Jesus & The Oppressed

June 7, 2020 | Rev. Donnell T. Wyche

As I get started, I want to say that I’m on the side of the table with you looking at the problem of white supremacy and the racism is produces with you.

Last week, we celebrated Pentecost, the miracle that birthed the church. Today, I want to continue with the theme of Pentecost–the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to help us give context to and to respond to this cultural moment we are witnessing.

I am encouraged by Howard Thurman, the author of Jesus and the Disinherited because he said “that Christianity, which originated in Jesus’ [own] religion and religious experiences, is a religion for the oppressed.” Or as James Cone puts it, “Jesus is on the side of the oppressed; and wherever there is evil, wherever there are oppressed people, that’s where we find Jesus. Jesus is not locked into some distant past; he’s present in the lives of those who suffer.” Thurman and Cone offer a way forward because, for them, Christianity is the story of the oppressed.

Every week, we open our service by declaring that we partner with the liberating presence of God to cultivate joy, hope & belonging as Jesus invites us into freedom, keeps us free, and helps us free others. We do this to create space in our community and church for those in exile to share about their oppression, their dispossession, and to invite the presence of Jesus.

Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17)

We declare our partnership with God’s liberating presence each week because we believe that the Gospel is good news for the oppressed and the oppressor. The Gospel has the power to bring us together. For those who feel powerless and those who feel powerful, when we both encounter the Spirit revealed in the Gospel, we both can become liberated. The oppressed are raised up from the destructive burden of inferiority. The oppressor from the destructive illusion of superiority.

Having said this, blacks in the United States continue to experience the death-dealing power of Empire instead of the liberating power and presence of the Spirit.

This was the experience of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery who all died under the crushing wheel of oppression.

Friends, this shouldn’t be.

This is why you are bearing witness to this uprising. There are people who are once again willingly putting their bodies into the spokes of the wheels of oppression to bring the power and destruction of Empire to an end.

As Maya Angelou says, “No one of us can be free until everybody is free.”

In order to liberate those held in bondage, we start by naming that which holds us in bondage. In Mark 5, Jesus demonstrates a way forward for us as we do the work of naming, rebuking, and dismantling the powers and idols that hold us in bondage.

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.

This story gives us a small glimpse into the plight of the oppressed, the extent of their suffering, their pain day and night, and their desperation for liberation, freedom, and peace.

5Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”

Instead of seeing Jesus as a representative of God’s liberation, this man held in bondage assumed that Jesus would continue his torment and torture. Sadly, there are many who are held in bondage by the sin of white supremacy who can understand this sentiment. 

8For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” 9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 

This man represents all of what the colonizing and occupying forces of Rome have done to this village. A Roman legion is 5000 soldiers, enough to completely overwhelm a community. This village has been brutalized by the dehumanizing tools of colonization, having lost their land and self-determination, having been taxed into poverty, commoditized, terrorized by witnessing public crucifixions, enduring rapes, and the desecration of their religious customs and beliefs, all of this enacted as tools of control.

So when Jesus acts, he enables Spirit-inspired liberation because “the Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18)”

Jesus enacts this liberation because people under brutal occupation cannot afford to name the source of their distress and suffering because to do so is to tempt the powers and incur redress.

This is what we are witnessing right now. As those of us who have been victimized and terrorized by police violence protest and resist this violence, all we get is more violence.

Just as the people in Mark 5 needed Jesus to unmask the tormenting spirit by naming it, therefore breaking its power, so too do those held in oppression need the church to unmask what is tormenting them today–white supremacy and the racism that it produces in our culture and in the church.

We remain stuck when we cannot honestly name what the problem is. This is why it is so vitally important to have Holy Spirit inspired voices speaking to us from below, from the margins, from the places of exile within our racialized world.

Their collective voices are a rebuke to a community that accepts, without inspection, without rebuke, that white supremacy is somehow the goal. Revelation 7 teaches us that race will not survive into the kingdom, only our God-given ethnicity will, and to those of us who have had our ethnicities stripped from us or have lost their ethnicity because of the crushing wheel of oppression, we will have those ethnicities restored so that we might stand before the throne representing every tribe, people, and language declaring that 

       “Salvation belongs to our God,

       who sits on the throne,

       and to the Lamb.”

Oppressed communities need us to validate their lived experiences by naming the pain, sorrow, oppression, and suffering they experience being in exile. “What would it mean to be with the Black community in the United States who have experienced kidnapping, middle passage, slavery, Jim Crow, and the Litany of suffering that marks our life here? Would it not mean, as an act of love, to say it should not have to be this way, and I will spend my life beside yours to testify to the value the Christian tradition places on your black life?”

Immediately after the miracle of Pentecost, which birthed the church, another miracle occurs, the followers of Christ join together and share everything in common.

44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

Those who had everything they needed didn’t just give to those in need from their excess, they sold what they had, disrupting upon their own economic safety, security, and stability so that others in the community could have the same.

This is what love does.

It looks out at world that isn’t the way it should be and says, I have everything I need, but my brother and sister are lacking, so I’m going to do something about it, not just give from my excess. Instead, I’m going to give up my personal security so together we can be secure.

This kind of love is sacrificial.

There are some of us who feel safe when we are pulled over by police, those of us who had access to resource-rich school and educational opportunities just because of where we lived, and those of us who experience life with the benefit of the doubt, or the idea that we are innocent until proven guilty, those of us who can ignore what’s happening right now because it doesn’t actually affect us. If you can identify with even one of those statements, would you consider that you have something to offer to the rest of the community?

You can become like the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8 and demand justice for those of us in the community who are lacking.

Juergen Moltmann says, “There must be no theology of liberation without the glorification of God and no glorification of God without the liberation of the oppressed.”

Not all of us are willing to protest injustice in the streets, some of us are called to lament, pray, intercede. Some of us are called to campaign for legislative reforms. Some of us are called to write letters to elected officials. Some of us will place a yard sign or host a becoming an anti-racist book group. Some of us are even willing to talk to friends and family who have been difficult to talk to about the issue of oppression, white supremacy, and racism in our country. Some of us are called to run for office to enact change.

But the thing love demands is that we do something. To be silent isn’t an option. It’s not an option for me or really for you.

The point of the story of the persistent widow for us today is that we have to disrupt those who are in power by demanding justice for everyone.

Because this is what it means for us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

At the end of this parable Jesus asks, “if the Son of Man will find faith on the earth.” This faith that Jesus is hoping to find is faith that leads the people of God to act, be, and demand a just world where those in power hear the cries of the oppressed and make sure they get justice.

This is our moment, saints. This is our time. This is our call.