The God of the Oppressed and the Use of the Bible as a Message of Liberation, Equality, and Social Justice

“Remember that God exists, honey.
Kneel and pray to God.
Ask him to help you
get out of there.”

Guatemalan mother to her child
in a US immigration shelter

On June 14, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referenced the Bible, specifically Romans 13, to support policy on the separation of children from their parents on the Mexico/US border. Sessions and Sanders invoke a God who calls for obedience to a government — whether just or unjust — to silence critics of the governmental policy. For example, from Sanders’ perspective, the Bible enforces “the law”: “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible. It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law.”

Sanders’ remarks were in support of an earlier justification of the policy set forth by Sessions during a speech in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In his speech, Sessions leveled a very similar argument, framing the issue as obeying “the laws of government”:

I would cite (sic) you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order…Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.

Why did Sanders’ and Sessions’ use of the Bible differ so much from that of the Guatemalan mother quoted in the epigraph? Do different groups of people — for example, the oppressed versus the oppressors — use the Bible in different ways?

Faith leaders were particularly critical of Sessions and Sanders, specifically Sessions’ invocation of the apostle Paul, who spent much of his life as a follower of Jesus Christ. Paul fought against the status quo of the government and often found himself arrested and in jails in the Roman Providence. In fact, the “prison epistles” — Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon letters — were written by Paul during one of his incarcerations in the Roman Providence for disobeying the law.

Like the Apostle Paul to whom he compared his struggle, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail, written while he was incarcerated, distinguishes between “just” and “unjust laws” and condemns immoral governments. Criticizing the clergy who “commended the Birmingham police force for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence,’” King challenged clergy and liberal whites to support the courage of the people engaged in peaceful demonstrations who stood up against the violent actions of the police and others.

This sentiment is reflected in the words of the Guatemalan mother to her child: “God will help you. We didn’t know that things were like this. If we had known, I wouldn’t have let you go with your dad. But we thought everything was OK there. Look, the government did that.” The “government,” as spoken of by the mother, is the reason for her child’s distress. She sees the effort to find freedom and safety for her child as both lawful and necessary. The “government” of Sessions and Sanders is different as that of the oppressor.

Several voices have risen in the faith community, including that of Sessions’ own United Methodist Church, to specifically challenge what the Bible says about separation, foreigners in the land, and the treatment of the oppressed. Historically, it is nothing new for these voices of struggles for liberation, equality, and social justice in the use of the Bible to rise.

Dr. King himself was critical of the lack of a social justice agenda in the white Christian church. Dr. Helen Kenyon declared that American Protestantism tended to maintain the “status quo” and to shy away from “new neighbors and new ways of living.” Like Dr. King, she was skeptical of the white majority churches’ efforts to be inclusive because of a long history of denying equity and their complicity with segregation, discrimination, and oppression. In short, King and Keyon argue that the God of the oppressed calls for resistance to unjust authorities. The God of the oppressor expects obedience.

The God of the mother and child, the “captive,” is speaking in a different voice from that representing a policy that characterizes the oppressed as the embodiment of undocumented immigrants engaged in “alien smuggling”. The mother sees the God of the Bible as one of deliverance and protection of the vulnerable. This mother is seemingly invoking “God” to contradict and challenge “secular law” and seeking, through faith and hope, safety and liberation. Protection, not oppression, comes from God, she argues. The God of Sessions places “the law” above compassion and deliverance: “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

From lies to liberation: The historical use of scripture to justify injustice

Rev. Jarena Lee (1783–1864)

Generations of oppressed people have engaged in similar debates as to whether the Bible is a weapon of liberation or a tool of the status quo. In modern history, from the struggles of the enslaved Africans in the Americas and throughout the diaspora in the 18th century; to anti-slavery and freedom struggles of the 19th century; to the civil rights and Black Power struggles of the 1950s & 1960s; to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements unfolding in the 21st century, the question becomes: does the Bible primarily preach obedience or resistance?

Jarena Lee, first authorized female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, took up this question when she noted in her autobiography that white religious people tended to justify the subjugation of the religious views of Blacks, and thus justifying a message of suppression and obedience to the “master” because of a belief that African Americans had “no souls”:

There was, with others who had come from curiosity to hear the woman preacher, an old man, who was a Deist, and who said he did not believe the coloured people had any souls.

Jarena Lee won the man over. This liberation theology, she argued, freed not only the oppressed, but the oppressor as well:

This man was a great slave hlder (sic), and had been very cruel; thinking nothing of knocking down a slave with a fence stake, or whatever might come to hand. From this time … he became greatly altered in his ways for the better.

Reverend Lee, and many others since, argue that love, not hate, was the fulfillment of the law. Rev. Lee was encouraged, even in the face of opposition and obstruction against efforts to overcome the status-quo and governmental statutes of racism and oppression, to embrace love. As she shared later, “The congregation was of both white and colored person. …The white Preachers threatened to turn them out of their Church for going to the AME … Oh! what prejudice and stupidity; for love is the fulfilment of the Law.”


“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land
unto all inhabitants thereof.”

Liberty Bell Inscription,
Leviticus 25:10

The use of the Bible as a tool of liberation and in the pursuit of social justice for the oppressed and marginalized in societies is threatening to the status-quo and, like in MLK’s days, seen as radical and dangerous. Those who have historically struggled for freedom and justice see the Bible as a tool to transform their lives. They see the God of the Bible as a God of the oppressed and the one who will set them free. They see any use of the status quo or government to oppress and legitimate reasons for resistance and even rebellion. The manipulation of the scripture to justify political agendas like slavery, racism, and separation of children from parents is not only unAmerican, but viewed as anti-Christ.

Patricia Coleman-Burns is an assistant professor of nursing emerita at the University of Michigan and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.

Part of a series on the use of the Bible to justify inequality and advance social justice.

Spark: Elevating Scholarship on Social Issues

The Online Magazine of the National Center for Institutional Diversity

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Spark: Elevating Scholarship on Social Issues

The Online Magazine of the National Center for Institutional Diversity

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