“Most persons are oppressed while at the same time they share in the oppression of others, and hence are ‘oppressed oppressors.’” – Jurgen Moltmann
On November 9th, I woke up and didn’t recognize my own country. I hadn’t even imagined a Trump presidency was possible—not living here in the progressive bubble of Seattle. As a left-leaning moderate with sympathy for the progressive agenda, I was disappointed with Trump’s election. As a woman of Armenian descent, I was shocked. I never thought so many people could ignore, or perhaps agree with, the insensitive things Trump said about minorities and women during the campaign. That morning—stuck in the thick of Seattle rush hour—I listened to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech and wondered how I could have been so wrong.
Since then, I’ve tried to wrap my head around the election. How cavernous has the political divide become? I’ve read articles. I’ve listened to the radio. Much if it is just noise. Talking heads shouting past each other, never even considering that the “other side” might have some valid points.
I tried to find solace in my seminary classes—looking for inspiration from the theologians I was studying. And while I didn’t find solace, I did find guidance. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s political theology encouraged me to listen to the other side. It sounds so simple, so easy—yet it happens so rarely.
So I decided to attempt some conversations with those who voted differently than I did. I let my guard down, expressed my concerns, and tried to consider the validity of their positions. And my fears were summarily dismissed. “Don’t worry about it. The situation is blown out of proportion.” “You’re buying into the media hype. This won’t lead to a rise in racism and threats to civil liberties.”
But then I had a conversation with another conservative friend. A white male—by many (progressive) accounts, the racist bigots who just elected a racist bigot. And you know what? It actually went pretty well. We can learn something from why it did.
A Good Conversation
This act—small though it may seem—took me off the defensive and opened space for an actual dialogue.
He began by listening to me and those like me. He acknowledged the fears of minorities, women, and others who feel threatened by a Trump presidency. He said that far from being unfounded, they had legitimacy. They need to be heard and considered. This act—small though it may seem—took me off the defensive and opened space for an actual dialogue.
And then I listened to him. It’s something both progressives and conservative too often fail to do. He told me a side to the story I don’t often hear, or bother to listen to. He confessed that he felt like the progressives’ fight for “equality” had turned into a self-interested fight for the mere reversal of perceived power dynamics. He doesn’t think that white men are currently oppressed or anything. But at the end of the day, he does feel that the trajectory of the progressive voice in this society wants to get rid of him and those like him. And he’s not alone in that fear.
He believes that it was resistance to this perception—that the movement Clinton represented was not one of justice or equality, but was rather a self-interested power grab wrapped in the rhetoric of equality—that led roughly half the country to vote for Trump. For him it feels like progressive ideology has created a sense that whiteness and maleness is something to be rejected.
I know my friend well enough to know he cares deeply about people who don’t look like him. He very much desires liberation for all and a just society. But he worries that we—progressive and conservative alike—are developing a selfish, short-sighted concept of liberty and justice. And this election shows it.
Redefining “Liberty” with Moltmann
Whether we agree with his assessment of the political arena is less important than whether we are actually willing to have these kinds of conversations. Both sides fear oppression. This is a valid concern. We all desire the “liberty and justice for all” promised us as American citizens. We all desire our own personal liberation. But, like my friend, I’ve begun to wonder what our perception of “liberty” really is.
In our individualistic culture, “liberty” has become “autonomy.” It’s a fancy word for getting my own way.
In our individualistic culture, “liberty” has become “autonomy.” It’s a fancy word for getting my own way. Is this a biblical perspective? Moltmann would say no. I agree.
Liberation is a key component in Moltmann’s political theology. He argues that true liberation has to be two-sided. It has to liberate the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Liberation involves both salvation from systems of oppression and the destruction of these systems. It involves the cross of Christ—accepting divine judgment and dying to our sinfulness, and the resurrection of Christ—stepping into a new community in which, as he says, “there are no longer any masters and slaves.”
The catch is that few of us fall into just one category. Moltmann says, “most persons are oppressed while at the same time they share in the oppression of others, and hence are ‘oppressed oppressors.’”
What damns me in some arenas saves me in others. I’m an oppressed oppressor.
I see this in myself. I’ve experienced forms of oppression because of my gender. As a woman called to seminary and potentially pastoral ministry, I’m sometimes told I’m not welcome. On the other hand, I’ve lived a comfortable “middle-class” existence. I benefit from economic systems that abuse workers in order to produce cheap products—cheap products that I then buy, not because I need them but because I want them. Even more, there’s a good chance I’ve been given priority for certain jobs or opportunities simply because I am an “ethnic” woman. What damns me in some arenas saves me in others. I’m an oppressed oppressor.
If we each acknowledge this to be true, then perhaps liberation can become a dialogue—like with my friend—rather than a mere power struggle. I can seek my own liberation by seeking the liberation of all others. Moltmann would argue, in fact, that this is the only way liberation is possible. For Christians, liberation cannot mean autonomy. It is not about grasping power or preserving comfort. Rather, it is the ability to work toward the actualization of God’s kingdom.
In a sense, both sides of the political divide cast their votes against their own perceived oppression, not the system of oppression. While I am not arguing that we ignore our own interests completely, I am saying that if we cast our votes just for our own comfort, we are not voting for godly liberty. If we continue to vote just for our own groups, we will fail to eradicate oppression.
A Church in Search of Liberty
What is the Church to do? How are we to seek true liberty for all? This brings us full circle. We start the work of liberty by bridging the divide—by having those conversations with the “other side” in which we confess ourselves oppressed oppressors and open our ears to the cries of suffering.
We seek liberation because anything less is not the gospel.
We seek liberation because anything less is not the gospel. A Christian mark of success is not how many people’s opinions we change. A Christian mark of success is the cross.
We may not win our battles. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth fighting. After all, if our hope is in Christ, then the war is, ultimately, already won. God’s kingdom will come and God’s will will be done—but by God’s power, not our own.
Drawing from Moltmann yet again,
It is not in our dominion that the coming God is present through his life-giving Spirit; it is in our hope. It is not in our power that the grace that raises us up is made perfect; it is in our weakness.
So let’s be weak. Let’s be broken. Even here in progressive Cascadia, let’s remove our hope from political agendas and place it back where it belongs—in the reign of Christ.