Deeply embedded within our societal conflicts are differing narratives and understandings of the human person. A human is image of God (Gen. 1:26–27, 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9), who degrades that image in sin by turning away from God and is called to restoration and renewal through Jesus Christ.
In those truths we have the narrative for our lives. We have identity, meaning, and morality.
Over time, other narratives of the human person have emerged that conflict with the image-bearing understanding of our humanity. In the story of the Sovereign Self, we escape from transcendent authority to make our own selves and our own meaning, which leaves us empty and can’t hold us together.
This is being replaced by the story of Oppressionism, a powerful individual and communal meaning-making narrative that redefines humanity and reality on authoritarian terms due to its rejection of God-given truth. What we need, both personally and communally, is restoration in the divine image to our God’s true, rightful, and liberating authority.
What we need, both personally and communally, is restoration in the divine image to our God’s true, rightful, and liberating authority.
Story of the Sovereign Self
During the past few centuries, a counternarrative to the image-bearing narrative took hold: Christianity is unreasonable, anti-science, false, uptight, repressive, hypocritical, and a crutch for naive people.
Having discarded the original transcendent authority, modern people make their own meaning and morality. We define ourselves according to our own pleasure and will, as there’s no one we’re accountable to but ourselves. In the story of the Sovereign Self, rules are made to be broken and rule-makers mocked. We all grew up in that world. All of us. There are certain ways in which it’s hard for us to see how much it holds sway.
One of the ironies of the Sovereign Self is that its exalted view of the human person emerges from and depends on them being made in God’s image, which endowed humanity with inherent dignity and worth. A key shift in self-understanding was the conception of the human being as primarily possessing rights. Initially, those rights were recognized as coming from God, as in the American Declaration of Independence. Eventually, the rights-bearing individual replaced the image-bearing person, with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights making no mention of God at all.
The United States Supreme Court’s 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the right to abortion, articulates the creed of the Sovereign Self: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
This notion of writing your own story, forming your own identity, and making your own meaning and morality is very palpable and powerful among us. Yet it doesn’t really provide cohesion. Doing “whatever” can leave people without sufficient meaning and identity and doesn’t give us a shared morality. It’s too empty and insubstantial, both individually and societally.
Story of Oppressionism
Now, something new has emerged and taken hold.
One commentator, Wesley Yang, calls it the “successor ideology.” It’s not separate from what we all grew up with but is in many ways an extension of it. At the same time, it’s also different. It’s an understanding of the world based on oppression. This narrative claims our entire world is marred, if not created, by oppression.
Where’s oppression? Everywhere. It has tainted every aspect of our lives, including our language. The meaning of your life is to oppose oppression. Morality is how you’re doing at this task. If you’re not actively opposing, you’re failing. “Silence is violence.” “If you’re not actively ‘antiracist,’ you’re racist.”
This is incredibly powerful and compelling. It provides a narrative, meaning, identity, and morality—a reason for living. It seemingly unites people in a shared purpose. It replaces the “whatever” of the Sovereign Self with something meaningful to pursue and dedicate our lives to, both individually and corporately.
And it can resonate not only with our humanity but also specifically with Christianity, which recognizes the pervasiveness of sin and its corrupting effects. In many respects, the human story is marred by oppression, which is all around us.
This perspective does sometimes identify actual oppression. And God hates oppression. He’s the One who sets the captives free. But this oppression view is different. It opposes Christian understanding, redefining humanity, including creation, sin, and redemption, in meaningful ways.
The ideology of Oppressionism divides humanity into two groups: oppressor and oppressed. This is not based on behavior that’s harmful or on actually being harmed but rather on having certain characteristics or adopted identities. Oppression isn’t what you do or what’s done to you—it constitutes who you are based on group categorizations, primarily along the lines of race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and more. Thus, it’s necessary to find oppression in order to explain your own identity and meaning, to tell your story.
In this perspective, only those who belong to “oppressed” groups are encouraged to be their “authentic” selves (“You be you!”). On the other hand, “oppressors” are to engage in a continuing process of questioning and self-denial, absent the possibility of redemption.
Also, only those who accept Oppressionism’s claims are regarded as “authentic” representatives of “oppressed” identity groups. Those who don’t accept the narrative and its self-understanding supposedly suffer from internalized oppression. This is all to correct for historical oppressions, both real and imagined.
2. Rejection of Creation
Because Oppressionism is the world’s only explanation and story, it rejects the goodness of creation, most notably our bodies, as oppressive. Bodies are not seen as marvelously and wonderfully created male and female in God’s image but as an oppression from which to be liberated.
Bodies are not seen as marvelously and wonderfully created male and female in God’s image but as an oppression from which to be liberated.
While Oppressionism is compelling and powerful, it’s decidedly ungodly and destructive to humanity. It’s both false and unloving, especially to those it claims to speak for. Its nonnegotiable commitment to pathologizing and suppressing puberty, forbidding even fathers and mothers from objecting, is the outworking of the devil’s image-destroying work. Jesus came to destroy the work of the Devil (1 John 3:8).
One young woman, Helena Kerschner, took on a transgender identity for a while and then was restored to knowing and understanding that she is a woman. “I adopted the social justice oppression hierarchy way of thinking long before I started developing my gender dysphoria,” she says. “And the first thing led to the next.”
Regarding her experience, Helena concluded: “I feel like it’s such a great injustice that so many lies are in this narrative that is just not true. . . . It’s causing so much devastation on so many levels.”
Sovereign Self vs. Oppressionism
A meaningful difference between the Sovereign Self way and Oppressionism is that the Sovereign Self view allows for coexistence of viewpoints legally and socially. If you can have your own meaning and morality, then you’re free to have that be Christianity, as long as you “leave others alone.” While the Sovereign Self view has a sense of domination, which deeply resonates with our fallen desire to escape divine authority and define ourselves, it’s more by way of persuasion than requirement or mandate.
In contrast, Oppressionism has a public narrative, meaning, and morality, which it imposes and requires. Given that oppression is literally everywhere, there’s no space for disagreement on this view, only compliance. Thus, opposition to oppression is effectively becoming a mandatory religion, which is itself oppressive. The goal is to make the oppression narrative of life and humanity the default perspective. Unlike in the story of the Sovereign Self, in Oppressionism, rules, which are continually evolving, are made to be followed.
Due to Oppressionism’s stifling and controlling character, there can be a temptation back toward the Sovereign Self’s view of humanity. And this isn’t only for political and pragmatic purposes—allowing a civic space for disagreement—but as a good in and of itself. Being left alone and not being scolded for “impure” thoughts can define life’s purpose.
The Sovereign Self view of the human person, which for decades has been at the heart of cultural and political opposition to the Christian understanding, can become “conservative” and “traditional.” And its unrestrained “no one can tell me what to do” view of freedom can seem the only liberation from Oppressionism. But its rootless, “follow-your-heart” individualism, which led to Oppressionism, is too weak and insubstantial to defend against it. The Sovereign Self’s everyone doing “what [is] right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25) is inseparable from Oppressionism’s “call(ing) evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20). The Sovereign Self’s deification of self and creation yields to Oppressionism’s hatred and destruction of self, other, and creation.
We will not find our story, our identity, our meaning, or our morality in either Oppressionism or the Sovereign Self. A fatal flaw in both these perspectives is in locating the distress and evil of the human condition in something other than our rejection of our God-given image-bearing identity and our turning away from God in sin. Instead, each, in its own way, blames the finitude inherent to our created status, seeking to escape its limitations. Such rejection of the reality that we’re created beings who live our lives before God doesn’t alleviate our suffering but only serves to multiply it and further alienates us from ourselves and one another. These narratives only end in despair.
Story of the Image-Bearer
We have the true and hopeful narrative of the Image-Bearer to offer everyone. The image-bearer knows he lives before the one objective transcendent and personal truth, before whom he and all his fellow image-bearers together are laid bare and will stand or fall. “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13).
The image-bearer also knows his only hope lies in mercy from the One whom he has turned away from and sinned against. “Have mercy on me, O God” (Ps. 51:1). “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). And the cry for mercy is heard and answered better than any narrative we can create or imagine, in and through the life, death, and resurrection of the One who is God and image of God. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25).
Our cry for mercy is heard and answered better than any narrative we can create or imagine, in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In him who loved us and gave himself up to oppression for us, we’re liberated from our false and dehumanizing narratives to be brought into the freedom of the children of God, restored and renewed to our true humanity in the divine image. The purpose and orientation of our lives is to become more and more like Jesus in the fellowship and power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God our Father, as members of the multiethnic, multiracial people of God.
All of history is moving toward that moment when the Son presents to the Father a people who look to him and look like him. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3).
This is our narrative, providing us with our identity, our meaning, and our morality, both personally and together. In Jesus’s story, we find our story.