Imagine an oppressor whose victims find a way to escape their long-standing oppression. Those victims have, for a long time, been worked hard without being allowed to receive the just rewards of their labors. Many of them have been tortured and killed. Nonetheless, they have found a way to break the bonds of their oppression and find a new place to live. When they leave the land of their oppression, they feel it is just for them to take what they believe is their due, to take from their oppressor what they need to properly sustain themselves in their freedom. Not only that, their leaders declare the justice of their actions, explaining to their oppressor, as well as to all who would listen, that their actions serve to make things equitable.
It is easy to imagine the kinds of reactions which would occur if this happened today. Those who supported the oppressed and their rights, those who supported the call to equity would be told they were “woke” and promoted “class warfare.” They would also be accused of being communists trying to redistribute wealth. They would be asked why they wanted to promote oppression, because demanding the oppressors give up what they unjustly acquired would be declared “reverse oppression.” There would be considerable effort to make the oppressors appear to be the true victims; all kinds of slogans and propaganda would be spread in order to try to preserve the status quo with all the injustices involved in it. It is easy to imagine this, because this is what is happening – and those who should know better, such as Catholics whose church teaches social justice – are suing Catholic schools which teach and support social justice as being “woke” for their support of the oppressed.
Yet, the irony of this is that the initial story is, in brief, a summary of the Exodus. Moses not only freed the People of Israel from Egyptian rule, he had them despoil the Egyptians as a way for them to take what justice would indicate was rightfully theirs:
And the Egyptians were urgent with the people, to send them out of the land in haste; for they said, “We are all dead men.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their mantles on their shoulders.
The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked of the Egyptians jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing; and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they despoiled the Egyptians (Ex. 12:33-36 RSV).
People who embrace social justice concerns and discuss issues such as systematic racism and the ways to deal with systematic racism (such as those proposed by Critical Race Theory) understand the way systems work and promote injustice, even if particular individuals do not purposefully perform such injustices themselves . Those who unjustly benefit from such systems are the heirs of injustice, whether or not they themselves intend to perpetuate and promote such injustices. It should not be difficult for Catholics to understand this point because the principles behind it are similar to the principles behind Catholic teaching on Original Sin. Original sin is systematic sin; we are incorporated into that it at birth. Original Sin is not actual sin, though through our connection with Original Sin, we are tainted in such a way as we are inclined to sin and through our inclination, we will fall into actual sin. We can cut ourselves off from original sin through the justice of Christ, that is, incorporating ourselves into Christ and his greater justice which works to heal the injustices established by sin. Similarly, we overcome the systematic injustices by connecting ourselves to the principles of justice which lie beyond such injustices, doing what is expected by those principles. Unless we work for justice, we risk embracing systematic injustice; even when we do not personally act out every form of injustice ourselves, we find ourselves inclined to such activity and committing various forms of injustices which tie with it because of our association with and support for the systematic justice which is already in place. To deny systematic injustices such as systematic racism and try to claim we have no part of it because we do not personally commit acts of explicit racism is similar to denying Original Sin. Just because we deny the way we find ourselves connected to society as a whole does not mean we really are not connected and influenced by it; indeed, such denial lets us to accept injustice and sin much easier as we think ourselves as being perfectly good, thinking that whatever we desire must itself by good as well. Once we appreciate the teaching behind Original Sin, we will be able to appreciate how systematic injustices work, because, though each form, like systematic racism, does not represent all that comes out of Original Sin, they can be shown as a part of it. Working against such unjust structures connects us to the work of Christ, because we join in with his work to overcome all the injustices sin put into the world.
It is important for us to realize, therefore, that the society which we live in does not emerge from an immaculate past. We are heirs of injustices. Some of us suffer from those injustices while others benefit from them. It is important for us to map out those injustices and discern ways we can overcome them. Certainly, we can recognize that there was considerable good established in the formation of the United States. But we must also see that its treatment of slaves, its treatment of Native Americans, represents a kind of “Original Sin” for the country which has influenced its history because that Original Sin has not been properly repudiated and overcome. The people of the United States must not hide its past; they cannot ignore the racism which infected the United States from the very beginning, because only by confession and penance can they overcome the sins of the nation and truly advance and follow the good which is also found in their heritage.
Oppression must be opposed. Justice demands those who unjustly benefit from oppression to renounce their ill-begotten gains and give what they can back to those who have been oppressed. Scripture confirms this in and through the story of the Exodus. It’s not “woke.” It’s not “communist.” It’s not “social Marxism.” It’s basic justice. Christians must serve justice, not injustice. They must hunger and thirst for justice. If they don’t, Jesus warned them that they risk facing the consequences of those injustices themselves.
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