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The Abuse of Denial: How We Avoid Change and Add to Oppression

Branden Henry

When it comes to the abuse and oppression of other image bearers, we spit in the face of our Creator when we choose to turn a blind eye. Diane Langberg, a renowned trauma counselor, puts it this way: “So often, rather than suffer involvement with messy injustices and corrupt systems, we choose the quiet, easy way, and sin against God.

God Does Not Deny Oppression

As I continue to have discussions about the injustices done to minorities, the serious sin of white supremacy, and the toll of centuries worth of abuse done to non-whites in this country, I often walk away stunned. How can people not see this? How can they refuse to stand up for the oppressed? I keep taking this back to God who reminds me that:

  • He groans for the oppressed (Judges 2:18).
  • He is a stronghold for the oppressed (Psalm 9:9).
  • He is working justice and righteousness for all the oppressed (Psalm 103:6).
  • He himself was oppressed (Isaiah 53:7).
  • He will advocate for the oppressed and stand up to those who threaten them (Prov. 22:22-23).
  • He brings good news to the poor, binds up the brokenhearted, proclaims liberty to captives, opens the prison to those who are bound (Isaiah 61:1).
  • He will come in judgment against oppressors (Malachi 3:5).

God knows the past and present history of minorities’ suffering in this country. He is not blind to it nor does he minimize it. It is not an issue of social justice to him, but an issue of protecting his children from vile abusers.

Jesus spent an incredible part of his ministry freeing people from demonic strongholds. Slavery, segregation, and systemic oppression are all a part of the stronghold of the enemy. Upon the resurrection of Christ, one of the primary means of bringing freedom to the oppressed is through his body, the church. Diane Langberg once said we ought to be like the world’s immune system. We are called to this, regardless of what you believe about social justice (Isaiah 1:17, James 2:15-16, 1 John 3:17, 1 Cor. 10:24, Phil. 2:1-11, Rom. 12:13).

Why We Deny

In recent conversations, I have heard primarily white people go out of their way to downplay outright oppression and abuse of black folks. The amount of theories people have proposed to justify James Alex Field Jr’s murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville is both absurd and astounding. People still twist reality to justify the shooting death of Tamir Rice. It seems like people are willing to believe anything so long as it means that oppressive systems do not exist.

Why do people have such difficulty in recognizing oppression, be it individual or systemic?

  1. Our enemy – We have an adversary (1 Peter 5:8), the prince of this world (John 14:30), the father of Lies (John 8:44), who is set against us and whose primary weapon is deceit and spiritual blindness. Our main and primary enemy is not flesh and blood, but ‘spiritual forces of evil’ (Ephesians 6:12).
  2. Our prideful hearts are prone to self-deception (Obadiah 1:3) and we often fool ourselves into believing untruths (Jeremiah 17:9). As in Jesus’ parable of the rich fool, we often put off dealing with hard things for the luxury of today (Luke 12). Alongside the church of Laodicea, we say: “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” To which Jesus replies “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
  3. Truth is always costly. Jesus told his followers that to follow him would bring immense loss (Matt. 16:24-28). To see sin around us and in us requires change (James 1) and many people prefer comfort over transformation. This is apparent as we see the sin of centuries worth of racism continue to come to fruition around us. To face it would be costly for white folk.

How We Deny

The following are a few ways I’ve seen folks pursue denial. As you read, ask God to confront your heart and motives. Although I write this specifically to those who deny oppression of minorities, it is not limited to any social group, movement, race or political ideal. We all participate in denial in one area of life or another.

Globalizing – This is where you justify a certain action by looking at it as a global norm. “Racism is everywhere and always has been, it’s no worse here than anywhere else.” Globalizing racism with words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ attempt to deflate the reality of it in your presence.

Minimizing – To minimize is to make something less than it really is. I’ve recently heard people talk of white nationalist protesters as being only a ‘little misguided’ or exercising their free speech. To say there are a lot of good people mixed up with a hate-based movement is to minimize the sin of the movement. To call sin anything less than sin is to actively minimize the atoning need of Christ.

Distracting – People tend to distract from the painful reality of a situation because of their own discomfort. I’ve seen folks distract by using humor, angry tirades, or posting absurdities. (Humor, however, can often be a helpful vehicle in bringing out the absurdities of racism). The straw man argument is a favorite move for distraction.

When we see oppression for what it is, we necessarily have to do something about, which is why many folks take the easier road of looking elsewhere. A favorite distraction lately has been to look at the past life of a victim or the flaws of a movement.

Rationalizing – Westerners love rational thought, and for good reason, but when people rationalize racist acts of neo-nazis by pointing out that counter-protesters did not have a permit, they seek to miss the point. The human heart is easily deceived, especially by the human mind. There is no rational explanation for hate crimes, oppressing a people group, slavery, etc.

Comparing – Folks often like to shift focus off of racism, bigotry, or implicit bias by comparing the situation at hand to something they, or someone they know, have experienced. Think ‘reverse racism.’ Comparing an injustice you have encountered (which is not due to systemic oppression) to the centuries-long injustices faced by mass groups of people seeks to belittle and make their injustice small just so you can continue doing nothing about it.

Avoidance – When blatant acts of racist hate and bigotry occur, social media goes quiet for many people. They watch less news and read fewer posts until things gloss over. I consistently notice who pays attention and who seems to go into hiding in the midst of national tragedies. If you avoid the sin of your people, you participate in it.

Blaming – This seems to be an American favorite. Blame the victim, blame the situation, blame the past leadership, blame the counter-protesters, blame anyone but the perpetrator(s). To shift blame from a perpetrator to a victim is to actively support oppression and abuse. This is the cheapest, laziest, and most irresponsible way of not dealing with this issue.

Over-spiritualizing – Similar to intellectualizing, we can also over-spiritualize an incident, such as chalking everything up to the ‘devil’ in order to avoid the particular people and systems that play an active role. People sometimes try to hide behind theological arguments in order to stay blind to the here and now pain of the people in front of them. This is something Jesus never did.

Playing the Victim – This, right here, is what we witnessed in Charlottesville. Grown white men marching against Jews and Blacks because the white men believe they are being replaced. These same folks who cry foul when minorities attempt to be treated as equal are the same folks who tend to ignore the genocide of the native people of this continent, as well as ignore the long-lasting effects of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. on black persons. These people remind me of the husbands I work with who get angry at their wives when their mistresses are discovered. It is absurd and downright shameful.

Manipulating – When people distort facts, use their power to obstruct or spin the story, lay claim that their truth is more qualified than your experience, or utilize their privilege to put out the flames of those who cry ‘unjust!’, you find they would rather manipulate a situation than face it. Any distortion of reality for the purpose of providing self-comfort is an attempt to manipulate your way out of facing consequences.

Crazymaking – When all else fails, you just say that ‘those folks are crazy’ or call their news ‘fake!’ If you can discredit them, then you don’t have to listen to them. If their history and experiences are just some lie that they’ve created, then you don’t have to change anything in your own life. Just because you don’t like someone’s perception does not mean they are crazy.

As my mentor said to me, “There is no such thing as choosing no pain; you are always choosing one kind of pain over another.” I implore you, choose to face the painful reality of racism and the transformation required, rather than the pain of the Lord’s judgment which comes when you participate in oppression by denying it.

2 thoughts on “The Abuse of Denial: How We Avoid Change and Add to Oppression

  1. Marculis

    Great article!

  2. Jamie

    This is so well written and necessary. Thank you.

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