Ellis: Grace As Base

“Unrighteousness is toxic. It destroys humanity. It is only by the grace of God that our humanity has not been totally destroyed—that we can still resist unrighteousness at all. If we had lost that ability, the oppressed would be unable to resist oppression.

How does resistance relate to righteousness, oppression and our need for God’s salvation and grace? Let’s look at this next.

1. Resistance and the righteousness of God. Theologian James Cone has affirmed that God is on the side of the oppressed. What does this mean? It means that the oppressed, when they resist oppression, are resisting unrighteousness. It does not mean that the oppressed are more righteous than the oppressors. It does mean, however, that they have the opportunity to demonstrate more righteousness. Why? Because resisting oppression is more righteous than giving in to it or inflicting it on others, especially if the oppressed resist righteously. (This will be discussed in chapter fourteen.) God is the God of righteousness, and in resisting oppression the oppressed align themselves with God. They advance God’s justice.

2. Resistance and the ungodliness of the oppressed. If ungodliness is imposed on people whose own ungodliness has already diminished their humanity, then the imposed ungodliness is in harmony with their own ungodliness. Consider the prostitute. If she ‘turns a trick’ she cannot charge her ‘john’ with rape. Though her sexuality has been abused, it was her willful intention to execute the transaction. Her intentions complemented the intentions of her john. Nevertheless, the fact that her intentions matched those of her oppressor does not mean that she has simply gotten “what she asked for” or that the oppressor ought not to be judged for his oppression. She became a prostitute in the first place partly because her sense of humanity had been brutalized by oppression and mistreatment.

There is never perfect harmony between oppression and the ungodliness of the oppressed.God set a limit to this unrighteous harmony after the Fall, when he put hostility between Satan, the ultimate oppressor, and humans (Genesis 3:15). By so doing God ensured that for every oppression there will be a corresponding resistance.

3. Resistance and the oppressed’s need for salvation. If the oppressed focus on their humanity (which oppression is trying to destroy) and try to defend that humanity, they will be acting righteously. Their own ungodliness will be driven beneath the surface. When liberation comes, however, their ungodliness will resurface with all its negative effects. The oppressed must fight to break the back of oppression so they can seek God’s solution to their own unrighteousness.

Israel learned this lesson under the judges. They disobeyed God in the first place by not driving out the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:1-6; Judges 1:27-2:2). The Canaanites regrouped, regained their strength and came back to oppress the Israelites. Israel resisted. They cried out to God for help,sought God’s ways and were delivered from oppression. But each time they were liberated, their ungodliness resurfaced, and they betrayed their call to be a light to the nations. They had to face their own need for salvation.

4. Resistance and the grace of God. It is God who has preserved our humanity from total destruction by unrighteousness. He has not let ungodliness and oppression whittle down to nothing his image in people.God cares about justice and has compassionate love for suffering people (Isaiah 58:3-12; Amos 5:10-15, 21-24). God’s compassion is rooted in his grace. It is because of God’s grace that oppression will ultimately cave in to the resistance of the oppressed.

Thus it is God’s grace alone that provides the basis for resisting oppression. It is his grace that provides the power to resist oppression. It is God’s grace that provides the will to resist oppression. If we leave God out,we leave out the very possibility of freedom.”

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 29-30.

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