CNEWA Connections: Social Justice, a ‘Call as Old as the Bible’

This past Tuesday, on 20 February, the UN observed the World Day for Social Justice.

This past Tuesday, on 20 February, the UN observed the World Day for Social Justice. In one sense the concept of justice and social justice as a basic human right is a relatively new phenomenon in world history. In the past, highly stratified societies with very inequitable sharing of resources were considered to be part of the natural order. The poor were poor, it was believed, because God did not create them nobles. On the other hand, a notion of social justice and the call to a more equitable sharing of resources are as old as the prophetic tradition. The three great monotheistic religions of the world — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — not only believe in the same one God, they all also have a strong prophetic tradition of justice. CNEWA’s roots are — as its name implies — in the Near East, the home of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Among the people we serve many are Christians and Muslims. The home of the prophetic call to justice is in a real sense also the home of CNEWA.

In the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, or Law, stressed the importance of taking care of the weak and poor and offering them the same legal justice as the strong and powerful. In Leviticus, farmers are told not to harvest their entire fields and to leave whatever parts of their harvest fall to the ground, so that the poor may glean them (Lev. 19:9 ff.) The handicapped are not to be taken advantage of (19:14-15). The Bible demands that the administration of justice not be overawed by the wealthy and powerful (Exod. 22:20; Lev. 19:34). Repeatedly the bible demands justice for the widow, the orphan and the alien. In Deut. 10:17-18 it reads “…Yahweh your God is God of gods…it is he who sees justice done for the orphan and the widow, who loves the alien and gives him food and clothing.”

In the books of the prophets, justice is more central than worship. In Isaiah 1:11-17, God says, “…I am sick of holocausts of rams…bring me your worthless offerings no more….Take your evildoing out of my sight. Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.” Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God abhors usury, false weights and measure of merchants (Amos 8:4 ff.) and withholding wages from workers (Lev. 19:13).

In the New Testament Jesus describes his ministry as, among other things, “to bring good news to the poor” (Lk. 4:18). The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Lk. 16:19-31) describes the horrible fate of the rich man who ignored the poverty-stricken Lazarus. In Christ’s description of the Last Judgement (Mt. 25:31-46), the difference between the righteous and the damned is that the righteous fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, etc., etc. and the damned did not. Although often conveniently overlooked by the entitled and comfortable, social justice is the ultimate “orthodoxy” for the followers of Jesus in the Gospels.

A similar situation can be found in Islam. The Qur’an constantly calls for the protection of the poor and the weak. Zakat, donations for the poor, is one of the Pillars of Islam. Qur’an 4:136 reads “…be strict in observing justice and be witnesses for God, even though it be against yourselves or against parents or relatives…” One of the most extraordinary Surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an is Surah 80, ‘Abasa. It begins “He {Muhammad} frowned (‘abasa) and turned away….” It relates the story of a blind man approaching the Prophet who is speaking/preaching to some people. God rebukes the Prophet for ignoring the handicapped man and paying attention to “him who is disdainfully indifferent.” For Muslims, even the Holy Prophet of Islam is not absolved from caring for the poor, outcast and handicapped and is rebuked when he fails in this.

For many of us — and perhaps, at times, all of us — social justice is something quite secondary, little more than a decoration on the Christmas tree of our lives of virtue. That is really quite amazing. While there are things in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an that are esoteric, hard to understand or appear only once, the demands of social justice are found boldly woven throughout all our sacred texts like a shockingly bright pattern on a fabric — a pattern than cannot be overlooked. There is neither reason nor excuse to ignore it.

The UN is a relatively recent organization. World Day for Social Justice is even more recent.

But the call for social justice is — literally — as old as the Bible.

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