Sunday, May 24, 2015

De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            De oppresso liber: To liberate the oppressed.  That’s the motto of the U.S. Army Special Forces, but it has a Biblical origin, relating to those Jews who were liberated from exile in Babylon and returned to the Holy Land around 538 BCE (see Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1).  Later Jesus read those words from Isaiah in his hometown synagogue to initiate his ministry (Luke 4:18-19).  During the proxy wars of the Cold War those same words became the battle cry of activist Catholic priests who supported Communist insurgencies in Latin America and who were, ironically, often opposed by U.S. Army Special Forces.

            De oppresso liber is where religion and politics--and often violence--intersect.  Religion can be oppressive: Judaism conducted holy wars, Christianity gave us the Crusades and Inquisitions, and Islamism now motivates ISIS jihadists.  But religion can also be a liberating force when it supports democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  There is no substitute for military force to counter Islamist violence, but lasting freedom from religious and political oppression requires democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.

            Secular law, when grounded in civil and political human rights, provides liberty in law, but without human rights the law can be a source of oppression in the hands of authoritarian rulers; and democracy without human rights to protect minorities can produce a tyranny of the majority.  For religion to be a liberating force, it must promote the freedom of believers to rule themselves and make their own laws rather than be subject to ancient religious laws like those of apostasy and blasphemy; and that individual freedom must be balanced with a collective responsibility to care for the poor and needy.   

            Following the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring in the Middle East there are mixed signals on the relationship between Islam, democracy and human rights.  Initial indications were that Muslims preferred human rights to authoritarian rule, but except for Tunisia, libertarian democracy in that region has been stillborn, perhaps because Islam does not recognize libertarian human rights and makes no distinction between religion and politics.  Apostasy and blasphemy laws intended to protect Islam are used by authoritarian regimes to stifle political opposition.
            The freedoms of religion and speech are first among the fundamental freedoms of any libertarian democracy, but they are prohibited by apostasy and blasphemy laws in Islamic regimes that legitimize hatred for those who leave Islam or criticize it.  In Bangladesh, Muslim secularists have been hacked to death (see, and in Great Britain they are threatened or shunned by other Muslims (see

            It is easy for modern Americans and Europeans to forget that religion was an oppressive force in their cultures before the Enlightenment of the 18th century.  Apostasy and blasphemy laws prevailed in Puritan New England, and the divine right to rule and religious wars were the norm in Europe.  The Enlightenment transformed religion and politics with advances in knowledge, reason and libertarian ideals, and in less than 100 years the ideals of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law had transformed Western religious and political culture.  But those libertarian ideals had little influence in the tribal cultures of the Middle East and Africa, where Islamic law (shari’a) denies women and religious minorities equal protection of the law, and apostasy and blasphemy laws prevent any freedom of religion or expression,.
            Liberating the oppressed is as much a moral imperative of faith today as it was 2,500 years ago, but the world has changed, and religions must adapt to be relevant.  Democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law were not options in the ancient world, but they are essential to liberating the oppressed from religious and political bondage today.  Such liberation requires that religious standards of legitimacy are considered voluntary moral standards rather than coercive laws.  Freedom is incompatible with coercive religious laws, and apostasy and blasphemy laws must be eliminated to allow the freedoms of religion and speech.   

            Ancient Mosaic Law and shari’a served a purpose for their time and place.  Only by invoking the authority of God’s law were Moses, Joshua and Muhammad able to lead their people.  Today most Jews and Christians do not consider religious laws as obligatory standards of legitimacy, but most Muslims in Islamic cultures still consider shari’a to be obligatory law. 

            The greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself can be a liberating principle of faith, and it was offered by Muslim scholars to Christians as a common word of faith.  If love of one’s neighbor as oneself—even an apostate neighbor—were made a foundational principle of Islam it would give democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law precedence over conflicting provisions of shari’a.  That liberating principle of love over law would free Muslims from the oppression of apostasy and blasphemy laws.

Notes and References to Resources:

See Blog/Archives for related blogs: Religion and Reason, posted December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy, posted December 29, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, posted January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? Posted January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, posted March 29, 2015; and Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, posted April 12, 2015. 

On Jesus quoting de oppresso liber from Isaiah to announce his mission, see Liberation at p. 385 of the J&M Book.

Liberty in law is taken from the lyrics of the patriotic hymn by Katherine Lee Bates, America the Beautiful: Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.

The parable of the good Samaritan in Luke’s version of the greatest commandment defines an apostate Samaritan as a good neighbor to a wounded Jew (Luke 10:25-37).


  1. I'd love to hear more about the aspects of liberation that you just touch on briefly here in the reference to the US Special Forces and Catholic clergy in Central America in the 1970s-90s. As you know, Archbishop Oscar Romero (who was assassinated by Salvadoran government forces in 1980) was recently declared "blessed" in the Catholic Church. I bring this up because in Central America, the people were economically oppressed by the tiny minority who owned coffee plantations and who were protected by the US-backed military government. To people like Romero, liberating the oppressed in that context required speaking out and organizing against that government (and thus in some sense siding with the communist rebels). Likewise with the Jesuit martyrs killed in El Salvador in 1989 by soldiers trained at the School for the Americas.

    My point is that I think it's important to take care to identify different types of oppression in any political situation. For the most part, in this post and in others, you're focused on religious oppression in majority-Muslim countries. And to be sure, the absence of democracy and freedom of conscience in those lands is terrible and has great human costs.

    But I encourage you not to overlook economic oppression around the world and consider how Jesus' message to set captives free and bring good news to the poor might be an economic message as well as a message about freedom of conscience. You often mention the oppressive role of Sharia in Middle Eastern politics. I wonder what economic doctrines we in the Enlightened West support that keep people in our country and around the world in oppressive poverty? This is a hard and uncomfortable question to answer, but I think it would be a very worthwhile layer to add to your project.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Jon.
    You are right about the different forms of oppression--political, economic and social--and the different means of liberating people from oppression, both peaceful and violent.
    I alluded to the moral ambiguity of U.S. forces in Central America during the proxy wars of the Cold War, and I remember a Pope visiting Central America at the time who condemned the "liberation" priests for fighting with the Communist insurgents. There seemed to be moral ambiguity for all concerned.
    Economic oppression is a relevant issue, but it moves us from civil and political human rights to social and economic human rights. The two concepts of human rights are both important, but they are fundamentally different, and I have chosen to address how religion impacts civil and political (or libertarian) human rights.
    The concept of capitalism or free enterprise is deeply embedded in libertarian human rights and can be linked to economic oppression, while at the same time it is essential to economic prosperity.
    It seems to me that a difficult balance must be struck between protecting individual freedom and providing for the common good. It requires government regulation of business without undermining the spirit of entrepreneurship.
    I welcome your commentary on how religions might contribute to that end.