Social justice in the Torah

Peter Leithart’s column at First Things tries to put the concept of social justice in a biblical framework. Leithart’s a great person to do this because he’s immersed himself in the study of the Bible and is in touch with the broad Christian theological tradition. With “social justice,” and related phrases, on so many evangelical lips and fingertips these days, what does it mean? The Old Testament prophets are probably the most obvious source for Christian thought about social justice; indeed, politically liberal Christian voices (and others) often style challenges to real or perceived social injustice as “prophetic.” Leithart’s main concern seems to be showing that the social justice is rooted in the Mosaic Law.

His two key sub-points are that caring for the poor is not a charitable obligation in the Law, but rather a matter of “righteousness or justice” and that the festivals where often occasions for sharing with those who did not have resources.

Here are some key paragraphs:

That connection with the institutions and practices of Torah is fundamental to grasping what the Bible tells us about justice and poverty—fundamental, and neglected. Unless prophetic rhetoric is anchored in Torah, it floats free, gets transformed by modern statist idolatry, and comes out ready to be co-opted in support of the latest federal entitlement. When the Torah-prophet nexus is neglected or minimized, ‘justice for the poor’ tends to be reinterpreted as ‘the state will save us.’ Thus, in a quasi-creedal statement, Jim Wallis made support of Obamacare a litmus test of justice for the sick.

Israel’s prophets say nothing new but reiterate the demands of Torah. When Isaiah condemns Israelite landowners for “devouring the vineyard” and taking the “plunder of the poor” (Isaiah 3:14), for instance, he is alluding to gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Landowners are forbidden to harvest the corners of their fields, pick up dropped stalks of grain, beat olives from trees a second time, or strip the vines of all grapes. The remnant of grain, olives, and grapes is for the poor, who are permitted to harvest the corners and follow the harvesters. What Baker calls “scrumping” allows anyone to eat his fill of grain or grapes (Deuteronomy 23:24-25). Hebrew farmers are not allowed to maximize efficiency or to squeeze out the last bit of the harvest. Torah has built-in yield inefficiencies, as a gift to the poor.

At the same time, the right to glean and scrump does not dissolve the claims of owners. Gleaners are not permitted to enter a field before harvest begins; they take the leftovers. Nor are they simply given a handout. Gleaning is as back-breaking as harvesting, maybe more so. Scrumping allows the landless and hungry to share in the abundance of a harvest, but the landowners’ profit is protected, since scrumping is strictly limited. When the prophets attack greedy landowners for stripping the vineyard, they have in mind specific practices: The right of widowed Ruth to glean Boaz’s field, the right of a hungry man to scrump from a vineyard.

He concludes:

Obviously, Torah is designed for an agrarian society and the prophets’ tirades are directed at agrarian abuses. Still, it would be healthy for evangelicals to devote a good portion of their considerable zeal and energy to exploring creative ways to enact the justice of Torah in the twenty-first century. Welcome and biblical as it is, evangelical rhetoric of ‘justice for the poor’ will collapse into vacuity unless it is linked to political, legal, and economic institutions and practices that actually protect the poor and do justice to everyone. Worse still, evangelicals may end up giving aid and comfort to a bloated, and broke, welfare state.

Joseph D’Souza on the caste system

Kevin DeYoung posted his friend Jason Carter’s thoughts about the Lausanne Congress here.  Here’s one part that grabbed my attention:

Perhaps the strongest prophetic voice issuing from Cape Town came from Dr. Joseph D’Souza from India when he spoke out against the Indian Caste System as (a form of modern) slavery in its subjugation of 250 million Dalit peoples.  D’Souza made the point that if apartheid was wrong, then so too the Caste System:  “25% of India’s population —  250 million people — has no rights, dehumanized, segregated, and silently enduring an apartheid system in India. We, of course, in India hang our heads in shame…”  D’Souza stated that there are more slaves in our world today than when William Wilberforce fought the Transatlantic slave trade and closed his rousing and prophetic message by calling forth the involvement of the global church:   “I am here to say to you here at Cape Town that nothing but the concerted opinion and involvement of the global church will bring down human civilization’s longest lasting slave system.”

I think that D’Souza’s eight minutes on the Lausanne platform, 20 years from now, might be one of the defining hallmarks of Lausanne III if the global church – working with Dalit Christians – manages to prophetically speak out and live out Christ’s transforming power in the midst of this (unbelievably) large-scale injustice, reconstituting Indian society from the bottom-up for the glory of Christ.

The link in the quote goes to D’Souza’s speech.

He says that the Dalits (Untouchables) have four pleas for the church:

  1. Free our children from socialization into inferiority and vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.
  2. Free our women from sexual predation.
  3. Be a voice.
  4. Bring the alternative community that Jesus promised, the church in which there is no discrimination.

Notice that in the first two points he gives examples of Dalits who saw redemption in their lives.

The BBC story that he referred to, about the Catholic graveyard with a wall between Dalit and non-Dalit graves, is here.  That’s the kind of stark image that can really symbolize injustice, like the separate Bibles for swearing in witnesses in the Jim Crow South.  Wikipedia’s article on caste and Christianity has more information.

Lord, move in the hearts and lives of your people everywhere to build your church into the community that you desire.

Compassion fatigue

Krista Tippett recently interviewed Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.  Kristof has become well-known for his writing about humanitarian crises around the world, and has praised the concern of evangelicals for some of these crises.

Tippett and Kristof discussed compassion fatigue and how Kristof tries to work around it by describing an individual who illustrates the larger issue:

Ms. Tippett: But there’s some way you put that and somewhere you said that the emotional response becomes a portal and then rational arguments like numbers can play a supporting role.

Mr. Kristof: Exactly.

Ms. Tippett: It’s really interesting.

Mr. Kristof: That opening, that connection, that empathy, is really an emotional one. It’s done based on individual stories. And we all know that there is this compassion fatigue as the number of victims increases, but what the research has shown that is kind of devastating is that the number at which we begin to show fatigue is when the number of victims reaches two.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Would you tell the story about Rokia and Moussa, the photograph that they used to illustrate this?

Mr. Kristof: Yeah. This is from the work of a psychologist called Paul Slovic. There were experiences where people were shown a photo of a starving girl from Mali called Rokia, a seven-year-old girl, and asked to contribute in various different scenarios. And then also a boy named Moussa. And essentially people would donate a lot of money. If they saw that Rokia was hungry, they wanted to help her. Likewise, when they saw a picture of Moussa, they wanted to help him. But the moment you put the two of them together and asked people to help both Rokia and Moussa, then at point donations dropped. And by the time you ask them to donate to 21 million hungry people in West Africa, you know, nobody wanted to contribute at all.

Ms. Tippett: Because they’re overwhelmed by that, or it doesn’t spark the same reaction that actually enables people to act. Is that…

Mr. Kristof: Yeah. I think it’s not real. I mean, I think that my job as a journalist is to find these larger issues that I want to address, but then find some microcosm of it, some Rokia who can open those portals and hopefully get people to care. And once that portal is open, then you can indeed begin to put in some of the background, some of the context, some of the larger issues, and hopefully get people to engage with that issue.

The blog for Tippett’s NPR show, On Being (it used to be Speaking of Faith), had a bit more on this phenomenon:

In the non-profit world, some organizations have found success by creating a model around this idea — child sponsorship organizations or Kiva, for example. Microfinance organizations weren’t new, but a model in which one could seemingly loan directly to an individual was. As a result, Kiva exploded onto the American donor scene. Even though in both of these cases donations aren’t going directly into the hands of the recipient, Kiva capitalized on the human instinct to take action to help one person in need. Organizations like have used this same model to fund education projects within the United States.

It is not altogether shocking that we feel more compassion when we have relatable stories. But what stands out in Slovic’s paper is a study in which groups were either given the story of Rokia, a list of statistics, or the story of Rokia combined with more general statistics.

“Donations in response to the identified individual, Rokia, were far greater than donations in response to the statistical portrayal of the food crisis. Most important, however, and most discouraging, was the fact that coupling the statistical realities with Rokia’s story significantly reduced the contributions to Rokia. Alternatively, one could say that using Rokia’s story to ‘put a face behind the statistical problem’ did not do much to increase donations.”

My point here isn’t that more people just need to “do something” and “make a difference” as if all well-motivated actions are equally valuable.  I have some more to write about intelligent, biblical compassion, which I hope to do soon.  But compassion fatigue seems to be a reality that we need to think about too, as well as something in human nature that cries out for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in all of us.

Standing up for the poor

Peter Leithart considers the different ways that the Bible talks about the oppression of the poor, concluding that

Who abuses the poor?  As Scripture sees things, it could be anyone, and Christians are called to oppose oppression whether it is carried out by civil rulers, by religious leaders, by large corporations or small businesses, by neighbors, by family members, by the weak on the weaker.

On a related note, Doug Wilson and Toby Sumpter answered a question that I posed on about the protection of workers in a free market economy here (it’s a video of about 12 minutes).

Evangelism and social involvement

Justin Taylor posted some good resources here by Tony Payne and Tim Chester.

This essay, by both Payne and Chester, pointed out a key difference between evangelism and social action:

Second, social involvement at its best is about harnessing the resources within a community. It is about empowering a community through their participation. The alternative is a paternalistic approach which is short-term, creating dependency in its beneficiaries. In good development, an understanding of the problem and its solutions come from within a community. In contrast, the message of the gospel is that we are powerless and cannot participate in our salvation. Both an understanding of the problem and the solution must come from outside the community. This outside message does not come from western technology, money, expertise, still less from free market capitalism. It comes from heaven. This is one reason for the emphasis in John’s Gospel that Jesus is ‘from heaven’.

The essay also came to a good conclusion:

If we see social involvement as an expression of Christian godliness, in response to the character of God, the reign of God and the grace of God—which we suggested in Part I is the best way to think about it—then the relationship between evangelism and social involvement is not so fraught or so complicated.

Jesus sends us out into the world to ‘make disciples’. With this in mind, the two key questions are:

  1. How do we make disciples? We make disciples through the prayerful proclamation of the gospel of Christ, in dependence on the Holy Spirit to make the message effective.
  2. What does it mean to be a disciple? We teach disciples to obey all that Christ has commanded, including the command to live in kindness, generosity, love and active concern for those around us.

Book review, “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild

I found this review that I wrote for my own memory after I read King Leopold’s Ghost in the winter of 2007-2008, and I figured that I would post it here.  I edited it a bit today (although it still suffers from my overuse of parentheses).  This is definitely one of my favorite books of all time.

For Hochschild, this is a story about both King Leopold II’s greed and deception and the movement that arose to stop him, centered in Britain.  It also received help from Belgian Socialists, Americans, and others, with Protestant missionaries being a major source of information on the terror inflicted upon the inhabitants.

Leopold hoped to gain colonies and eventually decided that central Africa offered the best chance, sending the famous Henry Morton Stanley to explore the region (with chiefs signing treaties that they did not understand but promised everything for very little) and getting America and then Europe to recognize his claim.  He built support for it by offering free access to trade with the colony (which it ran as a monopoly), speaking the benefits of civilization (there is little evidence in the book that this was ever taken seriously, except for making the “lazy” natives work in ivory- and rubber-gathering), portraying himself as a crusader against the Afro-Arab slave trade (they did fight Afro-Arabs like Tippu Tip, but also instituted forced labor practices), and opening the Congo to missionaries (Protestant missionaries were some of the main opponents of the brutality).  He also led the Americans to think that it would be something like an association of free states like the US.  It was eventually called the Congo Free State, the property of Leopold alone and run by a bureaucracy centered in Belgium.  The portrait of Leopold that emerges is one of a greedy, power-hungry monarch in a Europe that is passing him by (with his wealth from the Congo he built up great monuments and his chateaus and palaces) and a very effective tyrant who could manipulate people for his own ends and understood public relations. Continue reading