Becoming Anti-Oppressive, Final Part: Banging on the Door

Editor’s Note: This four-part blog series is being co-published at RACL’s Blog Partner, “Daily Theology.” Before you go on, it may be helpful to read the first, second, and third parts of the series.

If you have been reading this series, you are probably already practicing anti-oppression in many facets of your life.  Anti-oppression is a mindset of transformation which admits the role that bias, bigotry, and violence play in contemporary culture.  To admit this can be overwhelming, debilitating, and devastating, but such is the price of the Gospel.  But perhaps it appears ironic that I quote the Gospel after haranguing it so terribly over the past three days.  I find no pleasure in the disfigurements of history, in those people who either did not know better or knew better and did nothing.  I am not here to judge history, for to do would be to judge myself in inescapable mores.  The condemnations of history, the laments as to what did not happen but could have, serve only one purpose–the realization of what can happen today.  Like my initial statements about my own previous faults–I am not here to reconcile myself, or my church, to you.

And yet, I am alive, and so is the Church to which I belong.  It is through this lens that I, unhesitatingly, profess the Gospel.  As the saying goes, show me an atheist who believes in giving her life to save the weakest in society, and I will show you a Christian baptized by nothing but the mercy of God.

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In the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, there is a parable commonly known as the “unjust judge” or the “persistent widow.” The Gospel author writes:

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”  For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’”

I love this parable for two reasons: first, its bald power differential between the widow with faith (the least in society) and the unjust judge with none (the most powerful).  In the end, the judge fears–or perhaps is just annoyed–at the persistent banging by the widow.  Second, the Gospel writer compares this with God’s timing and justice, saying something like, “See, even bad people get annoyed, so imagine how annoyed a good person will get if you keep asking!”  A better interpretation might be, “God rewards persistence.”

But why?  Why do we have to be persistent in matters of justice and righteousness?  Why is it not enough to see them once, in the horror and tragedy they strike?  This, I can only presume, is far beyond my understanding.

I preach the Gospel not because it gives me easy answers.  I preach the Gospel because it gives me hope.  And because, through hope, I find joy, and I find love.  This is why I preach the Gospel.

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 Like the widow, I would like to conclude this series with a few suggestions on how to bang on the door–a few actions, in other words, that I consider anti-oppressive.  As anti-oppressive, these actions hope to move us beyond “considering white privilege” or “being angry about Ray Rice” and engage us as counter-active agents to an underlying culture of bigotry, racism, misogyny, and violence.  This list is but the smallest example of possibilities of action, but it is something.  It is also not original, as these are suggestions I have learned from women and men in books, lectures, and conversations, over many years.  I encourage you to add more suggestions in the comments below as well as, per usual, enter into conversation.

First, for the educator or theologian:

  1. The construction of a syllabus, if you have the freedom, is a powerful thing.  They construct stories of intellectual, social, or spiritual dominance, whether we want them to or not. Consider engaging an intellectual argument written by a person of color or historically underrepresented group. Consider making such an argument a central piece of your syllabus.
  2. Ask yourself when was the last time you read a book, or even an article, written by an African-American scholar? “They’re just not represented in my field” is not an acceptable answer.
  3. Consider weaving a discussion of oppression and anti-oppression into even the most seemingly abstract discussions–there are implications to even the most obscure metaphysics of the 13th century.
  4. If your syllabi are constructed for you, consider finding ways to sneak in historically oppressed persons–e.g., persons of color, women, indigenous Americans–as you discuss the history of a discipline, a scientific discovery, or a genre of literature. “History should provide the perfect background for controversial topics,” writes Black Catholic historian Cyprian Davis, “ for distance lends enchantment and age adds a patina that softens the harshness and relieves the flare.” [1]

Second, for everyone (including educators and theologians): 

  1. Write a letter and invite your pastor to preach about oppression and what we can do to counter it on a certain Sunday.  Perhaps give him (or her if non-Catholic) ideas: a certain date and topic–a saint’s feast day, perhaps–that would be perfect to speak on the historical struggles of women, or the struggle of Black Catholics, or the or the fact that people should not beat a gay couple to death, or, you know, lots of other important things.  If your pastor responds that he or she doesn’t know what to say or, worse, that “those issues don’t speak to our congregation” (I have references for this one), point out some church documents about social justice and offer to invite another priest or scholar to come speak on the issue to your church.  Maybe get a few signatures.
  2. Check with your local elementary or high school (Catholic or not).  Are they assigning books to talk about race, to talk about the history of women’s struggles, to talk about the difficulties of the GLBTQ community, to talk about historically oppressed groups?  Are they assigning books by women and men of color, not only in the religion classroom but in the history and literature classroom as well?  How do they teach slavery?  How do they teach Civil Rights?
  3. If all else fails, start your own discussion group or bible study concerning these topics, or find scholars in the area to help!   If you need a book that is both accessible and powerful, Chris Pramuk’s Hope Sings So Beautiful is a wonderful place to begin. Get creative!
  4. Consider becoming engaged in a more enveloping action of anti-oppression:
    • Adoption of a child from, well, anywhere.  Non-infant children, especially, are rarely adopted.
    • Acting as a foster-parent for children in need.
    • Helping in a prison ministry or homeless shelter on a regular basis, , focusing on the life-giving and anti-oppressive nature of true and honest dialogue with the persons in these places.
    • Helping with a great organization like Habitat for Humanity on a regular basis, once again, with the focus on developing relationships with the people involved.

As I said, this list is only the beginning.  It is not meant to amaze, but inform.  Often the best acts of anti-oppression, as so many acts of holiness, are rather boring and tedious.  Such is the place of knocking on doors.  In certain contexts, knocking on a door can be ordinary.  In the context of the unjust judge, however, it transforms an action from unjust to just, from evil to holy.

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Becoming Anti-Oppressive, by John Slattery
Part 1: Growing Up Racist and Misogynist and Catholic
Part 2: The Act of Knowing
Part 3: Racism, Bigotry, and Theology
Part 4: Banging on the Door

1. Davis, “Reclaiming the Spirit: On Teaching Church History: ‘Why Can’t They Be More Like Us?’” in Black and Catholic: The Challenge and Gift of Black Folk, edited by Jamie Phelps. Page 51.

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