Month: June 2020

What Does the Bible Say about Oppression, Racism, and Racial Justice?: A Bible Study Resource List

The Bible is very political. But not in the way some might mean when they say that word. Scripture understands and overrides our politics. It challenges them and should shape them. Scripture teaches us what the Kingdom of God should be like here on earth as we wait for all things to be made new, as we groan with creation. We redeem the time by maturing in Christlikeness, pointing our neighbors toward God, and proclaiming and working toward healing to the broken world around us.

Scripture doesn’t take sides like we want it to. It consistently defies our attempts to assign it to one party or another, to use it to back a political platform, to twist it and cut it into tiny pieces to be used in arguments to validate our own opinions. The commander of the Lord’s army said it best in Joshua 5:13-14:

“… a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No, but I am the commander of the army of the Lord.”

So is Scripture on my side in an argument? Does the Bible justify my war or political cause? Do the Lord’s armies fight for me or my country? The simple, emphatic answer is, “NO.” The Lord is on his own side, and we pick whether or not we join him in our political decisions, our social actions, the systems we build, the communities we create.

The Lord may not side with our agendas, but he cares deeply about and works on the side of justice. As we seek to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before our God, his Scripture should renew our minds. It should replace the broken pieces of our culture and worldview with Kingdom Culture.

There is a lot to be said in our current moment of history in the United States. Words fly thick and fast in personal conversations, social media posts, blogs, and articles. I have nothing new to offer. But I do think in stories. And these stories have greatly shaped the way I understand social justice, riots, power dynamics, privilege, violence, protest, civil disobedience, oppression, racism, and righteous anger and outrage. My hope is that you take this list of stories as a resource, and use them for your own devotional and prayer time. Sit in them. Let them make you uncomfortable and challenge your ideas. If we approach God’s word correctly, it will cut us to the heart and can remake what we think of the political and social context we find ourselves in. Let the focus not be my words, but only on the Lord’s words renewing your mind and heart.

Father, may these stories help us to remove the logs in our own eye. May we see the consistencies and themes of how your Word speaks against oppression and injustice. May we humbly approach your Word, willing to be undone by it. May the scales fall from our eyes so we are no longer blind to the horrific sins we commit and how deeply they grieve you. May we seek restoration finally in you as we repent, confess, and turn our lives over to you in obedient submission to your character of perfect justice and goodness. Amen.

Hagar and Ishmael: Genesis 16, 21:8-20. In this story, after Abram, a patriarch of our faith, knocked up his wife’s servant, the family decides they don’t want her or her baby around. In a disgusting statement, Abram says to his wife, “your servant is in your power, do to her as you please.” They mistreat Hagar so much that she flees into the wilderness. When she thought no one saw or heard her, the Lord calls out. He promises her a family line. He says he has heard her affliction. Hagar is the first person in the Bible to call God by a name that signifies a personal relationship with him. She names him “The God who Sees” because she had seen the one who saw her. And she later names her son “God Hears.” This story teaches us much about who God sides with, who he cares for, and how he treats people abused by those in power.

Joseph falsely accused and imprisoned: Genesis 37, 39-50. Joseph was sold and enslaved in a foreign land to a master of a different ethnicity. He worked hard and God gave him favor in the household, but as a slave no one believed him when he was falsely accused of a crime. After years of working hard in prison, we see again that the Lord gave him favor with the authorities over him. The Lord rescued Joseph and delivered him from the position of an enslaved prisoner and elevated him to the second-in-command over the country. The Lord continued to give Joseph favor in this foreign government and he eventually held their lives in his hand as he graciously rationed them through a famine. He used the position of power the Lord gave him to provide a safe home for his family. In this story God is the one who gives Joseph favor and influence, which he uses both as a slave and a prisoner and as ruler of the land. Joseph uses his power to save lives and provide for the hungry and the foreigner, and God is with him.

Moses and the Exodus from Egypt: Exodus 1-13. The Israelites were oppressed and lived as slaves in Egypt. God heard their cries and planned to deliver them. Moses grew up in a position of power in the king’s household, but as an adopted son of a different ethnicity. He tried to address the injustice on his own and murdered a slave-driver before fleeing to the desert. There the Lord met Moses and told him of the plan to save his people. Through appropriate political channels, Moses and Aaron asked for freedom but were only further oppressed. The king hardened his heart, the Lord sent plagues to disrupt his power and government, and finally he deemed the Israelites more of a nuisance and let them leave for their own country. Again in this story, God hears people who suffer, and he makes a way to keep his promise and deliver them.

Moses and Miriam lead in worship: Exodus 15:1-21. In one of the earliest examples of worship music, we find God’s people praising the Lord as their salvation and their rescuer. But deep in the heart of this early example of worship, God’s people praise him for his wrath against their oppressors. They praise God for the death of their enemies. This story can teach us a lot about what topics are appropriate in our praise, and what God’s people first learned about his character as slaves who had been set free.

Miriam complains about Moses’ dark-skinned wife: Numbers 12. In this power struggle, siblings Miriam and Aaron wish to be as important as Moses, for the Lord to use them and speak through them in the same ways. To achieve this goal, they complain about Moses’ wife of a different ethnicity. As a Cushite, Zipporah’s skin would have been very dark, and the Israelites would have been a few shades lighter. In this story we hear Moses described as the meekest man on earth. Unwilling to confront his siblings and defend himself, the Lord defends Moses instead. After rebuking the siblings, the Lord punishes Miriam in kind, making her skin the object of ridicule. God strikes Miriam with a skin disease that turns her white as snow, a white the brothers look at in horror and beg God to remove, a whiteness associated with disease and decay, with sin and corruption, a twisted parody of the ambition Miriam expressed over and above her dark-skinned sister-in-law. In some strong language, God says about Miriam, “Even if her father had only spit in her face, wouldn’t she be shamed for 7 days?” He agrees to heal her after Moses begs. This story teaches us how disgusting our power-mongering is to the Lord, and how he despises our desires to elevate ourselves over someone different from us.

The Ephraimite Genocide: Judges 12:1-7. In a prime example of tribalism, the people of the nation refuse to help each other in battle. After the enemy is defeated, the tribes turn on each other. On the basis of their dialect or accent, Ephraimites were profiled and caught at border crossings and slaughtered. 42,000 Ephraimites were killed in this genocide, at the hands of a corrupt judge who should have led the people in godliness. This story is one of many examples in the book of Judges of the Israelites’ sinfulness and corruption. A brother tribe was systematically murdered in an act of ‘state-sponsored’ genocide.

The deaths of Jezebel and Ahab: 1 Kings 22, 2 Kings 9. This king and queen of Israel were incredibly corrupt. They used their position for selfish gain and feeding their own vices. Ahab imprisons or kills prophets who speak against him, and he pridefully thinks he can outrun the death the Lord promises him. But the Lord’s words come true, and after he dies, dogs lick up his blood and prostitutes bathe in the pool where it was spilled. His queen Jezebel fares little better. Three men (whom she had castrated to serve her) throw her out of a tower window. Her body is left there only for a few moments, trampled by horses, and eaten by dogs. This story teaches us about God’s sense of justice and punishment. The idea of poetic justice is born in us as a reflection of our Maker. This story and many others build up a biblical understanding that only God can execute righteous judgment. By taking that responsibility from our hands, he doesn’t set justice aside, he takes the responsibility for himself as the perfect judge.

Daniel and the three friends in exile: Daniel 1. Daniel and his three friends were taken captive from their homeland to a foreign country. Placed in a systematic education meant to overwrite their culture, language, heritage, and even their own names, Daniel and his friends peacefully and creatively resist these forms of oppression. God gives Daniel favor with the authorities and after a trial run, the four friends are able to keep to their own cultural dietary restrictions. This story teaches us about peaceful resistance, and what it can look like to resist other forms of oppression besides religious persecution.

The fiery furnace: Daniel 3. Daniel has been promoted and separated from his friends, but when the king takes away their religious freedoms and forces them to worship an idol, they peacefully but visibly resist. The three friends refuse to worship, even when given a second chance. They tell the king their God is able to rescue them from his punishment, but even if He does not, they will not submit and worship as the king wishes. They go willingly into the furnace without a word from God, but he meets them in the fire and saves them so that the whole kingdom will know and worship him. This story models civil disobedience for the sake of religious liberty.

Daniel in the lion’s den: Daniel 6. With a new king on the throne, Daniel is still in a position of authority but has no rapport with the new conquerors. Rivals set a trap for him so he will be condemned to hungry lions if he prays to God. When Daniel knows this new law has been signed, he carries on with his public and visible prayers, just as he did before the decree. Again, God gives Daniel favor in the eyes of the new king who wishes to save Daniel’s life but cannot. God miraculously rescues Daniel and again the whole kingdom learns of God’s might and power. This story deals with a complicated political scenario of denied religious liberties, entrapment, peaceful resistance, a public show of civil disobedience, and Daniel’s refusal to bend his morals to ease his situation.

Daniel serves the kings: Daniel 2, 4-6. Daniel serves under a handful of kings and two different conquering powers. Even as they oppress him and refuse him freedoms, Daniel serves them with integrity and honestly recounts the Lord’s words to them, even when it puts him in danger. God gives him favor and uses him as a redeeming influence in these governments. Without his firm stances about the freedom to worship God, Daniel and the other Israelites may have been more persecuted than they were. These stories deal with the complicated issues of how to serve in and under oppressive and unrighteous governments, even if the government is foreign and you are a captive.

God uses Esther to rescue her people: Esther. Esther and her uncle Mordecai were captives just after Daniel, under the same government. The king ‘fired’ his queen and conducted a kingdom-wide search for virgins (sex slaves) to add to his harem so he can choose a queen. Esther was chosen and kept her Hebrew identity a secret. The Lord gave her and Mordecai favor with the government as they lived with integrity, respected people those around them, and saved the king’s life once. When a political rival whispers fear-mongering racism in the king’s ear, the two of them decree a day of state sponsored looting and genocide against the Jews. All the Jews fast and pray, and some demonstrate their grief by wearing sackcloth and ashes in public places. Esther uses her privilege and influence, risking her life, to beg the king’s mercy. In a cautious and calculated move, she reveals the plot and her own identity as a Jew. The king executes the political rival on the gallows he meant for Mordecai, and the Jews are saved. The king elevates Mordecai to his rival’s position and allows him to write a decree for the Jews to battle their attackers on the declared genocide day. They fight back and loot their enemies, keeping none of the goods for themselves.

This book is FULL of commentary on how the Lord’s people can respond under oppression and how the Lord views power dynamics and punishes people who abuse their power. This book shows God’s deep value for all life—lives of sinners and righteous, different ethnicities, wealthy and poor, powerful and meek. You can spend weeks digging into this rich book to challenge your own understanding of privilege, voice, power, oppression, protest, looting, civil disobedience, violet resistance, and slavery.

Nehemiah’s prayer: Nehemiah 1. Nehemiah was an Israelite in exile. When he heard of the brokenness of his homeland, he mourned, fasted, and prayed. His prayer is startling to many of us today, because he confessed the sins of his people, his nation, and his ancestors as his own. This story teaches us about Nehemiah’s character as a leader and rebuilder of broken things. He acknowledged his past and the past of his people so that they could move forward in obedience and dedication to the Lord, fully confessing, repairing, and leaving their sin behind them.

Sackcloth and ashes, torn clothes and dust: Esther 4:3, Job 2:11-13, Daniel 9:3, Matthew 11:21, Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, Jonah 3:6. This is less of a story than a theme of Scripture. God’s people many times wear rough sackcloth clothes and put ashes on their heads. They did it for many reasons: repentance, prayer, fasting, demonstrations, mourning. This theme of Scripture teaches us that sometimes God’s people express corporate emotions or spiritual state outwardly. They mourn together, confess and repent together, signify to their oppressors that they stand together (Esther). Sometimes bandwagon demonstrations may feel forced or disingenuous to us. But time and again God’s people—from peasants to prophets to kings—express solidarity, brokenness, and their utter dependence on the Lord for change by dressing alike and breaking social conventions by standing out in uncomfortable ways.

Mary’s Song: Luke 1:46-56. Mary learns she is pregnant with the Messiah, and after her cousin Elizabeth greets her prophetically she sings a song of praise. In this tender moment of worship, Mary, a young, impoverished, ethnically oppressed, pregnant unmarried woman, sings to her Lord on topics most would call ‘social justice.’ She recognizes her lowly place and how the Lord has chosen to exalt her as his servant. This brief praise song teaches us about how deeply connected the Messiah’s salvation and the healing of broken communities are—the Kingdom includes both.

The Woman at the Well: John 4:1-42. In this story Jesus breaks social barriers to spend time alone with a woman in a public space. Not just any woman, but one his own people would have ignored or worse based on her ethnicity. Even her own society had marginalized her. She was at the bottom of the privilege ladder. But Jesus engages her kindly and personally. He confers value on her as a witness to and preacher of the gospel. He looks past the stigmas society had put on her and sees the woman as valuable and important in his Kingdom. He even gets a bit cheeky with her, when he opens by demanding water from her, as she would have expected from a man like him, but then instead offering her living water and abundant life. This story teaches us to value people and understand their cultural, ethnic, and personal background, but to see their true value as a person made in the image of God.

The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5-7. This teaching is the charter for the Kingdom of God. It clarifies Kingdom values and describes what our life should be like as followers of Jesus. There is so much meat to this teaching, and so much is counter-intuitive even to mature believers. But in part Jesus encourages retaliatory love, revolutionary obedience, generous justice, and shocking patterns of integrity and dignity as we live our lives as children of God. Famously Jesus improves upon ‘eye for an eye’ justice by telling listeners to turn the other cheek, to give up the shirt off their back to someone who wrongfully sues, to go the extra mile, to love their enemies, and to share with those in need quietly without thought of reward. Without context we’ve forgotten the revolutionary aspect of these commands.

But Jesus’ teaching here restores dignity to oppressed peoples. A second slap on a second cheek forced a Roman to follow a backhand with an open palm slap, treating the Hebrew as an equal rather than a slave. Responding to a wrongful law suit by giving up your last article of clothing brought public shame on the litigator and was a demonstration of the deep way this action dehumanized and stole the dignity of the Hebrew. Going the extra mile was beyond the distance Romans were legally allowed to force Hebrews to carry their loads. It would have been an act of resistance, of taking initiative, of choosing to act beyond the forced action. Peaceful resistance like this would have given oppressors pause and forced them to consider if the person they abused was actually a human too, with the same thoughts and feelings and dignity.

The Bleeding Woman: Luke 8:40-56/Mark 5:21-43/Matthew 9:18-34. In this story a woman who truly lived on the margins of society approached Jesus. She recognized him for Who he was, but because her culture had repeatedly communicated to her how ‘little she was worth’, she came to Jesus afraid and trembling. She’d lived as a woman unclean, bearing chronic pain, socially stigmatized, used to ducking through crowds, impoverished, weak, sick, shunned. Jesus cared about her and her story, and he gave away the attention focused on him to her when he told her to speak in the middle of the crowd. He gave her a voice, and then he called her “Daughter” and signified to everyone around that her relationship to her Lord made her important. This story teaches us about leveraging privilege to acknowledge those without, and giving away our voice and platform to people who have none of their own.

The good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37. This parable is a zinger. But unfortunately many of us have heard it so many times we are numb to the sting of its application. When Jesus speaks about loving our neighbor, a man asks him who his neighbor is. Jesus tells the story of an innocent man beaten and left for dead. A priest passes the man and chooses the far side of the road rather than aiding the man in need. A Levite responds the same way. And then a Samaritan, the Jews’ despised brother tribes, saves the man. The Samaritan saved his life, tended his wounds, and paid for his lodging.

To best understand what this story teaches us, we should imagine ourselves as the innocent, helpless, beaten man. Ask yourself who makes you scoff loudest and say, “THEY would never help me. Count on it.” If that man, woman, liberal, conservative, transgendered, gay, foreign, ethnic, Muslim, hippie, whoever it was—person—helped you, how could you ever repay that deed of kindness, that debt of your life? This parable teaches us to rewrite our own narratives by cultivating personal relationships, as neighbors, with the people most unlike us and most unlikely to agree with us.

Cast the first stone: John 8:1-12. In this story a mob gathers to condemn and carry out a public execution. The woman in question was caught in adultery, but she was alone in the dirt, cowering before the stones of her angry accusers. She was dragged there to make a scene and send a statement. Even though she was a sinner and Jesus could judge her, he respected her dignity and gave her the chance at redemption and forgiveness. The man she was with was nowhere to be found. Instead Jesus stood up in the crowd to advocate for her, and to point out the sin and punishment all the crowd-members deserved themselves. It is impossible to read this story today without reading the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in between the lines, to notice the similarities and differences. This story teaches us that we are all of us sinners. We have no right to take the life of another because we deserve punishment and death ourselves but for our Lord’s mercy. Only our Perfect Judge has the right to deal out life and death, and as he demonstrates in this story, he often chooses mercy, forgiveness, and redemption over death and punishment. 

Parable of the Vineyard Workers: Matthew 20:1-16. Jesus tells this parable about a vineyard owner who hires day-workers. To those hired earliest in the morning, he promises a day’s wage. He hires many throughout the day, and some are only hired an hour before the work ends. At the end of the day he pays all a full day’s wage, and the earliest workers grumble. The man says it is his choice to pay as he wishes, and that he does no wrong in giving the early workers the day’s wage they agreed upon. This story teaches us that perhaps we don’t understand the Lord’s idea of justice and fairness as well as we think we do. It explains that the Lord’s justice has more to do with mercy, grace, and generosity than we realize. His idea of fairness if different from our own. This parable can help us think through affirmative action, economic disparity, fair wage, migrant workers, generosity, business principles, and just plain kindness.

Jesus Protests at the Temple: Matthew 21:12-17/Mark 11:15-18/John 2:13-22/Luke 19:45-48. This short account happens in the week immediately before Jesus’ death. Political and religious tensions are high, and Jesus has warned his disciples he will be assassinated soon. Jesus has been recognized by many as the Messiah, and he comes into his own as he enters the temple, the Holy High Priest himself, the King of Kings, and the Eternal Prophet. Enraged at the commerce taking place in the courtyard where non-Jews could gather, Jesus chases out the merchants and customers. He makes his own whip and drives out the people and livestock. He turned over their tables, dumped out and confused their money, and upset the chairs they sat in. He blockaded the temple and refused to allow anyone to pass carrying merchandise. He was angered and said that his house (the Temple) should be a house of prayer, not a den of robbers. Some would call Jesus’ extreme actions ‘looting,’ but it should be made clear that Jesus neither stole nor profited from what he did here. This story is so complicated and interesting. It should shape our understanding of righteous anger, zeal, and outrage at the things that outrage God. It gives us the opportunity to talk about protest, looting, and physical violence. This is the only time Jesus ever raises a hand against anyone.

This story gives us a chance to evaluate what circumstances justify taking action like Jesus took in the story. We should also consider that Jesus called the merchants robbers. What were they robbing, and from whom? The answers seem to be deeper than just monetary or material robbery. If we let this Scripture cut us to the heart, we should consider how we conduct our businesses and whether or not we rob people of opportunities, employment, spiritual growth, and the chance to know the Lord.

Parable of the Talents: Matthew 25:14-30/Luke 19:11-27. Most of us know this story well: a man leaves on a journey and entrusts his money to three servants—5 talents to one, 2 to another, and 1 to the last. When he later returns, he asks them to account for their talents (worth 20 years’ wages apiece). The first two servants deliver the man twice what he originally entrusted them with. The third had hidden his talent away and delivers it up, dirty from being buried in the ground, hidden away and useless. The man rewards and honors the first two servants, but takes the money from the third and condemns him to death. This story can be interpreted to mean so many things, but it is essentially about stewarding, and how the Kingdom of God calls us to be accountable for the resources we have.

The parable teaches us to invest our money, time, energy, effort, skills, etc. for Kingdom purposes, yes. But it’s more than that. We are to steward our knowledge of the gospel well, investing it, mentoring, and reaping returns. Might I also suggest we look at this parable from the lens of privilege? If we are born with social and cultural privilege because of our gender or the color of our skin or the economic class of our parents, we must use it to multiply the voices and platforms of those around us, to share an even footing with our Kingdom brothers and sisters. The worst thing we can do is hide that privilege in the ground because we are ashamed of it or fearful that we might make mistakes with it.

Incarcerated in Philippi: Acts 16:16-40. This story finds Paul and Silas in a jail in Philippi for a crime they did not commit. After they cast out a demon, the men were falsely accused, harassed by a mob, and beaten before they were thrown in jail. They sing in chains through the night. The Lord miraculously frees them, and they lead their jailer to repentance and faith in the Lord. The next morning, after all these events, they calmly remind the jailer’s superiors that as Roman citizens they have rights and cannot be imprisoned and punished without a proper trial and condemnation. Paul and Silas are then set free and continue on in their mission work. This story teaches us about how to consider our rights during religious persecution, how to leverage the liberties we do have, but to hold them loosely and submit them all to Kingdom purposes. We should be aware of our political and cultural rights, but ready to advocate them or set them aside to take opportunities to build the Kingdom.  

Riot in Ephesus: Acts 19:21-41. In this story, believers live out their faith in the community and there are economic repercussions. The idol-makers of the town organize a mob, sow lies, and become violent. They gather in a central point of the city and riot against the Christians. Paul is prevented from addressing the crowd or even going out to them. The people are confused about what they want or what has happened, but are so agitated it takes hours to calm and disperse them. This story helps us consider the difference between a protest and a riot, and cautions against assuming rational motives of a large gathered crowd.

Paul urges a master to free a slave: Philemon. Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, a fellow believer, to urge him to set free his servant/slave, Onesimus. Paul wrote from prison, where he met Onesimus—a runaway slave who had become a believer. Paul thanks and praises Philemon for his work for the gospel and his faith. Then Paul praises Onesimus, whom he had mentored in the faith. Paul asks Philemon to accept this letter Onesimus is delivering to him, and to begin to see and treat Onesimus as brother instead of a bondservant. Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul himself, and he expresses confidence Philemon will do this and more.

This letter teaches us so much about confronting sin, especially oppressive sin, in our believing brothers and sisters. Paul treats Philemon with respect and thanks him for his faithfulness, but does not shy away from confronting the way Philemon relates to another man as if he were a slave. We learn from this letter that we cannot force conviction on someone, or compel them to change their sin behaviors. But if we respect them as a brother or sister in the Lord, we should call them into greater Christlikeness as we humbly challenge them to repent of sin. We learn that this difficult conversation occurred in the context of a greater friendship and hospitality, as Paul asks to stay at Philemon’s house soon. Change in this case comes through relational conversations. And Paul hopefully expects change in Philemon based on his confidence in the man’s obedience to the Spirit. Paul simply asks Philemon to honor and receive Onesimus as if he were the same as Paul—Paul humanizes Onesimus for Philemon so he will understand the former slave is no less important than his friend and mentor Paul in the rankings of the Kingdom of God.

********These are just a handful of stories from Scripture that address violence and oppression, war and slavery, privilege and power, protest and resistance. My prayer is that they dig deep in us as we submit ourselves to the Lord in obedience and do the hard work of building Kingdom communities. May we reflect and pursue the justice of our Maker, and may we live our days honoring God by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly before our God.

For Esther. For Khalila. For Hikmat. For Pastor White. For Leah. For Mandi. For Regina. For Grace. For Gina. For my Stara Zagora kids.

This post is dedicated to my BIPOC brothers and sisters who have opened my eyes to the realities they experience, and the fresh ways they understand Scripture in light of those experiences. Thank you for gently and patiently teaching me. Thank you for trusting me with your experiences. Thank you for inviting me in to share the rich ways you live in obedience while honoring your spiritual heritage. Whether you knew it or not, your character and manifestation of the Image of God has shaped me more into an image-bearer of Christ as well.