Who are the Oppressors?


Exodus 1: 8-14, where the Egyptians oppress their Jewish slaves, and Ex. 3: 1-15, where God calls Moses at the burning bush.

(Links are provided to the highly recommended books/sermon below. The bold print is mine.)

As I thought about these passages, I wanted to examine three things: systems that oppress, people who oppress, and how God calls us. Each section will conclude with a Bible verse that illustrates God’s voice.

1. The systemic oppressors at work: 

No one wants to admit to being a villain. A rule of good writing is to create an antagonist who is complex, often feeling that she/he is serving a master plan that requires a few broken eggs to make the omelette.

Big pharma and big oil serve the shareholders,  tyrannical governments serve the state and its people.   

And we know the oppressive nature of religions throughout history that justify their deeds as serving God. 

Melissa Florer-Bixler writes about the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ in Fire by Night, which our adult Sunday School is studying:

She says (pg 90): “This doctrine provided the spiritual and theological underpinning for the European conquest of what we now call the Americas. We find the logic of its principle laced throughout the Western church’s declarations. In ‘The Legal Battle and Spiritual War against the Native People”, published in 1493, Pope Alexander VI writes, ‘Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.‘”

Only thirty-three years later we Anabaptists were treated to this kind of certainty—to the majority, forcing God into an image that served the existing structure.


In the not too distant past, Cincinnati and Ripley, its neighbor upriver, were the centers of the war before the Civil War, when escaped slaves were pursued across the Ohio River by slave hunters, much as our Anabaptist ancestors were pursued by the täufer hunters in the 1500s. Ann Hagedorn wrote Beyond the River, which tells the story of that pre-war struggle against slavery.

At that time, Cincinnati had a relatively large free black population, which didn’t guarantee them freedom or services. Cincinnati also had, though, the Lane Seminary in Walnut Hills that became a major center for abolitionist thought and deed. Lyman Beecher was president, and the student body included Henry B. Stanton, Theodore Weld, and Asa Stone.

The students decided to hold discussions of the colonization movement but within a short time decided that an immediate end to slavery was the only thing that would suffice.

They started an anti-slavery society at Lane and set up academic and Bible classes to help educate Cincinnati’s free black population. Lane became an example to the rest of the country, particularly because a number of the students involved were from the South, from slave owning families. “But the citizens of Cincinnati, even in the city churches [—] were not pleased. [—] A mob threatened to tear down the seminary.” (70)

The Board of Trustees, trying to get control of the situation, and in the absence of Dr. Beecher who was fundraising in the east, shut down the students’ anti-slavery society, and in one of the first student protests in the U.S., fifty-one grad students walked out of the doors of Lane. “The Lane Rebels scattered about the country and carried the torch of abolition into some of the nation’s darkest corners of racial prejudice.” (72) Some ended up at the new Oberlin College, which was open to students of color.

John Rankin of Underground Railroad fame wrote a letter in the Cincinnati Journal for the abolitionist students, even though he had to go against a number of his colleagues. He was particularly opposed to the trustees’/faculty’s comment about the students doing violence to pubic sentiment. He said (72): “The history of the world shows that public sentiment has been oftener wrong than right. [—] In the judgment of many of the wisest and best men of the nation public sentiment is wrong, egregiously wrong. [The students] attacked [public sentiment] with argument and practice, and were charged with turning the world upside down.”

Yes, before Anabaptist scholar Donald B. Kraybill wrote his Upside Down Kingdom, John Rankin and the Abolitionists envisioned a world turned upside down!

 Gen 3:8    And there came to them the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the evening wind: and the man and his wife went to a secret place among the trees of the garden, away from the eyes of the Lord God.

2. We’ve touched upon systemic violence—but what about one-on-one oppression?

As the Lane Seminary students were discussing slavery, they began to share the many horrors the Southern men had witnessed or heard about. Wm. Allen from a plantation in  Alabama said (69): “At our house, it is so common to hear their screams from a neighboring plantation, that we think nothing of it.” And he related a horrible incident between an overseer and a runaway slave. Andrew Benton from Mississippi told of a mistress who beat a slave to death. Those who had grown up in border states related the horror of the slave auctions. 

Today, there are personal violences against women and children, as told in Melinda Gates book, The Moment of Lift, which we referenced in the last blogpost, and oppression of migrant workers, who are charged exorbitant prices for water and transportation.

What is in the mind of an abuser? Who does these awful things?

Sadly, I may have a clue, and it’s very close to home. As a third grader, I’d just moved to another new school with my parents who were in Mennonite service. I didn’t know cursive writing, and the other kids did, so I’d hide out, pretending to feel sick at recess, so that I could put the desk top up and practice my cursive writing. One day the teacher left the room and put two of us in charge of a boy who was on detention. Why would she do such an irresponsible thing? Well, having taught I now know exactly why. She probably hadn’t been able to use the bathroom all day and just had to go and made a mistake by putting us in charge. We wouldn’t have noticed that she was gone had she just left. So, suddenly this other little girl and I were in charge. The little boy refused to stay in the corner, so we chased him and caught him. We dragged him back to the corner, berating him with the words that girls were so much better than boys at using at that age. Then the worst happened, we slapped his arms and his back and told him he’d better behave, or we’d do this and that to him. He started to cry.

At that moment, I was so ashamed and I repented. If you believe that I’ve got some land to sell you in the middle of the Ohio River.

My first thought was: ‘He’s going to tell. How can I get him not to tell?’ My instinct was to either fall at his feet and beg him not to tell, or to clock him one, to push him further down the rungs of the ladder to justify my behavior against this bad boy whom I was entitled to force to behave. After all, I served a greater master, I was in charge of preserving order.

Suddenly, I said how sorry I was, of course doing so partly so that he would stay quiet. The teacher came back and we all went on as kids do, once the authority figures are in place—Lord of the Flies.

But the escalation of anger and violence in my own messy, third grade, rat brain has stayed with me and made me aware of the pitfalls of power and entitlement. How dangerous the bullies who justify their behavior. How lonely the cowardly bully who has fear in her heart.

Photo by twinsfisch on Unsplash

If believing that some people are less than is an accepted societal practice, the seeds of abuse can only grow. So, what is in the mind of an abuser may depend upon the society that surrounds the abuser.

In the case of the slave masters, there was little to intervene on behalf of the slaves because society—the supposed adults the room—dictated and supported the behavior of the slave masters. I wonder if many abusers had moments of horror as they contemplated their deeds, but I’d surely like to know—did God shout at them, did they fall down in terrible agonies of regret? Did they repent? Who repented, who didn’t?

That night and for nights after I bullied the boy, a Greek chorus of angels, ancestors, and my own upbringing in the church, rose in deafening tones singing and shouting: We Don’t Do That!!! Mostly this was a loving caution and call, but there was one night when I was literally pursued from my bed by something that surely looked like demons. I ran down the hallway to my parents’ room, where I lay trembling on the floor beside their bed for the rest of the night. I never told them that I had been an oppressor.

Without family and societal structures that teach and then expect generosity and empathy, we may well be lost.

 1 Kings 19:11-12 

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came sheer silence/some translate as ‘a gentle whisper’.

I could have used a whisper.

3. Where is God, and how does God speak to us: teach, punish, help, and forgive?

Liberation theory, for one, says that God lives most vividly with the poor and oppressed. So, go be with them.

But also, I hope and I do believe that God lives in each one of us, as individuals work to change systems to help ensure better world. 

Change often happens through ‘just folks’, who hope they are doing the right thing.  

Today, there is Greta Thunberg and the students at the U.N., creating another narrative for climate change, and the Stoneman Douglas students who are taking on the moneyed gun lobby.

There are the ‘Nuns on a Bus’ delivering help to the oppressed and petitions to power, and our own Anabaptist churches working to change people’s minds and provide alternate ways of being for humankind.

There is the sanctuary movement and Pastor Isaac Villegas of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in N.C. who with other churches’ members was arrested last fall for surrounding an ICE vehicle trying to take away an undocumented man who had been living in sanctuary and was trying to keep his immigration appointment. Villegas later preached:

“God’s fire is a purifying fire — affirming what is good, and burning away all the corruption that disfigures this world, the goodness of life.[—] There’s so much in this world that needs to be burned away, an unquenchable fire to melt ICE, that system of brutal policing of immigrants, and those detention centers and internment camps in the borderlands. None of it will last when the end comes—the fire next time, as James Baldwin once called the judgment of the world we’ve made.”

Melissa Florer-Bixler puts it this way (94):

“At the dedication of the temple, Solomon talks about God showing up like a thick, dark cloud. When God shows up in this way, it’s usually to remind the people that God isn’t another object to be harnessed or controlled. There’s an edge of danger to the story, this God who will not be confined in the appointed space.

“—this God, the rumbling cloud that sends the priests running from the temple—this God keeps showing up, keeps surprising me, keeps making new ways where there is no way, keeps saying yes to a world that is mean and ugly. This way of holiness is infuriating at times; it is always unnerving and often unruly.”

Exodus 3: 11-12  At the burning bush, Moses said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you.”


I welcome your comments: gretaholtwriter.com/blog.

{Thank you to my niece, Addie (Liechty) Kogan, for taking the picture that is this blog’s featured image. Her blog is: https://addieswriting.wordpress.com.}

Best wishes and have a good week.


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Greta Holt


  1. Diane Gottlieb on October 4, 2019 at 3:07 pm

    Love this piece Greta–and so important for our times. You made me laugh several times “she/he is serving a master plan that requires a few broken eggs to make the omelette,” is just one of them, but you also touched my heart, not only with your own bullying story but with your compassion that rings throughout. Thank you for this!

    • Greta Holt on October 4, 2019 at 4:38 pm

      Thank you, Diane. I wonder if our lives are tragedy or comedy.

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