Israel’s enslavement in Egypt constitutes the archetype of oppression. The strong exploit the weak, denying them freedom with no recourse to justice. Oppression violates the fundamental human dignity that flows from our having been created in God’s image. The oppressor turns a blind eye to the divine spark in each of us. As a result, God stands with the oppressed: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth . . .” (Exodus 22:20-23). When we struggle against oppression to build a just world, we join hands with God.
Christianity, like Judaism, worships the God who takes notice of suffering. In his encounter with the mysterious “I am who I am” at the burning bush, Moses approaches the One who is attentive to the groaning of the enslaved Israelites (see Exodus 2:23—3:20). Similarly, the gospels depict Jesus as profoundly moved by suffering, whether physical impairment or spiritual desolation. They portray Jesus as healing, feeding the hungry, expelling demons and forgiving sins. “Those who are well,” Jesus says, “have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Gospel of Mark 2:17).
So the imperative to struggle against oppression of any kind is rooted in our experience of God. God desires the flourishing of creation; our call is to use our divinely given gifts to alleviate any suffering that impedes this flourishing. Ameliorating suffering may involve direct encounter with people who are impoverished, victims of violence, afflicted with illness or lacking human rights. It also entails seeking to change systems that deprive people of their full humanity or despoil creation.
The Qur’an calls oppression zulm and the oppressor zaalim. Oppression comes in many forms — political, social and economic. It can involve discrimination of many kinds: racial, gender, ethnic or religious. The opposite of zulm is `adl (justice) in Islam. The Qur’an calls for eradication of zulm and restoration of `adl in all fields of life. Justice prolongs life by creating the conditions for prosperity, while oppression leads to destruction. The Qur’an refers to Pharaoh and his advisors’ oppressors (8:54). It speaks of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt as mustad`afeen (the weak and the oppressed), and commends them for being patient throughout the ordeal. God blessed the Israelites with power and destroyed Pharaoh and his army (7:137).