Thoughts on the Words of a Slave, a King, and a Chief
Today I awoke thinking on the unrest in our country on this special day in which we celebrate our independence from the British crown. In catching up with notifications on my phone, as is my habit first thing in the morning, I noticed a post linked to an abridged version of the speech given by Frederick Douglass on the 5th of July, 1852, entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
It was a powerful speech but the professor who abridged it, and did so to promote his next book on how to become an anarchist, cut it down to make it incendiary, so I went to the original and read it in full. I encourage you to do the same (https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/2945). After reading the speech, I pondered for a long while the state of our republic. I thought about the word "oppression" and its several forms and how we hear that word often in justification for the violent riots we have seen of late.
Oppression is closely related to abuse. It really is just an organized form of abuse of one group by another. As such, and like it's more personal cousin "abuse," oppression becomes cyclical. Those who rise up against their oppressors are often already oppressors or become such upon their liberation, having learned the habits of their current or former oppressors.
Oppression begets oppression. Violence upon others teaches others to be violent. Some who learn this violence, whether in physical or mental and emotional form, choose to visit it upon their teachers until their former oppressors cower in fear and become the oppressed. Some look for new targets of their rage, enacting revenge upon the innocent. We can find examples of these throughout history. No society of which I'm aware is without such sin. No stone is thrown by pure hands.
I cannot think of a single society that has fought and won its freedom from oppression that has not in some part participated in oppressive acts against others. Mr. Douglass's speech is a grim reminder of this. Recent uprisings, protests, and riots are reminders of this. Lives and livelihoods have been destroyed as those who stand against oppression have enacted their own version against others. An eye for an eye continues even after we are all blinded.
In thinking of all this, I then read the parting words and wisdom of a king who lived in this great land about 2,129 years ago. He hoped that his people would avoid the tragedy of a king who would undoubtedly succumb to the future temptations of power and oppress his people, as has so often been the case since the dawn of time. In this hope, he established the first known form of a representative democracy in this great land. Judges were appointed by the "voice of the people," and a system of checks and balances were established to prevent any one judge from wielding power against the will of the people. (See Mosiah 29 in the Book of Mormon.)
That system ultimately failed. Oppression and persecution persisted between groups who differed by belief, by ideology. Violence and war followed. Sin and corruption destroyed the peace. And so it is in our country and our world today. People who feel oppressed are rising up, committing acts of violence, becoming the thing they profess to hate. Where does it end? Who will lose their eye and choose not to take another's in retaliation? Who will be struck by a stone and choose to leave it on the ground?
It seems to me that even in a country such as the United States where we have so much to be grateful for, we have found ourselves in that revolving door of oppression, hate, envy, and revenge. While the vast majority live their lives in quiet peace, there are groups who continue to oppress and be oppressed. In my search, I have failed to find a single example of any people who conquered their oppressors and then set down all the rocks, whips, and chains with which they were oppressed.
For all the great good the United States has done in the world, we have been plagued by our own sins against a number of groups, some of whom are rising up today. We have also worked to deny, ignore, or exacerbate and allow ideological forces to compound the problems and grievances of those who feel oppressed. Groups, divided by race, religion, ethnicity, education, and economic circumstances, have circled their wagons and given in to the temptation to lash out against others or neglect their needs.
If we examine history carefully, we may conclude that we may free ourselves from tyranny by violence but we cannot end the cycle of societal abuse by the continued use of the tools of oppression. If we cannot bring ourselves to drop the stones in our hands and cross identity group boundaries to love one another, we are doomed to a cycle of violence that will destroy us, just as so many societies have done throughout history.
Who then can end this ideological war? The oppressors or the oppressed? No. None can win. All will lose unless we together find the wisdom and humility to stop fighting, to stop the cycle of abuse. And the only way we have a chance of doing so as a society is if we choose to do so as an individual. I choose to leave the stones on the ground.
I love our dear country, even with it's flaws. It is man's greatest hope of overcoming our natural tendencies to do evil, to harm others in retaliation for pain we suffer, even if only by perception. If you feel aggrieved, if you feel like standing up and fighting oppression with oppression, I invite you to consider the cycle of abuse. You have a choice to end it for you. And that is the only choice you have. To surrender yourself to base instincts and follow the mob is to choose to become the oppressor, to become the thing you profess to hate.
In conclusion, consider these words, spoken by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, after what must have seemed like multiple lifetimes of being oppressed and fighting, "I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."