Virtual Voices

Everyone's god of the oppressed

Culture

Liberation theologians seek to promote the fantasy that the only people who have been victims of oppression are people of Asian, Latin American, and African descent. Human history, however, tells a very different and true story that reminds us that every nation-state, or people group, at some point in time has been oppressed by another group. Sadly, this is the reality of living in a fallen world. No people group can claim to be exclusively the "oppressed ones."

In Thomas Sowell's books Conquest and Cultures and Ethnic America, readers survey a history of a world where no people group escaped oppression. If God is god of the oppressed, then he is the God over all people who are Asian, Latin American, American Indian, African, and so on, including European. We can see this briefly played out with the history of the Irish.

Sowell notes that the Irish were the first great ethnic minority in American cities. The Irish began arriving in the 1820s, followed by a massive migration in the 1840s and 1850s. They generally started at the bottom of the urban occupational ladder. The men were usually manual laborers; the women were usually maids. These immigrants were crowded in very poor housing conditions-worse than what public housing provides for free today. These immigrants lived in such a bad environment that disease, fire, and social problems such as violence, alcoholism, and crime were commonplace.

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The public treatment of the Irish was one of racism and discrimination. The general public reacted to the influx of Irish immigrants by moving out of neighborhoods where they settled; stereotyping them as drunkards, brawlers, and incompetents; and discriminating against them in employment-exemplified by phrases such as "No Irish Need Apply." The Irish in urban America were outcasts. They were the poor and the oppressed in many urban areas during this era.

The situation in Ireland in the early 19th century was worse than it was in urban America at that time. Slaves in the United States had a longer life expectancy than peasants in Ireland. Irish peasants lived under desperate poverty, with housing conditions worse than those of slaves in the United States.

Although the Irish were legally free, they lived under the despotic rule of Great Britain. British rulers controlled their political life and much of their property. British settlers dominated the Irish agrarian economy, actually renting confiscated land back to Irish tenant farmers. British landlords had acquired so much economic and political power that they could physically punish Irish peasants or call upon a peasant's daughter for sex. The amount of oppression, Sowell notes, has led scholars to debate whether there was more than just a technical difference between Irish peasantry and American slavery.

For centuries, the history of Ireland was the story of sporadic mob uprisings and bloody repressions, with the British intentionally keeping the Irish poor and oppressed. Finally in 1829, the discriminatory and oppressive laws levied by the British against the Irish were repealed. Sowell notes that this repeal was so important that the event was celebrated in the United States, "where the Liberty Bell was cracked by its ringing on that occasion."

The Irish who came to the Americas were usually those who, in Ireland, had been poor and oppressed. It was the deplorable and segregated living conditions of an Irish neighborhood in New York City called "Hell's Kitchen" that spurred Walter Rauschenbusch and others to begin the social gospel movement in the early 1900s, which later led James Cone toward black liberation theology.

Living conditions among the Irish in the United States "were perhaps the worst of any racial or ethnic group in American history," writes Sowell.

Since oppression is a dark park of the human story, the central question today is whether or not governments and citizens several generations removed owe "reparations." If countries provided reparations to all oppressed citizens, every government in the world would possibly go bankrupt.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Liberating Black Theology. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.

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