Oppressed to Kill

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Fourm on February 19, 2007.

I’m worried that the contemporary religious fixation with oppression may be starting to affect the Protestant tradition that is my spiritual home.

On a recent trip to Geneva I took time to contemplate my Calvinist spiritual roots by spending a few hours in prayer at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, where Calvin preached, I visited the “Reformation Wall,” a monument to all things reformed, and I perused the International Reformation Museum, all in the happily-realized hope that a journey into the heart of Reformed Christianity would invigorate my spiritual life.

Along the way, I noticed that Reformed, or Calvinist, Christians around the world increasingly are looking with pride to the historic plight of the French Huguenots as a way of forming an identity.

The Huguenot story is inspiring. As French Protestants, the Huguenots endured violent persecution by the Catholic Church during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For the most part, the Huguenot community endured its oppression with grace, and for that reason they are to be admired, but I fear the Huguenot story may be finding favor among us for the wrong reasons—not because Huguenot faithfulness is so laudatory but, instead, because being oppressed is so very much in vogue.

It can be hard to shake the feeling that oppression is needed for a religion to be credible. I’ve attended interfaith dialogue events that have dissolved into not-so-subtle competitions for “most-likely-to-be-marginalized” status, and some groups, such as Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, have a legitimate claim to a history of oppression. Other claims are not so solid, such as the current American Evangelical contention that they are oppressed by secular humanists, the ACLU, and the liberal media elite; this assertion is weakened by the fact that, during the Bush Administration, Evangelical Christians have been among the most powerful religious groups in human history.

When it comes to oppression—real or imagined–Presbyterians like me don’t command much respect. For example, I’ve been told that as a Presbyterian and as a Calvinist, I don’t have a legitimate voice in conversations around Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians because I’m not religiously persecuted.

It’s true that I’m not persecuted. With the notable exception of the Huguenots and a few other groups including English Puritans and Mayan Presbyterians in Chiapas and Guatemala, Calvinists like me have practiced our religious tradition in peace, prosperity, and security. In response to our good fortune some of us now are looking for validation by trying to qualify as an oppressed religious minority.

This is a waste of time. While there is merit in enduring oppression with grace, there is no virtue in oppression alone, and there is a danger that real or imagined oppression will be used as an excuse for harming others. This happens all of the time.

Few are the modern conflicts that are not inspired and excused by the perpetrator’s past suffering. Genocide in Rwanda and Sudan, ethnic strife in the Balkans, suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, the escalating humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, terrorism in Northern Ireland and the Basque regions, all find their genesis in a sense of entitlement born of oppression.

Oppression is the world’s best excuse for shedding blood. It is used by terrorist groups sending homemade rockets into Israel and by George Bush sending a troop surge into Baghdad.

And that’s why I worry about Calvinists spending too much time venerating our Huguenot forbearers. I don’t want Calvinists like me to be tempted to believe that yesterday’s oppression justifies tomorrow’s brutality. The cycle of violence excused by oppression has to end somewhere. Perhaps the greatest gift the spiritual heirs of John Calvin can give to the world today is to remember the Huguenots’ faithfulness without relying upon their suffering to give value to our tradition. And under no circumstances must we permit ourselves to violate the Huguenot legacy by using it as a rationalization for cruelty.

4 thoughts on “Oppressed to Kill

  1. Dear Ben,

    We Presbies don’t need to be oppressed from without; we do it to each other. Have you attended Presbytery or General Assembly lately? We are on each other’s case….with a vengeance. We seem to major in the sins of family members and don’t have much time to take on the world. We are obsessed with purging fellow Presbies of perceived doctrinal error in the most unholy ways. We character assasinate, we rumor-monger, we cast wide doctrinal nets to test our ecclesiastical waters. God is no longer Lord of our consciences: we have opted to be our brother’s/sister’s watchmen. We are into the purging of our own bodies…..while the rest of the world goes to hell. There is a Presbyterian Jihad alive in the Lord’s Vineyard. Oh the grapes of wrath! Selah!

  2. What has transpired in then past is a reflection of the human condition not Christ’s will.
    Your article is a reflection of where our future ought to be…not a brooding on the past.

  3. The prospect of US Presbyterians as an oppressed group brings to mind the ultimate absurdity in the whole “I’m oppressed” canon: Thirty-odd years ago I saw a television talk show interview in which Yoko Ono claimed — with a straight face — that she was “oppressed” as the wife of a rock star. Interviewer David Frost laughed out loud; so did most of the audience. John Lennon said nothing.

    Still, it’s easy to see why, on a psychological level, the “I’m oppressed” argument is so appealing. If you are a victim, you clearly are not responsible, nor is there much incentive to take responsibility, for whatever real or imagined fix you may be in. Such an argument must be especially appealing for those from zenophobic cultures and traditions.

  4. I just read a very interesting book by Mark Holt on the French Wars of Religion…. I must say, as ‘oppressed’ as they were, the French Huguenots were by no means helpless or innocent… they instigated and preempted the Gallican Church as many times as they were wronged in the wars of France in the late 1500s and early 1600s, although as the minority they laid more claim to the title of oppressed. The Huguenots had strong and powerful German friends, fortified cities like La Rochelle in France…. I believe that if people in the Calvinist tradition would look more closely at the Huguenots they might not recognize oppression quite so easily.

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