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A Spiritual Response to Structural Oppression: Paul’s Reminder

Written by: Professor Ip Hon Ho Alex (Assistant Professor, Divinity School of Chung Chi College, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

The economy of the Roman Empire was founded upon oppression and exploitation. In the early period, one third of the Empire’s population were slaves; while another third were freed slaves. There were also many people who owned no land and served no masters. These people were often employed as casual workers or day labourers. To put it simply, the relatively high economic growth during the early period of the Roman Empire was a result of exploiting manual labourers who did not have much power to fight for their own interests.

However, structural evil did not arise from the existence of low-income labourers alone. It was a result of the ruling class taking advantage of the poor to continually misuse and exploit them. The rich and powerful also deliberately suppressed opportunities for any upward mobility in society, forcing the poor to be forever at their mercy, while they were able to remain at the top of the social hierarchy through constant oppression. This created a selfish and competitive social atmosphere.

The existence of structural evil was also perpetuated through a set of social values that rationalised systematic oppression. For instance, the ruling class used Aristotle’s account of natural slavery to rationalise slavery. They inculcated in the poor that slavery was very humane – because they could have killed the slaves like the defeated soldiers in battles. Therefore, in their eyes, slavery was a form of salvation. At the same time, in order to persuade the slaves and the non-Roman citizens to remain loyal to the Roman Empire, they used the privileges of Roman citizens as bait to coax them into abiding by the rules established by the ruling class.

In Philippians 1:9-10, Paul said “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,”. Why did Paul say that our love should abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight? It must be because there were a lot of lies in society! We know what knowledge means, but what is depth of insight? In the English version of the Holy Bible, one of the interpretations of ‘depth of insight’ is ‘deepest perception’. It refers to the deep-rooted values that we are used to. For example, living in a capitalist society, we have internalised the ideas of competitiveness and consumerism without knowing it.

The Roman Empire and the modern capitalist society have demonstrated the same conviction – mankind not only lives under the oppression of economic inequality, but living with a set of false values that have been created to rationalise the injustice in the system. If we are to have ‘our citizenship in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20), we must respond to economic system and listen to Paul’s reminder and improve our knowledge. More importantly, we must in our daily lives seek to increase our depth of insight, such as carrying out actions that show our love for our neighbours. In this way can we truly live a life of love.

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