He also says that God is bigger than our talk about God. As Jesse Manibusan says in one song, “God is bigger than you and me.”
Lately, I have been reading more and more of Thomas Merton. What is scary is that I am starting to understand a little bit of Merton. Merton tells us that we must seek our truth. Part of our truth is our history. We find our truth and our God in the events which comprise our lives. God is speaking to us through the events in our lives.
As I think of the past, I have to go back to my roots, my history. My Irish great grandfather, Patrick, and his wife Catharine, emigrated from Ireland in 1860. The escaped the violence and oppression of the potato famine in exchange for the violence and oppression of mine work in Pennsylvania. They suffered violence and oppression in Ireland because the British stood by and let the despised Irish starve to death. They suffered violence and oppression aboard the coffin ship which brought them to a life of new hope in America. Paddy’s Lament graphically describes the sufferings of my forebears in Ireland and on the coffin ships. (They were called coffin ships because so many of the “passengers” died on the voyage or soon after arriving in America.) They suffered violence and oppression in Pennsylvania because of the practices of the coal mine owners—company stores and servitude. They endured violence when Patrick died in a mining accident in 1880—all to find freedom from the oppression of poverty and hunger. I have enjoyed white power and privilege as a result of their sacrifices. (As an educator, I heard a motivational talk by Dr. Betty Siegel, now President Emeritus of Kennesaw State University, where she talked about being a coal miner’s daughter. I was intrigued by her sense of family history and her connectedness to her roots. Having studied my genealogy, I came to know that I am the great grandson of a coal miner. I now feel a connected to my roots and feel deeply a special empathy when coal mining accidents occur.)
My maternal German forbears escaped from religious oppression and endless wars in southwest Germany (Frentheim) in 1721 and settled in Pennsylvania. Again, they were people seeking refuge from violence and oppression. One document in the Bitting family history is a document which shows them petitioning the governor for protection against the Indians. The oppressed become the oppressor living on stolen land. No wonder they needed protection! Incidentally, three of my Bitting forbears served in the revolutionary wars. Just think—I am eligible for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution.
Fast forward to the early 1950s. The scene is now in Georgia. Church is very important. My parents loaded the three of us in the car every Saturday and traipsed us off to confession. Of course, church every Sunday was not optional. My history lies here too in the rugged individualism of the pre-Vatican church. Imbued with the individualism of the pioneer, religion was very much a me-and-God thing. Oppression took the form of the Divine Bookkeeper in the Sky who was toting up every sin and failing. My task in life was to save my soul. The focus was on me-and-Jesus and my need for salvation from myself and the world, not from the oppression of others however much the church itself oppressed us. Morality focused on pelvic issues and not the larger issues of social justice.
This part of my history changed, albeit sometimes very painfully after the reforms of Vatican II. What is all this sense of community—singing together, holding hands during the Our Father and exchanging the Kiss of Peace? To his dying day my dad would not hold hands during the Our Father unless forced to do so. “The hopes and dreams of all persons” became the mulch of our religious life. Quite a shift!
What does my history tell me about myself and God. First, I too have come out of oppression. However, I have emerged from oppression as a privileged white male who has had the power to oppress. Second, I have come from the rugged individualism of saving my own soul to trying to understand that God really cares about the poor and oppressed and that my call is to be in solidarity with them to relieve human misery now and provide hope for a better future.
What does this tell me about Jesus? It tells me that Jesus, like Yahweh of old, is the God of the poor and oppressed. He lived among us to “bring down the mighty from their thrones” and “to liberate the captives.” He invites us to identify with his life and to struggle now to liberate the oppressed. He teaches us to use nonviolence in order to overcome the powers and principalities.
The task of liberating the oppressed has several dimensions. Obviously, it means working to alleviate poverty, illness, homelessness, and nakedness now. It also means listening to the truth of God in the solitude of our hearts and then speaking the liberating truth to the oppressed as we awaken the hope that lies within their hearts. It also means speaking the prophetic word to those oppressors entrapped by power and privilege in order to liberate them from the culture of death which supports their very lifestyle. The culture of death includes economic oppression, war, violence, capital punishment, abortion, and euthanasia—the whole panoply of life issues. Of course, we must remember that we are always speaking the prophetic word while we too are entrapped in death dealing.
What does your history teach you about your truth and your calling as a Christian today?

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