Friday, February 15, 2013

What Oppression Looks Like

This is what oppression looks like.

by Ben Howard

About a week ago I found myself listening to an economics podcast on my way home from work. That is a very nerdy sentence, but the relative nerdiness of my iPod isn’t the point of this story. The guest on the show was a sociologist from the University of Washington who studies the prison population.

I’ve heard a lot about the racial and socioeconomic injustices of our ironically named justice system, but I’ve rarely put numbers to the scale of the problem. But as I listened, I learned that on any given day, 1% of the United States population, that’s around 3 million people, is in prison or jail. Even more, 3%, nearly 9 million people, are under court supervision. And here’s the kicker, the numbers show that a black male between the ages of 18 and 25 is more likely to be imprisoned than employed.

This is what oppression looks like.

Of course, this information made me indignant.  What a crisis!  Why is no one talking about this?  Wait, why am I not talking about this?  What would I even do to make this situation better?  Am I not just as likely to demonize and misjudge someone for being a “criminal?”  Where do I get off being the champion for conceptual oppression when I can’t overcome the oppression I perpetrate?

“I love mankind”, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.”

Until my senior year of college, I was planning to be a lawyer. I took the LSAT and looked at admissions, and even started a few applications. I don’t really tell people the next part, and I’m certain I’ve never said it in public, but I remember the exact moment that I realized I could never be a lawyer.

I was in my Constitutional Law class and somehow we got onto the topic of statutory rape. As the conversation continued, I became more and more frustrated with the legality of these laws. It didn’t matter if the minor in question lied, had a fake ID, or even signed something saying they were 18 thus committing fraud, the liability always fell on the person who was over 18. The rights of the accused did not matter. It felt wrong.

Let me be clear, I’m not condoning the acts or the life choices that lead to a situation where an adult is (even unwittingly) involved with a minor, but that doesn’t make the process anymore just.

The more I’ve explored the situation, the more I’ve discovered that registered sex offenders are a highly marginalized group of people. Many places have basically made it illegal for a registered sex offender to live in their community. We brand and stigmatize these people for an act, that while certainly heinous in nature and worthy of punishment, is not the definition of their humanity.

But this situation undoes me in just the same way as that of prisoners.  I see the concept of oppression and the symbolic nature of the group in question, but on an individual basis it’s something different entirely. Sex offenders make me sick, they make me nervous. I instinctually want to distance myself from them and keep a close eye on my loved ones. I expect the worst.

This is what oppression looks like.

“I love mankind”, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.”

There is no place for this oppression in the kingdom of God. I say that unequivocally and I will repeat it. There is no place for this oppression in the kingdom of God, in the kingdom of redemption and resurrection and renewal.

I honestly don’t know what to do about the cases I’ve mentioned above. I don’t know how to untangle the oppressive nature of societal institutions from their pragmatic necessity. I’m open to suggestions. If you know anyone involved with these communities, leave a comment, get in touch with me, I want to know them.

I want to learn from them.

But in the mean time, I’ll keep trying to grow. I’ll keep trying to become a person who sees both the redeemed person who someone can become as well as the broken person they are. I’ll keep trying to be better, to be more loving. I’ll keep trying to love man in particular, instead of the easy love of all mankind.

“Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of anyone. For no one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime. When he understands that, he will be able to be a judge.”


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