a lesser-known (but better) model of social justice

Social JusticeI’d like to present the following text and ask that you consider it as a model for social justice.

When I passed through the city gates, To take my seat in the square,
Young men saw me and hid, Elders rose and stood;
Nobles held back their words; They clapped their hands to their mouths.
The voices of princes were hushed; Their tongues stuck to their palates.
The ear that heard me acclaimed me; The eye that saw, commended me.
For I saved the poor man who cried out, The orphan who had none to help him.
I received the blessing of the lost; I gladdened the heart of the widow.
I clothed myself in righteousness and it robed me; Justice was my cloak and turban.
I was eyes to the blind And feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy, And I looked into the case of the stranger.
I broke the jaws of the wrongdoer, And I wrested prey from his teeth.
I thought I would end my days with my family, And be as long-lived as the phoenix (alt: sand),
My roots reaching water, And dew lying on my branches;
My vigor refreshed, My bow ever new in my hand.
Men would listen to me expectantly, And wait for my counsel.
After I spoke they had nothing to say; My words were as drops [of dew] upon them.
They waited for me as for rain, For the late rain, their mouths open wide.
When I smiled at them, they would not believe it; They never expected a sign of my favor.
I decided their course and presided over them; I lived like a king among his troops, Like one who consoles mourners.

The above lament from Job 29 (JPS) serves as a wise model for social justice. It is powerful because it demonstrates a proper balance between service to and defense of the poor, the marginalized, and the victims of those who would seek to do them harm. It avoids the common debate that pits non-violent advocacy against a justified use of force, and balances the often conflicting concepts of mercy and justice. In this model, it is just as important to provide for the needy as it is to defend them physically and be willing to risk bodily injury to do so.

This model of social justice is markedly different from many modern concepts of social justice that often avoid physical conflict at all costs often in exchange for an arguably naïve, and at times, inefficient service to others. Many pacifist notions of social justice regularly struggle with issues of treating the symptoms of social issues without addressing the underlying problems. What good is it to continually give money to the poor if it is regularly and immediately taken away by the pimp, the boss, or the shark? Treating symptoms without addressing the root of the social problem both allows the problem to persist and increases the potential for still others to be harmed. The socially just advocate should not only serve the poor, but defend them as well, and should be willing to risk physical and professional harm to do so.

Job’s description of his former life effectively balances service to the needy (the poor, the orphan, the lost, the widow, the blind, the lame, the needy, and the stranger) with a firm concept of justice (“I broke the jaws of the wrong does, And I wrested prey from his teeth”). This is not unlike Jesus’ use of force in John 2:15, when he made a whip of cords and used it do drive out of the Temple moneychangers, who were taking advantage of those coming to worship. In the end, Job’s concept of social justice is willing to both be a service to victims and to pursue vigorously their persecutors.

Job 29 is also a good wisdom text, as it paints a beautiful picture of the expected and deserved rewards that await those who defend the poor and the marginalized. The socially just not only experience praise and respect from the elders of the city and the children alike, but also come to be regarded for their wise counsel in other matters, demonstrating that those who are willing to walk the talk are more likely to have their “talk” considered as wise counsel over time. And this is as it should be; the words of those who have done will always trump the words of whose who have only said.

In the end, while we should not seek conflict, we also must not stand idly by and hold the coats of those who would do others harm. Despite the fact that it is easier to turn the other cheek and wait for a bully to become bored with his victim and move on, and despite the fact that involvement in a conflict may cause the aggressor to turn and pursue you for a while, the socially just advocate must be willing to draw fire from an aggressor’s victims and do what he or she can do to stop the aggression, even if it causes him or her harm. The socially just advocate must pursue justice even in the difficult times, even if it potentially involves conflict, ridicule, harassment, exhaustion, and even physical harm. But, if it is done properly, the socially just advocate will not only have helped his neighbor, but will enjoy the thanks and respect of those who witnessed the struggle.

6 Responses

  1. Identifying those wrongdoers is a far harder problem than it might at first seem. The pimp, shark, pusher, whatever, I see as a symptom of a further problem, one that is much harder to take head-on like this. The warp in the shape of our society that gives those people power.

  2. Beautiful. I will spread the word and link this on my page.

  3. i love it (that is, the dialogue, the challenges, the exchange of varying viewpoints between two real people ;-)

    i’m not sure whether i/we disagree or not.

    this is the beauty of wisdom: one’s experiences can always cause one to rethink one’s previously held beliefs.
    this is the way life (including scholarship!) should be: a constant re-examination of the facts in light of recent experiences/evidence. sometimes we rely on the old ‘tried and true’ wisdom, and other times we update this wisdom to meet new realities. in some areas, new models and paradigms come to replace the old, while in other areas, the ‘old wisdom’ still holds true. the struggle of all things – politics, ethics, world view, science, theology, and personal relationships – is summarized by this single question: when do we cling to traditional wisdom, and when should wisdom be updated to reflect our present situation.

    in the truest form of hebrew wisdom, after articulating how one should ‘do’ social justice, and how the one ‘doing’ acts of social justice ought to be received (as depicted in job’s recollection of his ‘former days’), job articulates quite beautifully the real consequences of actually standing up for justice – that is, you will be ridiculed, criticized, persecuted and wholly taxed by those will resist the changes you seek to make (and their name is legion!) there is a real consequence when one sticks one’s neck out to take on something that is, simply put, unjust (even if not illegal). this consequence comes not only from the wrongdoers, who turn and train their destructive energies toward the social justice advocate, but also from bystanders, who tacitly harm the advocate with their silence and inaction. but this does not mean the struggle is not worth fighting(!), for social justice is the right thing to do whether its popular or not, and whether it brings personal harm (physically, emotionally, or professionally) or not.

    you will note that job does not end his suit against god after acknowledging that his righteous efforts have been repaid by god with punishment, but, job in fact includes this stunning injustice in the suit against god. for some reason, the dreamers and prophets are always harassed and killed by those whose actions they are attempting to reform. i believe the point of the author is to show that true wisdom is not only advocating for social justice in a world that does not appreciate it and persecutes its reformers, but that lamenting to god himself about god’s injustices is just as much a part of wisdom.

    of course, the fact that god never answer’s job’s questions is a tacit endorsement of job’s claims of the unfairness of god, which are later made explicit in job 42:8 when god is recorded as saying, ‘for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant job has.’ this verse demonstrates that in job’s accusations against god, in which job called him every name in the book (unjust, unfair, apathetic, etc.), that job was, in fact, speaking the truth about god – a truth that god acknowledges! in fact, god’s response to job is not to justify his own actions, but to question job’s authority to question god’s governance. (that is, god responds, ‘where were you when…,’ as opposed to, ‘here’s why i’m actually not unjust.’) the author is stating that true social justice is true wisdom, and that part of true wisdom is acknowledging that the world persecutes its reformers, prophets, and dreamers, and that god allows this! the other part of true wisdom is a steadfastness in this social advocacy, even at times when it seems that god himself is opposing your efforts.

  4. […] best saturday cartoons » Is Job a good role model in the area of social justice?  Yes and […]

  5. “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”
    — Elie Wiesel

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