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).
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).
In any religion there’s a danger of worshiping the outer forms and forgetting their real purpose, of mistaking the means for the end. This can lead to oppressing others in the name of one’s faith. For example, in Judaism this problem arises among certain ultra-Orthodox groups who feel that in many areas of religious life women should not be equal to men. Women cannot be ordained as rabbis, counted in the quorum required for prayer, etc. Ultra-Orthodox groups have opposed the right of women to pray aloud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, often said to be Judaism’s holiest site. In October 2012, Israeli police arrested a woman at the Western Wall for wearing a prayer shawl and chanting the Shema, Judaism’s affirmation of the oneness of God.* Likewise, according to traditional religious laws governing divorce, a husband must grant his wife a divorce. If the man refuses, he is free to re-marry, but his wife is not. In the State of Israel, where ultra-Orthodox groups generally have control over this sphere of life, many women have been left in limbo, unable to re-marry. The influence of ultra-Orthodox political parties in Israel also accounts for many areas of religious discrimination against the country’s Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews.
During most of last two millennia Jews held little political power over others and their capacity to act as oppressors was limited. Jews were more often oppressed than oppressors. With the creation of the State of Israel, Jews have returned to the stage of political power and with that, face all the challenges and pitfalls of wielding power. For example, Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War unleashed pent up urges among some to retain control over territories promised to Abraham by God in the Book of Genesis. For those holding such positions, compromising the dignity of Palestinians is of small consequence. Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, justified his action with a talmudic concept that gives one the right to take the life of someone who is threatening one’s own life. Amir, influenced by a number of extremist rabbis at the time, argued that Rabin’s willingness to cede land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace violated God’s grant of the land to Abraham, thereby endangering Israel’s survival and justifying the assassination.
The quest for personal piety and the fulfilment of religious conviction can lead to all manner of harm toward others. For that reason, it’s important for Jews to take to take a hard look at the text from the prophets we read on the morning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day of fasting often thought of by Jews as the holiest day of the year. It’s a day of introspection when we take a reckoning of our deeds over the past year. We read Isaiah around what would be lunch time, just when we might be inclined to pat ourselves on the back for our piety. Here’s what Isaiah says:
“Why, when we fasted, did You [God] not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah 58:3-7)
The language of oppression can all too readily be used as a binary to situate the “oppressor” over against the “oppressed.” Many situations do not lend themselves to such a simplistic analysis. Moreover, placing ourselves on the side of the angels—whether as the oppressed or as those working on behalf of the oppressed—may foster an unhealthy self-righteousness. Worse, those who believe they are oppressed may regard their state of subjugation as a warrant for violence against the oppressor.
History bears witness to this, as I have written in my response about the justification of violence in the theme “Seeing God on Our Side.”
In our time significant studies explore the link between a fundamentalist mindset that has adherents in all religious traditions. This fundamentalism is a “discernable pattern of religious militance by which self-styled ‘true believers’ attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors.” * Such a fundamentalism is typically grounded in a sense of being under siege, whether from the inroads of modernity and secularism or from another religion or religious group. Violence inspired or sustained at least in part by religion is one of the great dangers to our world.*
There is no way to justify oppression. Zulm or oppression under all conditions is strictly forbidden in Islam. But Muslim governments in different periods of history have acted in ways that today would be considered oppressive. As no other community is immune from acts of oppression, the same is true with Muslims. Their rulers in different periods of history have justified their wars to occupy foreign lands as we Americans today justify our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps “might is right” has been a policy throughout world history.
All prophets stood for justice and raised their voices against oppression. The best we can do as followers of different religions and faiths is to raise our voices together beyond politics to speak out against oppression and injustice any place on earth.
There is an Arabic proverb saying that nations can live in disbelief forever but cannot live for long in Zulm. When injustice prevails, the earth even fails to produce its fruits. It is narrated in Masnad Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (one of the Hadith Books) that a person once visited a Muslim storage building where he found melons, watermelons and many types of fruits and vegetables, the likes of which had not grown during his lifetime. He asked the storage keeper where and when these fruits and vegetables were grown and where all the watermelon came from because no such tasty, large produce was available in his day. The storage keeper replied that these were grown when Muslims ruled with justice on earth. Today our earth has refused to produce such a profusion of crops because of the prevailing injustice on earth.
You can think of the inner Pharaoh as a part of yourself that leads you to try to dominate others, to see yourself as master of the universe. As Mary Boys suggests, the heart of the struggle to overcome this all-too-human proclivity lies in recognizing that God is God and you’re not. Prayer and participation in a Jewish community go a long way to keep that essential truth in focus.
In the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh’s arrogance and ruthlessness lie in his failure to acknowledge God. When Moses confronts him with God’s order to let the Israelites go, “. . . Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord nor will I let Israel go’” (Exodus 5:2). Centuries later the prophet Ezekiel delivers God’s condemnation of a later Egyptian king whose grandiosity matched that of his predecessor: “I [God] am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself’” (Ezekiel 29:3). Stories such as these warn of the fall that inevitably awaits those grandiose souls who dominate others and see themselves as masters of the universe.
Many Jewish rituals serve to undermine our tendencies toward grandiosity. Matzah, the unleavened bread we eat at the Passover Seder, has often been said to symbolize simplicity and modesty. It is not puffed up. As one Hassidic master taught, matzah represents a point of purity to which we annually return to cleanse ourselves of the haughtiness that rises within us over the course of the year. On the Day of Atonement, observant Jews fast, refrain from bathing and wear a white robe that evokes a burial shroud. The day simulates death and sharpens the will to make amends. The liturgy includes repeated confessionals of the sins we have committed against others. Five days later, Jews celebrate the festival of Sukkot, Tabernacles, and build a flimsy structure called a sukkah. Observant Jews will eat as many meals as possible in their sukkah and, weather permitting, will sleep in it, as well. The sukkah’s frailty reminds us of that everything we build is ultimately temporary, as is life itself.
Religion is not for the faint-hearted. It calls for honesty before God and acknowledgment for ways in which we ignore, rationalize and deny our call to flourish and contribute to the flourishing of all creation. Fortunately, religions offer abundant resources for struggling against our inner Pharaohs; personal and communal prayer and fasting are common ways in which adherents are invited to live more profoundly.
Worship of God lies at the heart of confronting our inner Pharaoh because in worshiping we acknowledge we are not God. Worship in Christianity includes confession of sin; we might think of sin as the “choice to remain in a wrecked relationship with God and with other human beings.”* But worship has myriad expressions: celebrations of Eucharist or Communion Services, recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours (e.g., via the Book of Common Prayer, the Breviary, or other modes of recitation of Psalms, readings and prayers), various meditation practices (e.g., Centering Prayer *), Lectio Divina (“sustained immersion into a revelatory text”*) and devotions (e.g., Bible study; shared prayer; the Rosary, a Catholic practice using prayer beads that bears similarity to Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu practices). Over the centuries one of the most significant Christian practices for confronting our inner Pharaoh has been the pilgrimage, particularly to the Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago) in Compostela, Spain. This pilgrimage was the subject of the 2011 film, “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Increasingly, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius that originated with the 16th century founder of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, have become more widely practiced within the spectrum of Christian traditions.*
Our biggest inner Pharaohs in Islam are our arrogance and egoism. God asked Moses to go to Pharaoh: “. . . for, verily, he has transgressed all bounds of equity (20:24). Condemning Pharaoh’s and his chieftains’ arrogance, the Qur’an says: “Unto Pharaoh and his great ones; but these behaved with arrogance, for they were people wont to glorify [only] themselves” (23:46). In another verse the Qur’an says: “Behold, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and divided its people into castes. One group of them he deemed utterly low; he would slaughter their sons and spare [only] their women: for, behold, he was one of those who spread corruption [on earth]”(28:4).
The Qur’an calls for humility and asks people to reject arrogance in its all shapes: “And turn not thy cheek away from people in [false] pride, and walk not haughtily on earth: for, behold, God does not love anyone who, out of self-conceit, acts in a boastful manner” (31:18). The Qur’an asks its followers to worship God and fulfill their obligations to people humbly: “WORSHIP God [alone], and do not ascribe divinity, in any way, to aught beside Him. And do good unto your parents, and near of kin, and unto orphans, and the needy, and the neighbor from among your own people, and the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom you rightfully possess. Verily, God does not love any of those who, full of self-conceit, act in a boastful manner” (4:36). Praising those who are humble, the Qur’an says: “For, [true] servants of the Most Gracious are [only] they who walk gently on earth, and who, whenever the foolish address them, reply with [words of] peace” (25:63).
Worship, fasting and remembering God are the best methods of staying humble. When Muslims put their forehead on earth in prostration, they commit themselves to humbleness and to staying away from arrogance. Prostration reminds the believers that we come from earth and very soon will return to the earth and will be accountable to all for our actions before God.