A Sociologist Looks At Oppression and Shalom
Associate Professor of Sociology
Spring Arbor College Spring Arbor, Michigan 49283
From: PSCF 42 (September 1990): 173-176.
The Lord said to Moses, Say to Aaron and his sons, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel; you shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you:
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace [shalom]. So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them (Numbers 6:22-27).
Here the blessing of God is the grace of God resting upon his obedient people granting them shalom. Shalom is a rich word meaning more than peace; it carries a sense of wholeness, completeness, harmony. Shalom is total sense of well being for not only individuals but also for a community, a people walking with God together. The blessing of shalom carries a sense of well being in all of life-materially, socially, and spiritually. The people blessed with shalom experienced joy in life.
It is rather obvious why a true prophet of God would preach and promote shalom. But the false prophet also proclaimed shalom according to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 6:14 and 8:11 state: "They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, `Peace, peace,' when there is no peace. Or `shalom, shalom,' when there is no shalom."
If there was no peace, no shalom, what was there? Again and again the prophet thundered that there was religious idolatry and social oppression. Social oppression was often a consequence of religious idolatry.
In Jeremiah 6:13 and 8:10 we hear oppression described: "Because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely."
Or Jeremiah 5:26-28: "For wicked men are found among my people... Therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy." In talking about Jerusalem, the key city in Israel, Jeremiah (6:6) declares: "This is the city which must be punished; there is nothing but oppression within her." Jeremiah 7:6 calls on Israel not to "Oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow..." Or Jeremiah 9:6: "Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit, they refuse to know me, says the Lord."
Oppression, then, is the opposite of shalom and the absence of justice. Oppression and shalom are polar opposites. Oppression occurs when people in power and authority, usually in social institutions, misuse that power and authority cruelly and unjustly, to crush, humiliate, animalize, impoverish, enslave, and kill persons created in the image of God.
In contrast, shalom occurs when a community, a people of God, are walking in covenant with God and fellow human beings according to the standards of justice and righteousness. Oppression crushes people; shalom releases the crushed ones. Oppression humiliates persons; shalom affirms persons. Oppression animalizes people; shalom humanizes people. Oppression impoverishes people; shalom prospers (necessities of life) people. Oppression enslaves persons; shalom liberates persons. Oppression kills; only justice beyond this life can provide shalom for these persons. Until recently (the 1980s) there was relatively little scholarly analysis of the biblical concept of oppression, especially in English and written by evangelicals. Until the 1980s there was very little of substance on oppression in standard Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. The only thorough article on oppression is found in the revised (1986) International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, with a total of 222 lines; the 1929 edition of ISBE had a brief article of 30 lines. The 1986 ISBE article on oppression draws heavily from research done by Thomas Hanks and Elsa Tamez. The norm, however, is no listing of oppression, as in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (1980) published by InterVarsity Press; this dictionary lists Ophrah, Oracle, Orchard and Ordination but not oppression, in spite of the fact that there are approximately 128 occurrences of the word oppression in the NIV translation.
A question. Why this lack of scholarly research on the concept of oppression? Have our theologians come primarily from the middle and upper classes? Do they lack exposure to, sensitivity to, the experience of oppression? Strangely, awareness of oppression has been forced upon evangelicals by black theologians and liberation theologians. Even now I sense a lack of biblical knowledge and interest in oppression by most white North American evangelicals.
In 1983 Thomas Hanks, a North American evangelical teaching at the Latin American Biblical Seminary in Costa Rica, published God So Loved The World: The Biblical Vocabulary of Oppression. In 1982 the English translation of Elsa Tamez's Bible of the Oppressed appeared. Tamez is an evangelical colleague of Hanks. We should be grateful for these high quality analyses of the biblical concept of oppression.
Tamez states that "there is an almost complete absence of the theme of oppression in European and North American biblical theology."1 Hanks asserts:
Anyone who has read much in the theological classics (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Beckouwer et al.) will recognize that the theme of oppression has received little or no attention there. One might think that the Bible says little about oppression. Furthermore, one searches in vain for the theme in Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and the like.
However, when we strike the rock of a complete Bible concordance, to our great surprise we hit a gusher of texts and terms that deal with oppression! In short, we find a basic structural category of biblical theology.2
After a thorough study of the Hebrew roots for oppression, Hanks concludes:
Oppression is a fundamental structural category of biblical theology, as is evidenced by the large number of Hebrew roots denoting it (10 basic roots; 20 in all); the frequency of their occurrence (555 times); the basic theological character of many texts that speak of it (Gen. 15; Exod. 1-5; Ps. 72, 103, 146; Isa. 8-9, 42, 53, 58, etc.); and the significance of oppression in Israel's great creedal confession (Deut. 26:5-9).3
In my judgment, unless a Christian has a profound understanding of the horror of oppression, a Christian is unlikely to develop a passionate concern for social justice. By and large, the church has not had a biblical understanding of oppression; by and large, the church has done little to execute justice on behalf of the fatherless, the alien and the widow. Some charity, yes, but little fundamental social justice.
One moves from oppression to shalom through justice. See the following diagram:
Perry Yoder, an Old Testament scholar and author of Shalom, says the major thesis of his book is that shalom "is squarely against injustice and oppression. Indeed, we shall argue that shalom demands a transforming of unjust social and economic orders."4 In order to achieve shalom we must "do justice," "execute justice," "pursue justice," "give justice." Justice must be active and aggressive. Note Psalm 82:3-4: "Give justice to the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the afflicted and the destitute, Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked." Yoder adds that "God's justice sets things right, it is a liberating justice."5
According to Christopher Wright, an Old Testament scholar and author of An Eye for An Eye, a major theme in the Old Testament is that God is a God of justice and righteousness. Righteousness is an objective standard or a norm for a society-right relationships in a community bring shalom. Mishpat (justice) is the process and result of fair and just judgments. "Mishpat is what needs to be done in a situation if people and circumstances are to be restored to conformity with righteousness."6
In conclusion then, the Old Testament reveals a God who is against oppression, for shalom, and who calls for doing justice in order to achieve righteousness, a fundamental characteristic of a shalom society.
Luke 4:18 and Romans 14:17 indicate that the New Testament is also concerned about oppression, desires shalom and seeks justice. In a Galilean synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor...to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
This is a quotation from Isaiah 61, except for the phrase "to set at liberty those who are oppressed", which is from Isaiah 58:6. Isaiah 58 calls upon the followers of God to cease oppression and to do justice. Luke 4:18 ties the Old Testament emphasis on oppression with the New Testament. At the time of Christ the typical Jew suffered from double oppression-from both the Romans and the Jewish religio-politico-economic leaders who corruptly ran the key social institution, the temple. Some of the Galileans listening to Jesus read from Isaiah may well have lost their own land to this double oppression. No wonder "all spoke well of him" (4:22) because Jesus indicated an interest in their poverty and oppression and hinted that following the Jubilee principles of grace and justice might be the way of escape (4:19).
Also the gospel of Luke is well known for its many references to the rich and the poor. These must be interpreted in the light of the Old Testament concept of oppression. So also the cleansing of the temple (Luke 19:45-48). The temple as it was being run represented a system of oppression much like what we find described in Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jesus, acting as a prophet, opposed oppression and called for justice. Romans 14:17 indicates that the kingdom of God has a present/social dimension as well as a future/spiritual dimension. The RSV translates 14:17: "For the kingdom of God [is]...righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." The New English Bible uses "justice" in place of "righteousness." If one realizes that Paul, an expert on the Old Testament, would probably have thought in Hebrew "justice and shalom," then one could paraphrase 14:17 "For the kingdom of God is...justice, shalom and joy in the Holy Spirit."
Now the present/social dimension becomes clear. The kingdom of God in the New Testament is against oppression and for justice and shalom. One could summarize Luke 4:18, 19 and Romans 14:17 as follows:
Stop oppression -> do justice -> experience shalom -> celebrate joy-all in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The gospel of Jesus Christ deals with both personal sin and personal salvation. In addition it covers social oppression and social justice.
With the above articles in mind-oppression, justice and shalom-then Acts 8:12 and 28:23 and 31 make more sense. Acts 8:12 refers to Philip preaching in Samaria: "But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ...."
Acts 28:23 and 31 refer to Paul in Rome; in verse 23 the audience is Jewish, and in verse 28 the listeners are Gentiles: "testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets...preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ."
The kingdom of God is good news both here on earth and later in heaven. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). And that kingdom on earth is justice, shalom and joy in the Holy Spirit!
How should the church of today oppose oppression and do justice in order for people to experience shalom?
In the 1989 fall semester I taught a Racial and Cultural Minorities course. After I gave the class vigorous exposure to the nature of ethnocentrism/racism, I asked them to write two essays: one was how society could improve race relations and the other essay was how the church should improve race relations. Two of my students were black; neither of them would be classified as radical militants. Both of them, however, used stronger words such as "a war against racism" or "we need a revolution (non-violent)," than did the white students, some of whom were profoundly concerned about ethnocentrism/racism.
I have noticed the same phenomenon as I have read the literature written by black and white authors. The typical white author will talk about reform, piecemeal social reform. A black author is more apt to use more radical words such as revolution. For example, John Perkins, a non-violent evangelical black who specializes in evangelism and Christian community development, entitled one of his books A Quiet Revolution.7 Perkins' strategy is to rebuild poor black communities with new medical, housing and legal social institutions under the control of black leadership but with the assistance of interested whites. Martin Luther King said that for years he labored "with the idea of reforming existing institutions of the South, a little change here, and a little change there." Finally, towards the end of his ministry, King concluded, "I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values."8
In modern terminology scriptural social justice would include charity, social reform, and social transformation (or revolution). All three components are needed. The modern evangelical church excels at charity, occasionally engages in specific social reform and rarely attempts social transformation; i.e., a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.
The understanding and practice of charity is widespread so we need not elaborate on this aspect of social justice. Social reform occurs when one attacks a specific problem such as the lack of quality low income housing without necessarily addressing the values and social structures which create poverty and homelessness. Habitat for Humanity is an excellent example of a social reform ministry. It builds low income housing and sells the houses to the poor at no interest, thus enabling the poor to own their homes.
The issue of slavery is instructive in pointing out the need for something more than social reform. Lincoln freed the slaves, a bold and dramatic social reform. Before the century was out, however, most southern blacks were back in a semi-slavery status through rigid social segregation and an economic system of sharecropping. The underlying values which supported slavery, racism, and greed, had not been changed so they soon spawned new forms of oppression. The 1960s civil rights movement achieved some additional reforms such as voting rights, but again the underlying values of racism and greed were not challenged and changed in any fundamental way. Therefore, in the 1980s we experienced resurgent racism and legitimated greed implemented through our existing social institutions.
Bread for the World, a Christian lobbying organization located in Washington, D.C., attempts to influence lawmakers to pass legislation to help the poor and oppressed of the world. A Christian voice for justice in the center of governmental power, Bread for the World has had some success in changing societal values and practices.
In the Old Testament, the leaders of society (i.e., rulers, kings, judges and priests) were addressed by the prophets as they opposed oppression and called for justice so that the people could experience shalom. Though not as fully recognized by evangelicals, one of Jesus' ministries was to function as a prophet in his day. Jesus opposed the oppression of the poor, cleansed the temple, and called for the Jewish religio-politico-economic leaders to repent, to change their ways.
In new and creative ways under the leadership of the Holy Spirit the church of Jesus Christ must find more comprehensive methods to do justice. May the sleeping giant awaken and proclaim and practice the full kingdom of God on earth!
1Tamez, Elsa. Bible of the Oppressed.
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982, p. 4.
2Hanks, Thomas. God So Loved the Third World: The Biblical Vocabulary of Oppression. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983, p. 4.
3Ibid., p. 38.
4Yoder, Perry. Shalom: The Bible's Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1987, p. 5.
6Wright, Christopher. An Eye for An Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983, p. 134.
7Perkins, John. A Quiet Revolution. Waco, TX: Word, 1976.
8Oates, Stephen. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1982, pp. 441-2.