Every once in a while I get in a somewhat poetic mood. Last night as I was preparing to go to bed, and finishing up my reading for the night (book review forthcoming), I thought of the first line of a sonnet about some of the issues of the book as well as a pattern of behavior that I have seen in our society. I thought it therefore worthwhile to share the poem and comment a little bit about it. Here goes:
We once considered ourselves the oppressed,
When others showed us disrespect and hate.
Yet in our sad hearts we still had hope pressed
For our justice before it was too late.
But how soon we forget the bitter taste
Of the injustice we once had to face,
And often do we in unholy haste
Become the evil we sought to erase.
And the cries of the oppressed come to us,
And we act like others acted before,
Grinding their sad faces into the dust,
Giving less and yet demanding still more.
Perhaps we may learn before it’s too late,
That we often become that which we hate.
Some months ago I read a story published by a religious magazine about rainbow parties and the way in which particularly progressive schools deliberately oppressed moral students opposed to rampant promiscuity by bullying and other means. According to these students, it was in revenge for the oppression of the past, where supposedly those who committed such sins felt ashamed of them and now feel their chance to oppress those who stand for standards they have long chafed under and no longer feel the need to even pay lip service toward. I was reminded that those who are oppressed very quickly become oppressors when they have power.
This is not a new lesson. There are some who politically believe that those who suffer oppression are themselves morally righteous. To be sure, oppression is wrong, but we ought not to quickly assume that simply because someone claims to come from an ‘oppressed group’ that they are either oppressed or that their claims for redress are just. The demands for justice by blacks in the 1960’s, who faced segregated cities led to injustices like forced busing and affirmative action, in which quotas had to be met, regardless of whether those who filled them were qualified or merited such behavior themselves. And those who wished to escape such obligations did so by fleeing to the suburbs or homeschooling or starting their own companies so as to be free from such corrupt (if well-intentioned) regulations.
The same is true for women. Tenured feminist professors who make a hundred thousand dollars a year or more write about women as oppressed subaltern groups whose voices are not heard while they write turgid historical essays bashing men and while Madison Avenue and our culture in general finds men to be fair sport as idiots or incompetent in commercials, movies, and television sitcoms. Someone forgot to get the memo, clearly. Sadly, those who claim the loudest about their oppressed status tend to be those who are gaming or exploiting the system to exploit others unjustly. Such flagrant behavior tends to make others skeptical of any claims of injustice that come from those they tend to disagree with in general, even where such claims are in fact just.
And nor is this history of the last few months exempt from examples. Lawless anarchical riots took place all around the world in many cities from those claiming to represent the 99% against the wealthiest people who are supposed to be oppressing and exploiting the rest of the world. And yet their solutions were increased regulations and expropriation of resources of others, as if one received freedom and justice by increasing the exploitative power of an already clearly corrupt government which has shown no ability to previously fulfill its duties to defend the stranger, the widow, and the fatherless, and the poor among us.
And therein lies the problem. Exploitation or oppression is not something limited to our enemies. Regardless of our own political identity, we are not exempt from being oppressors. Oppression does not only wear the face of a rich white man, but any other face that humanity can offer. Once someone uses power of any kind, whether it is political power or economic power or the power of a bully pulpit to oppress others, even out of revenge for that which we have ourselves suffered in the past, we become the oppressors we hate. When then give our enemies, whomever they are, the drive to avenge themselves against us.
Forgiveness is seldom a popular political program, but it is a necessary one. At some point in history all of us have been oppressors and oppressed. We all grieve over recent and ancient wrongs. We all claim to be victims of others, and not entirely unjustly (though not entirely justly either). We are all both sinned against and sinners. It is only when we show ourselves to be above petty revenge and the abuse of power ourselves that we can set an example for others to follow themselves. If we break the cycle of oppression and abuse, then we make it so that no one has to take vengeance on us. This is hard to do, for reconciliation is never easy. Indeed, those who commit the most wrongs against others are the ones who are most sensitive about the wrongs committed against them, because we act in the ways we best know.
Perhaps, while there is yet time, we may break the cycle. What we all ought to want is a fair opportunity for all, and enough opportunities for all. To do that requires that we respect what others bring to the table in terms of their perspectives, their experiences, their background. There is enough that needs to be done that we cannot hope to do it all, or hope to monopolize all the benefits for ourselves. So long as we divide ourselves and others, and war and quarrel and seek our own good alone, we fail to recognize the evil in ourselves that others war against, or the good in our enemies that we slight with our biased perspectives. If we wish to be one, we must show love and respect and mercy even to those who have oppressed and hated us, for then we might also encourage those we have wronged to show the same mercy and forbearance toward us. For truly none of us have entirely clean hands in this life.