Guarding your heart from oppression

guard your heartAs I’ve written before, reconciliation and justice work is not for the faint of heart. Those who labor for a more equitable church and society that honors the image of God in diverse people know this truth all too well.  They also know the frustration of hope deferred and the pain of being on the receiving end of racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. I’m writing this post especially to those who identify as members of historically oppressed groups (e.g., non-white, non-male, non-able-bodied, non-middle class or higher, non-heterosexual, etc.). These are the ones who feel the brunt of oppression in the midst of their reconciliation work: being ignored by majority-members in power, feeling social isolated as one of a few minority group members working for change, coping with the perhaps-unintentional-but-definitely-hurtful cross-cultural missteps of majority group members who are clumsily and slowly learning how to act justly in cross-cultural situations, being silenced when you dare to speak out in a way that challenges the status quo or makes the majority group feel uncomfortable, feeling like you can’t be your authentic self because to do so would compromise the small amount of influence that you do have.  The list goes on.

I think that internalized oppression is one of the saddest things in the world as well as one of the great victories of our Enemy. It takes many forms, but one form that I often encounter among reconciliation workers is this: the oppressed person, painfully afflicted by the injustice (perpetrated by both individuals and institutions) surrounding him or her, becomes bitter, loses sight of the ever-present and ever-working God, and ultimately loses hope.  This can happen so easily and it can happen subtly. Before we know it, sarcasm has taken root in our hearts and conversations, we’re still clinging to unforgiveness that we should have relinquished months ago, and we have stopped taking hopeful risks in our reconciliation work because we no longer truly believe that God can bring hope and healing to this broken world.  Those of us who desire to preserve our hopeful hearts must guard against this form of internalized oppression.

Here are some tips on guarding your heart against oppression that I’ve picked up along the way:

  1. Meditate on the positive attributes of God, not the negative attributes of the oppressor. It’s so easy to meditate on how racist or sexist or ignorant or entitled your oppressor is. And perhaps those meditations are true – but they aren’t edifying. Instead, briefly acknowledge the dark reality of the situation (and how the oppressor plays a role in it) and then frame it in the glorious reality of who God is by focusing on God’s goodness, righteous power, etc. Sometimes, I do this by singing a simple hymn like “Holy, Holy, Holy” over and over and over.
  2. Pray for your oppressors (Matt 5:44).  One of my mentors is about 25 years older than me and has dealt with more oppression than most people I know.  He’s maintained a soft and hopeful heart by spending significant time (at times, up to 2 hours/day) praying for his oppressors by name and asking God to bless them and their families. This is hardcore. I try to do this as much as I can and I can testify that it definitely works.  It’s hard to hate someone for whom you’ve earnestly been praying.
  3. Pray the sad psalms (e.g., Psalm 38, 42, 64, 80, and 88) and let God know how you’re really feeling.  God’s probably the only one who can bear the full weight of your frustrations. Let him have it and then ask him to give you peace and hope.
  4. Prioritize time with people who do value and respect you. My friends Le Que and Cristin understand and value who I am as a woman of color, “get” my heart for reconciliation, and can relate to the highs and lows of reconciliation work.  It’s important for me to spend time with them because in both subtle and blatant ways, God uses their presence in my life to heal my heart. Plus, they are awesome women!
  5. Use oppression as an opportunity to remind yourself of the truth about who you are.  Often times, the words and behaviors of oppressors communicate to you that you are unimportant, not wanted, marginalized, stupid, crazy, damaged or worse. This is a good time for you return to the Scriptures to seek out the truth: that you’re Invaluable, Sought After, a powerful Co-heir with Christ, Wise, Redeemed, and Loved.
  6. Check your self-righteousness level and repent as needed. I once read, “Bitterness…is self-righteousness. At its root, bitterness says, ‘You hurt me. I would never do that. I’m better than you.’”[i] Ever since I read this, I’ve looked for self-righteousness whenever bitterness creeps into my heart. Sure enough, I inevitably find it and I need to talk to God about it and repent.[ii]
  7. Take a break. Reconcilers are often headstrong gluttons-for-punishment who wouldn’t even consider “quitting.” In many ways, these stubborn qualities enable us to endure tough times that would send other people packing. But sometimes, the most loving thing you can do for both yourself and your community is to take a break from this challenging work. From 2008-2010, I experienced a steady onslaught of oppression from the individuals and institution with which I was involved. At the end of that time, I chose to take 6 months off from thinking, speaking, or writing about reconciliation in order to regroup, refocus and allow God to repair my broken heart. This was necessary and I came back stronger!

If you have any other trusty tips to add, please do so!

Keep hope alive, y'all.

[i] From an anonymous article published by the wonderful Good Women Project:

[ii] For those who are interested in theology, Volf’s book Exclusion & Embrace talks a lot about the repentance that oppressed people need to do in order for true reconciliation to occur.  It’s paradigm-shifting. You should read it.