(1) THINKING BIBLICALLY ABOUT JUSTICE
“Justice and righteousness…Caring for the poor and needy … Is not this to know me? says the Lord”. Jeremiah 22:15b-16
Christians of all kinds – Catholic, Conciliar and Evangelical – are now more concerned than ever about social justice. Theology is never a “value-free” discipline, and in a world of stark injustices, many are doing theology from the side of the poor, rather than from an acquiescent, privatised Western perspective.
For CATHOLICS, Mater et Magistra (1961) broke the long alliance between Catholicism and socially conservative forces. Twenty years later Laborem Exercens inveighed against multinationals fixing high prices for their products and very low prices for raw materials.
EVANGELICALS in Berlin (1966) saw social involvement as the enemy of ‘biblical evangelism’; Lausanne (1974) viewed them as complementary; Wheaton (1983) saw social action and political engagement as integral to evangelism.
The WCC’s Towards a Church in Solidarity with the Poor (1980) urges us to read the Bible from the perspective of the poor: :The Bible is a book of hope, concern and solidarity with the poor …. Unfortunately when the poor were given low priority in the life of the churches … ecclesiastical institutions frequently become part of oppressive systems.”
Who am I to write on this subject? I belong to the group least qualified to speak about justice and the poor. I am a white, Anglo-saxon Protestant evangelical, middle-class, a ‘senior citizen’, well-educated, living in a rich, lucky country (Australia) with a happy family in a quiet, treed suburb. I can “work” most systems to my advantage. My job’s fulfilling, I’m on a full pension, I’ve been around the world several times. I’ve worked hard, saved hard, studied hard, and I play hard. As a kid I scrounged bottles, animal manure and scrap metal for pocket money. We were not rich, but we were never hungry.
I grew up believing most of the poor were either lazy or stupid. Why the constant shortage of bricklayers? If Japan can do it, why not Bangladesh?
Righteous indignation focussed on things like pornography, violence and sexual sins, rarely such macro-ethical issues as poverty, injustice, race and war.
My “conversion” began when I found that most of those who served the poor did not share these ideas. Dom Helder Camara, for example, flirted with fascism (“God, Fatherland and Family”, “order is more important than justice”) until he worked in the favelas in Rio – those festering piles of human beings separated by bits of cardboard and corrugated iron.
Paulo Freire says the middle class have a choice – to identify with the rich and influential, or with the poor, who have very few choices. Such a conversion is scary: there’s fear of giving up what we have worked hard for; guilt that what we spend on luxuries would keep many starving families alive; a feeling of helplessness …
The income gap between the poor and the rich, everywhere, is widening. Since the Industrial Revolution we’ve never learned to share it properly. It’s not “trickling down” to the ever-increasing poor.
THE BIBLE is certainly big on justice. The Hebrew and Greek words for justice (yashare and tsedeg, and dikaiosune) may have three meanings: personal virtue (Noah, or Joseph, were “just” Gen. 6:9, Matt. 1:19); judicial fairness (:Lev.19) or social responsibility: behaviour towards others which is like a covenant God’s gracious concern for us. Unfortunately the KJV’s use of “righteousness” for tsedeg gives the impression, not of justice, but rather holiness of living, which is an important but diminished understanding of the biblical idea.
Social justice concerns attitudes to the least privileged – the poor, widows, orphans, foreigners. When harvesting, the Israelites were to leave them something (Deut. 24:19-21). Interest on loans is forbidden (Ex. 22:25). All persons – including slaves and migrants – are entitled to rest on the sabbath (Ex. 23:12, Deut. 5:14). Slaves must not be treated harshly (Lev. 25:39-43). There is a clear relationship between oppression and poverty: “Remember you were once slaves” (Deut. 26:5-8). The God of the Exodus intervenes on behalf of the powerless and oppressed: so must his people.
The message of the prophets: “Seek justice, correct oppression” (Is. 1:17). They thunder against the rich and powerful who oppress the poor but their outrage is strongest against a religion devoid of justice (Hosea 6:6, 8:13; Amos 5:15, 21-25; Micah 6:6-8, Is. 58:1-11; cf. Prov. 21:3). God accepts or rejects Israel’s worship according to their concern for the poor. Even prayer mustn’t be a substitute for helping the poor (Isa. 1:15-17). In the relatively affluent 8th century BCE Israel, poverty was not accidental. The prosperity of the rich rested largely on the exploitation and mistreatment of the poor – through a legal system biased towards the rich, monopoly control, restrictive trade practices, unjust wages and arbitrary price increases. Many of the poor had lost their land to large property owners. Later, Ezekiel rebukes the rich for unscrupulously accumulating real estate for profit (22:28).
Many of the Psalms describe God judging the world with justice (e.g. 96:13; cf. 97:6, 98:9). His will is that justice and peace kiss each other (85:10-11). “The Lord executes justice for the oppressed” (146:7).
The angel’s message to Zechariah promises that John, in the prophetic tradition, would summon a people “back to the way of thinking of the righteous” (Luke 1:17) (not “national self-interest”!).
Mary’s Magnificat praises a God who shows mercy, scatters the proud, puts down the mighty, lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry (and by these means “helps Israel” Luke 1:46-55).
Jesus” ministry will bring good news to the poor … announce a “jubilee” (Luke 4:16-19). In the Jubilee (Lev. 25:3-5, 8-12) soil was to be left fallow, debts remitted, slaves liberated, and property returned to owners who had forfeited it by debt.
God in Christ becomes poor, choosing the weak, as Paul says, to “confound the mighty”. The Kingdom, says Jesus, is given to the poor (and to the rich if they will repent). It is all about new relationships – with God, with others. It turns our customary values upside down: so the “first in the kingdom” are those with no status in society. The poor are blessed, not because of their poverty and misery, nor because they are “better” than others but because they recognize their need for God (Matthew 11:5, 5:3-11, Luke 6:20). To the rich, the gospel is “bad news before it is good news”, so the rich young ruler, with his inordinate love of money and power is told to sell his possessions and give them to the poor so that he could have “treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:16-30). It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. We echo the words of Jesus’ friends: “Who then can be saved?” No wonder the poor, the outcasts, the “excluded” heard him gladly. He enjoyed parties with disreputables, so the religious establishment was outraged at his behaviour. They “rubbed in” the fact that he was from Nazareth, an obscure therefore despised town.
The Kingdom is not something we passively await (as the Thessalonians later thought), but we help make the kingdom happen. There is mystery here: we must sow seed, God gives the gift of life, so that we can reap the harvest. He calls us to be co-redeemers with him. “They have no wine” at Cana, so Jesus asks for the cooperation of the servants as he produces some. Today, they have no jobs, no justice, no opportunities, no freedoms, no homes, no hope. If we don’t fill the jars, there will be no miracle……
Jesus cut across selfish patriotisms and universalized the idea of “neighbour”. Injustice done to anyone, anywhere, is my concern. One’s neighbour is chosen, not given, as Hans Kung put it.
At the great judgment (Matt. 25:31-46) we shall learn that to serve others in their need is to serve the Lord himself. To ignore the poor is to turn away from the Lord. To be persecuted for the sake of justice is to be persecuted for the sake of Jesus (Matt. 5:6, 10,11).
The NT epistles are replete with admonitions to care for the poor (e.g. Gal. 2:10, James 2:5-7, 5:1-6, 1 John 3:17, 1 Tim. 6:17-19). Greed is a cardinal sin, a form of idolatry (1 Cor. 5:10-11, 6:10, Eph. 4:19, 5:3, 5, Col. 3:5).
The Bible does not condemn inequality of possessions per se. Redistribution so that “all have an equal share” is not a biblical idea. Those who argue this way will have to do it on philosophical or socio-political rather than biblical grounds. (Jesus enjoyed Galilee’s feasting and suffered Golgotha’s thirst. Paul experienced both prosperity and poverty, Phil. 4:12). What the Bible condemns is indifference by the affluent to the plight of the destitute. We “bless the poor”, not paternalistically, but as God has blessed us – “grace justice” rather than “parity justice”. The goal of justice is not equality, but shalom, a peace which assures the true humanity of individuals and communities.
A THEOLOGY OF SOCIAL JUSTICE must include the following:
* Every human being is made in God’s image. (So we uphold the right of every person to live in freedom, in dignity, in peace, in health, and to know the One whom to know is to experience fullness of life).
* Our generous Creator has entrusted us with a bountiful world, which we “subdue” but also “replenish”. The earth was given to all, not just to the rich. (There is enough food to go around – for our need, but not our greed. It is not God’s will that a quarter of us live in luxury while the rest struggle to survive).
*The “mark of Cain” is upon us – we are all sinners – but God’s gracious concern is for both Cain and Abel, exploiter and exploited. (Jesus differentiated between “sinners” and “sinned against”. To the Pharisees he preached judgment, so that they might receive forgiveness; to the sinned-against – “I do not condemn you: go and sin no more”).
* I am my brother’s keeper. (I must not walk by on the other side of the road/tracks/sea).
* He sends his prophets who say “The effect of justice will be peace” (Isa. 32:17). (False prophets want “peace, peace” without justice).
* Abundance may betoken God’s blessing, but it carries an awesome stewardship. Because God’s shalom issues in and from right relationships between us and God and each other, we have a simple choice: his kingdom, or violence. (Outside the kingdom all are oppressed, some by unjust systems and persons, others by their selfishness and greed. Jesus said the second oppression is much worse than the first).
* God comes among us both as judge and victim (rebuking our selfishness and being nailed to a cross).
* He calls upon us to repent, to live in radical obedience to the Kingdom’s demands, not just as individuals, but in loving community. (A mural in a Romanian church shows people ascending into heaven in community, but falling into hell alone and isolated).
* We pray “Give us this day our daily bread”. (If I am hungry that is a material problem; if someone else is hungry, that is a spiritual problem – Berdyaev).
* Our mission in a lost world includes word (preaching good news), deed (faith without works is dead), and sign (words and deeds without the Spirit’s power may not be Christian, 1 Thess. 1:5, I Cor. 4:20).
Finally, something to ponder from Billy Graham’s latest book Approaching Hoof Beats: “My basic commitment as a Christian has not changed, nor has my view of the Gospel, but I have come to see in deeper ways the implications of my faith and the message I have been proclaiming. I can no longer proclaim the Cross and the Resurrection without proclaiming the whole message of the Kingdom, which is justice for all.”
In the next section we shall look at the five practical ways of Doing Justice (research, reflection, prayer, compassion, action).
(2) DOING JUSTICE
“The really important teachings of the Law (are) justice and mercy and faith. These you should practise….” (Matthew 23:23)
(1) RESEARCH: GET THE FACTS.
Talk to the “poor” – single parents, unemployed, migrants – and to social workers, district nurses, etc.
Who are the poor? Definitions are elusive, but the poor know who they are. They have no “place”. Some are poor geographically, “displaced”. Others are poor emotionally, with no place in a loving family/community. Others are poor spiritually, having no place in Christ’s kingdom. Many are materially poor – they are deprived, within their communities, of the basic necessities to “live decently”. In Australia, they may not be starving, but they can’t afford a good education or holidays, or car repairs, or all the bills.
Why are they poor? Is it their own fault? Most answers are either too simple or untrue. Perhaps it’s the death of a parent, ill-health, physical/mental disability, collapse of a business, breakdown of marriage, lack of basic education, medical bills for sick children – the list may be endless. As someone wisely put it: “….the causes of poverty are precipitated more by problems in the organization and structures of society than by individuals themselves.”
Which brings to economics. Our national and international systems revolve around greed and power – “the international imperialism of money” (Pope Paul VI). People are rich or poor because of the “distribution system”; what makes money gets done, what doesn’t make money doesn’t get done. Richard Nixon, when U.S. president said in a moment of candour, “The main purpose of American aid is not to help other nations, but to help ourselves.”
Selling powdered milk to poor people (who can’t read the directions) makes money, so – until too many babies die – why not? And your morning cup of coffee: it’s grown in the two-thirds world, where people are hungry. We have money for coffee while people in Sao Paulo’s favelas have no money for food. So the plantation owners grow coffee for us instead of black beans for them. Understand? (It’s the same with tobacco: and, incidentally, if you smoke and drink coffee you are 40 times more likely to get lung cancer than if you imbibe neither). Brazil has more cultivated acreage per person than the U.S. , yet in recent years the proportion of undernourished there has risen from 45% to 72% of the population.
1.9% of El Salvadorans own 57.5% of the land – mainly selling cash crops abroad while at home hunger is endemic. Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out against his country’s injustices and the newspapers almost daily vilified him as corrupt, insance, a communist – and never printed his sermons. (Many wealthy El Salvadorans are mass-going Catholics too). Behind him on an office wall were huge photos of two priests who were murdered, and a banner HE WHO GIVES HIS LIFE FOR ME IS SAVED. Romero was shot while celebrating the eucharist on 24 March, 1980. In El Salvador, to work among the poor is an act of subversion.
The multinational corporations exist to make money for their stockholders, and they do it very well (Coca Cola invested $80,000 in India and by 1977 had made $16m. profit). Dom Helder Camara said for years that if rich nations paid fair prices to developing countries for their natural resources there would no longer be any need for aid and relief projects. Most developing countries rely on cash from one or two products. For example, in 1960 three tons of bananas in Honduras could buy a tractor; but in 1970, the equivalent was eleven tons. They say it’s each government’s role to legislate morality. (But if the government is in the pocket of the multinationals, and against the poor…..?).
Heard of Minimata disease? A company in Japan kept dumping mercury into the water for years after knowing it was causing paralysis, retardation, insanity and death. The company was simply making money. There’s money in mercury poisoning, red dye #2, fluorocarbons, alcohol, and a million other harmful things.
Back home, 50% of Australian university students are from families in the top 16% of the occupational scale. About 35,000 households in Victoria alone have their gas and electricity disconnected each year: many others go hungry to avoid this (they choose hunger to being cold). Over 100,000 each year are now seeking help for food, clothing and rent from relief agencies.
What are the functions of poverty in a country like Australia? Peter le Breton (Australian Politics, A Fourth Reader , pp. 99-100) says they include:
(1) Dirty, repetitive, dangerous, undignified and menial work is done (mostly for low pay)
(2) The rich can divert a higher proportion of income to savings and investment, to foster economic growth the benefits of which mostly favour the rich
(3) If you’re rich enough you’ll pay little or no tax: the tax burden falls unequally on poorer wage-earners
(4) Poverty creates jobs like corrective services, police, social workers
(5) The poor buy goods no one else wants – secondhand cars, clothes etc. – enhancing incomes for sellers of these commodities
(6) Those who espouse social norms of the desirability of hard work and thrift can accuse others of being lazy and spendthrift. So these latter are, of course, undeserving of the privileges the former enjoy
(7) The deserving poor (e.g. the disabled) can allow the rest of us to feel altruistic, moral, and practise the Judaeo-Christian ethic
(8) The powerless absorb the economic and social costs of change and growth: they are pushed out of their communities by high rents, urban “development” and freeways to convey the middle-class from the suburbs to the central business district …..
For Jesus when a system got in the way of people’s wholeness, it had to go. Inveighing against the Pharisees’ legalistic religious system he said, “The sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Our systems are mostly serving mammon, so we too will call for systemic change. We may not hold to any particular economic/political theory: a Christian is called to critique all ideologies. (As the cynic put it, capitalism is man exploiting his fellow-man; with communism it’s the other way around!!). Systems either do God’s will, or they are under his judgment …..
(2) REFLECTION: THINK ABOUT THE FACTS.
Working hard to think clearly is the beginning of moral conduct (Pascal). Reflection and praxis go together. If one is sacrificed the other suffers (Freire). Some are too quietist, seeking only bliss, or too philosophical, seeking only ideas, or too activist, seeking only bread. (Don’t just do something, sit there!).
Beware of temptations not to think objectively. Our church congregations are mostly embedded in the rich half of society, so our “suburban captivity” can be self-protective. We meet few destitute “hidden people”.
The problems are complex, but some things can be said simply:
2-1 Poverty is not just a lack of resources, but of power, of knowledge, of help and of hope. Poverty is loneliness. So it’s not alleviated by handouts alone, but when the poor themselves become givers.
2-2 The best prophet of the future is the past, Lord Byron said. Reinhold Neibuhr has argued (convincingly in my view, in Moral Man and Immoral Society) that if we wait for the powerful to come altruistic we will wait forever. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The powerful have never – well, hardly ever – relinquished their privileges without some form of coercion being applied to them. Those with a biblical view of sin and evil won’t find that surprising.
The dictionary says power is “the capacity to act”. Because the exercise of power-for-good may be dangerous Christians often have an aversion to the use of power. Power means responsibility: and flight from power may mean a flight from responsibility.
2-3 Let us beware of “selective indignation”, preaching only against evils threatening my family/group/church. Ask what Jesus got mad about …. And I accept myself as part of the problem, rather than blaming others: what have I not done that causes this one to be poor?
2-4 Our education system encourages us to “succeed” – which may not be the same as enhancing good human relationships. There’s a tension in education between conformity to and the transformation of society. Some education may aim at collecting knowledge and certificates; transformation means asking how education can be liberating. (In Latin America learning to read is more than learning a skill, as in the West. It’s a revolutionary activity as people learn about values and rights. That’s why the powerful keep people illiterate).
2-5 Each of the world’s peoples has its own particular cultural, ethnic and political distinctives: these must be respected. “First world” models of development may not be appropriate to developing countries. May we arrogant westerners be sensitive to the feelings of some overseas oppressed who consider us impertinent meddlers in their affairs. In the film Gandhi I remember that great man saying to the British, “Let us fail, if necessary, but with dignity, rather than have you here running things better while we are deprived of our liberty.” The “excluded” must become the subjects of their own history, being part of the decision-making, and encouraged to control their own destinies. If an oppressed group is not crushed completely, they will organize themselves to defend their rights and values. With regard to injustice, we – the helpers – must always ask, What do the helpees want us to do? Speak out or not? Exert pressure on their oppressors or not? Engage in some form of activism or not?”
2-6 “You can’t legislate morality” is a cop-out. All that is legislated is morality: the question is “What kind?” When the state fails to legislate mercifully, the church will do what it can, and will call the state to account, as the prophets did.
2-7 Jesus grew up in an oppressed country. The Zealots were “freedom fighters”, Herodians and Sadducees went along with the status quo; Essenes withdrew to the desert; Pharisees debated questions of private morality. Jesus disappointed them all, renouncing violence, exploitation, apathy and moralism: they’re all dehumanizing. His was the way of sacrificial love.