As suggested in my previous response, Judaism’s stand against oppression flows from two essential sources, one universalistic, the other a function of our particular history. Let’s first consider the universalistic source, the teaching that all human beings are created in the image of God. An ancient commentary on the Book of Leviticus recounts an argument between two great sages about which verse in the Five Books of Moses contains its most essential teaching. Rabbi Akiva argued for Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai cited a verse from Genesis: “This is the record of Adam’s line. When God created man, He made him in the image of God, male and female, He created them” (Genesis 5:1).* Akiva suggests that your regard for yourself should be the benchmark for how you treat others. Alas, if your self-regard is low, you might not treat others very well. Ben Azzai removes this element of subjectivity. Because God created all human beings in the divine image, you must treat them with dignity. Irving Greenberg, a contemporary Jewish theologian, describes three intrinsic elements of human dignity that flow from the fact that God created us in the divine image: infinite value, fundamental equality and ultimate uniqueness.
All of society — economics, politics, culture — must be organized to respect and uphold these three fundamental qualities. Since the world is not yet structured to sustain these dignities, we must perfect the world. We must also establish a process to move societal conditions and individual behavior toward ever-greater respect for these dignities. This is the guiding principle of the halakhah [Jewish law] and the ultimate goal behind all mitzvot [religious commandments] and religious behaviors.*
A world in which all people were treated as images of God would be free of oppression. It is our responsibility to bring this about through the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world. A Talmudic concept that refers to actions taken for the sake of improving society, tikkun olam has become the rallying cry of many contemporary Jewish non-profit organizations committed to the struggle for social justice and is a critical theme in many Jewish educational settings for youngsters as well as adults.
The second source of Judaism’s stand against oppression comes from the story of the Exodus itself. Commentators over the ages have sought reasons to explain Israel’s oppression in Egypt. What had the people done to deserve such suffering? Common explanations invoke punishment for various sins: Abraham’s questioning of God’s promise that he would inherit the land; Joseph’s brothers leaving him to die in a pit in the wilderness; or the Israelites adopting various Egyptian customs. Others see the ordeal in Egypt as an educational experience intended to leave the Israelites with such distaste for oppression that they would never inflict it on others. Thus many of the Bible’s injunctions to treat the stranger or the downtrodden fairly invoke the experience of slavery in Egypt. In addition to the admonition not to oppress the stranger cited above (Exodus 22:20-23), consider these examples:
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . .”
“If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.”
The collective memory of slavery in Egypt — and by extension, oppression in other times and places — should serve as the basis for building a just society. As God liberated the Israelites from Egypt long ago, we today should act as images of God and free human beings from the bonds of oppression.
Struggling against oppression inevitably involves encounter with sin. In recent years, for example, many in the churches have become involved in the campaign against human trafficking. Trafficking results in part from the “consumer’s” sinful misuse of sexuality. But its elimination necessitates recognition of the elaborate and extensive system by which people benefit financially from the trade of women and children. Systemic analysis reveals a network of social sin — structures that denigrate human dignity: gender inequality, the commodification and exploitation of women through pornography and prostitution, and organized crime. Similarly, while racist attitudes and acts manifest an individual’s sinfulness, eradication of the social sin racism involves working in societal structures such as housing, education and voting laws.
The recognition of the social dimension of sin means acknowledging how readily we can be caught up in social evils, even unintentionally becoming beneficiaries of such systems. Christians pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” The struggle against oppression challenges us to ask for the grace not only of deliverance but also of active resistance to the evils of our time.
For Christians, following the Way of Jesus is the preeminent means of countering oppression. As Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and highly regarded preacher writes:
Based entirely on my reading of scripture, it seems entirely possible that Jesus might define salvation as recovery from illness or addiction, as forgiveness of debt, as peace between enemies, as shared food in time of famine, or as justice for the poor. These are all outbreaks of health in a sin-sick world. Jesus saves because he shows us how to multiply such outbreaks, and because he continues to be present in them. Otherwise, we might call them good works or good luck. Instead, we have this sense that they come to us from outside of us. Our full participation is required, but that alone cannot explain the results, which are sometimes so astounding that we can only call them grace.*
Most important is creating awareness of oppression through education. Oppression and injustice (Zulm) in Islam is a major sin against both God and humanity. People need to know that Zulm is an unjust act of exploitation, oppression and wrongdoing, wherein a person either deprives others of their rights or does not fulfill his/her obligations towards them. Zulm is wrongfully depriving someone of his/her legal and moral rights.
Generally there are two types of rights that people need to respect in Islam: rights of God and rights of people, one to another. The rights of God require thanks to Him by means of worship, fasting and taking care of all people – indeed, of His entire creation. Recognizing human rights is significant in Islam, along with fulfilling the rights of God. God may forgive transgressions against His rights, but may not forgive ignoring the rights of human beings. It is a Muslim tradition that people are asked to forgive the deceased of his or her failings against people’s rights before the funeral prayers are performed so that God may also forgive the person. On the day of judgment in Islam, the poor person is regarded as one who prayed, fasted and did charitable works, but violated people’s rights. It is said that when this person would appear before God, his/her good deeds would be given to those whose rights were violated, and this person would be left with no good deeds and sent to hellfire.
Zulm takes many forms. It includes killing innocent people, usurping freedom of speech, property, honor and other rights, as well as cheating, lying, backbiting, stealing, taking bribes and other types of corruption in society. Muslim countries have a high level of illiteracy. Many are unaware that corruption and bribery, favoritism and other sorts of discrimination are also part of Zulm. Education is a key to reducing these and other types of injustices and oppression.
Another way to reduce oppression in societies is for world religions and faiths to cooperate in justice and good deeds and stand together against injustice and oppression. The Qur’an says: “. . . but rather help one another in furthering virtue and God-consciousness, and do not help one another in furthering evil and enmity; and remain conscious of God: for, behold, God is severe in retribution!” (5:2). The Qur’anic injunction commands Muslims to work and cooperate with those individuals and organizations that stand against oppression.
In the medieval period of Islam, the Caliphate would create the position of Ombudsman (Muhtasib) in every region or city. The Ombudsman would check on cheating, corruption and other human rights violations that would not usually be caught by police or other law enforcement agencies.
The Qur’an upholds justice with mercy and forbids oppression and injustice and Muslims are asked to stand for justice and mercy even if it be against themselves or their own interests (4:135).