Why does God allow suffering and oppression at the hands of the powerful?

This is a timeless question that was asked long before Jesus arrived on the scene, by those who had to live through oppression under cruel rulers or imperial overlords.

Jul 11, 2020

By Anil Netto
This is a timeless question that was asked long before Jesus arrived on the scene, by those who had to live through oppression under cruel rulers or imperial overlords.

Even after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus did not escape persecution. Many of them died for their belief that Jesus, who had heralded a new kingdom, had triumphed over death.

This was what drove them to spread the message of new hope and light to a world darkened by violence, oppression and persecution.

We live in similar dark times now, despite signs of emerging from a pandemic. The world is sliding into a recession, even a great depression, amid huge ecological challenges. The voices of xenophobia, racial supremacy and religious bigotry have grown shrill.

Amid the suffering and job losses, people are looking for scapegoats. Those who have an alternative liberating vision of society are often ridiculed and marginalised, if not persecuted.

All the time, great wealth has been accumulated by a small group, who are anxious to preserve it, along with the power, influence and lavish lifestyles associated with it.

The situation looks bleak for many of us. What happened to all the hope for a fresh beginning that we had not too long ago?

The followers of Jesus too had a lot of hope during his lifetime. They thought everything would be smooth sailing with Jesus in charge and that he would liberate them from Roman occupation and local oppression.

But their hopes were crushed when he was crucified, and their world came crashing down.

Then came the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, which ignited their hope and zeal
for the new kingdom Jesus had proclaimed.

Sure, the followers of Jesus knew all about persecution – they suffered much for their new, nonviolent faith. They lost their jobs and possessions, they were often separated from their families and loved ones.

But some things they gained a thousandfold: love, faith, hope, courage, a strong sense of community and sharing, gifts of the Spirit.

It is only human to wonder why God allows the powerful and those who have accumulated great wealth, at the expense of the people, to thrive on the misery of others for so long.

But that is what we can see from the ground. There is plenty more we do not see in the corridors of power. The powerful, those who oppress the poor and the persecuted, those who have stolen the wealth of the people – they often do not sleep easily, afraid of the shadows, the whispers in the wind.

If the Roman Empire allowed Jesus to be “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, its powerful leaders hardly thrived or found lasting happiness. They may have found comfort in their lavish lifestyles and worldly pleasures that immense power and wealth brought. But this was all too fleeting.

There was plenty to trouble them on a regular basis: backstabbing and betrayals, coups, successors being bumped off, betrayers flogged or tortured.

Let’s take a look at the powerful personalities around the time of Jesus.

Herod the Great – was King of Judaea from 37BC to 4BC. He may have been called “Great”, but throughout his life, he suffered from paranoia and depression. The end, when it came for the tyrant, was wretched. His death from a putrefying disease was said to have been so agonising that he may have tried to commit suicide.

Pontius Pilate – ruled as the all-powerful prefect of Judaea from AD 26-36. But even he was summoned to Rome to answer for his brutality in slaughtering a group of Samaritans near Mount Gerizim. Before Pilate could reach Rome, the Emperor Tiberius died in AD 37, and in his place was the new Emperor Caligula. Pilate was removed from his position as prefect, and it is not entirely clear what happened to him after that.

Tiberius – was Roman emperor from AD 1437. This was the emperor Pilate would have been worried about when dealing with the crowds at the time of Jesus’ death. But during the trial of Jesus, Tiberius was already ensconced in the Isle of Capri, a retreat haven for the upper classes over 200km away from Rome, from AD26. Building 12 villas on the island, he lived a decadent lifestyle, far away from the troubles in Rome. His reign was marked by “treason trials” against potential successors and opponents, but that did not stop him from being smothered to death by a rival as he lay in bed dying.

Just looking at this, we can see that wealth and power are just temporary. Those who crave power for its own sake will rarely find lasting peace. Instead, they will always have to look over their shoulders at rivals, backstabbers, betrayers and plotters.

In their insecurity, they may use the instruments of state to suppress the people and crush their opponents. Invariably, however, others will covet the power they have accumulated or the people will awaken to the injustices meted out to them.

They often fail to realise that those who wield power have a tremendous responsibility to use it for the good of the people.

In contrast, the followers of Jesus found deepseated joy and hope and faith in the risen Lord. They knew they were ushering in a new kingdom that the forces of this world could not prevail against. Theirs was a world of sharing, looking out for one another, and practising love and compassion while proclaiming the risen Lord and his new kingdom.

There are many lessons for us in our world today. The forces of authoritarianism, the shrill voices of xenophobia and hatred may be returning in our world during a time of economic troubles. They may hold sway for a time, but they can never prevail against the eternal Light that shines in our world.

Earthly power is no match for the spiritual gifts, and that is why powerful men like Pilate and Herod Antipas were reduced to dithering shadows of themselves when they came face to face with Jesus himself.

This does not mean we have to sit around waiting for God to act. We have all been given the Holy Spirit, and we need to tap into the courage and the other gifts of the Spirit to do our bit. If we don’t act to reshape the world, who will?

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