Introduction

 

The Current Situation

Social injustice is a major problem facing the world today. At times, the word "injustice" implies illegal acts which deprive people of their rights. However, many unjust acts in the present age are legal since the present structure of society allows them to exist. However, people with moral sensitivity recognize that these acts are inherently unfair because they place certain groups at economic or social disadvantage. Such activity prevents these people from having equal access to basic conditions for life.

First, this kind of injustice exists in the United States and other so-called First World countries. The structure of society here favors the rich and places the poor at a disadvantage. The wealthy hold political, economic, and social power, and thus, they are able to control decisions which are made in these areas. Such decisions, therefore, often benefit the rich, and inevitably, they make life harder for the poor.

For example, the rich often exert undue influence on the way tax money is spent. The poor pay as much sales tax on items bought as the wealthy. Yet, the rich have the power to insure that this tax is spent on items they want, like magnificent public buildings, rather than on programs for the poor. Also, wealthy employers hire inordinate numbers of part-time workers so that the employers do not have to give employees full-time salaries and benefits. If the poor are fortunate enough to get these jobs, they remain poor. Employers demand that middle-class employees work heavy overtime so that the employers do not have to hire additional workers. Thus, they avoid paving benefits to additional employees. In this way fewer jobs are available for the poor, and the rich grow richer.

In the United States social injustice is also often the result of racial or ethnic discrimination. African Americans, people of Mexican, Caribbean, Central and South American origin, and Native Americans are not treated as the equals of whites. Many of them are poor and seem to be trapped in perpetual poverty. In the case of the African Americans, their poverty originated in their former slavery. Few have been able to rise above their needy condition because there is so much that makes doing so extremely difficult. Their children are not properly prepared to enter school since they lack the earls' educational experiences that other children have. This includes simple things like looking through magazines and books and going to museums and zoos. When the children begin school, they are less ready than other children their age to learn, so school goes badly for many of them. When they finish, many are less prepared than other graduates to compete in the job market. So fewer African Americans are employed and, thus, continue to be poor and to raise children with as little chance as they had. Many wealthy and middle-class whites see little reason to do something to break this pattern since the status quo benefits them.

However, some African Americans put out the additional energy that it takes to break out of this cycle. Some become well educated, get good jobs, or start their own businesses. But it is harder for them, people of Mexican, Caribbean, Central and South American origin, and Native Americans than for others because discrimination constantly blocks their way. Whites repeatedly doubt that people in these groups know as much or can work as well as others. Some whites oppose them simply because of their color. So they are bypassed and not given a chance to prove themselves. Again, those with wealth and power keep the poor from improving their lot.

The problem in the world at large is even greater. It centers on what citizens of the United States regularly call the Third World. However, since some people in those countries consider that a pejorative term, we shall use the phrase they prefer, "developing nations." The poverty in those places is alarming. 1.2 billion people live in absolute poverty, with barely enough to sustain life. One billion, and one-third of them under age two, are malnourished. Seventy percent of deaths in developing nations each year are related to problems caused by hunger. In the fort-two poorest countries, 25 percent die before age five.

Comparison of the developing nations with the United States reveals enormous disparity. Those nations contain 76 percent of the world's population and receive only 27 percent of its income. On the other hand, the United States has only 6 percent of the earth's population but uses 40 percent of its resources. The average citizen of the United States consumes as many resources as it takes to sustain ninety people in India.' The average world citizen utilizes four hundred pounds of grain a year while the average person in the United States uses a ton. Only two hundred pounds of this amount are ingested directly. Much of the rest of it is wasted because it is fed to animals which are later eaten.

Social injustice is the cause of much of this disparity. Manual laborers in the developing nations prepare their national resources for export to the United States and other major powers. They receive minimal payment for their work and resources while exported items are sold at a much higher price in the importing countries. The large profits are shared by the importers in those places and by the exporters in the developing nations. The wealthy in both places grow still richer while the poor laborers in the developing nations receive little and remain poor. The elite in both places are happy to maintain the status quo. Middle-class workers in the United States and other major powers support them because these employees believe that they derive benefit from this system. However, considering the extent of poverty in the developing nations, the injustice in this system is horrendous.

 

Combining Efforts

How does the Church in the United States respond to this problem? Many in the Church support this national and world social injustice because they are part of the United States' economic, political, and social system. Living in this country, much that we do without reflection adds to the problem. But when we become aware of the injustice, what can we do about it? Opposing it means opposing much of the power structure of this country. How can the comparatively small number of concerned Christians make a difference? This problem becomes more acute as the Church becomes an increasingly small percentage of the nation's population. Important decisions about social justice are made in the public arena, where decreasing numbers of Christians are present. And yet, the Church's insights into social justice need to be represented there. A single decision of Congress can affect world poverty much more than the total donations from all religious bodies and charities in an entire year.

Yet, the Church surely does not contain all citizens of the United States who are concerned about social justice. There are increasing numbers of Moslems, Jews, Buddhists, and adherents of other world religions in this country. Many of them and mans' non-religious people are committed to social justice. It would be extremely helpful if their efforts and Christians' efforts could be combined. That process would be accelerated if non-Christians and Christians could reach some ideological agreement on the issue of social justice. Would Christians be open to that development? How could Christians integrate the thought of these other people with their own thought on this subject?

This is by no means the first time that people in our tradition have faced this question since it was already faced by the ancient Israelites. The following chapters will demonstrate that Israel did not originate the concept of social justice. It was present in other countries of the Near East before Israel, and Israel received the legacy of their thought on the subject. However, Israel faced new situations involving justice during its history. How did it meet them? How did it integrate the legacy of Near Eastern thought on the topic with its own approaches to the new problems?

Hans Walter Wolff and Walter Brueggemann have developed a paradigm which speaks to this question. According to them, Israel's tradition grew in the following manner. At any given moment, Israel had a previous tradition of past memories of God's dealing with them. In the present Israel encountered new crises. The combination of its tradition with its thought about the new crises resulted in new affirmations of faith or new tradition. Thus, Israel's tradition was regularly reshaped and remained alive and growing. According to Wolff and Brueggemann, therefore, the primary question that we are to put to any text of the Hebrew Bible is: "What in this text can we discern of the meeting between memory and the historical pressure?"

This paradigm can be applied to our question. Israel did not only receive its own tradition about God's dealings with them from the past. It also received the legacy of Near Eastern thought, and it integrated that thought with its own Yahwistic tradition in the manner which Wolff and Brueggemann have described. When Israel faced crises over justice, it combined old Near Eastern ideas about justice and its own past experience with its new thought about the subject. Out of this combination it developed a relevant approach to the new situation. Thus, Israel's justice tradition continued to grow and constantly remained relevant to the changing conditions of life.

In a different context, speaking about resources available to the Church, the Gospel of Matthew said: "Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (13:52). Israel's approach to social justice was also to bring out of its treasure what was new and what was old. It combined the old traditions of the Near East with its new approaches to current problems.

This book examines what the Hebrew Bible has to say about social justice. We shall watch for the ways in which Israel adapted its Near Eastern tradition to the new problems it faced. This should provide clues on how we might integrate the thought of non-Christians about social justice with our own. We are confronted with the same problem of integration that Israel was. What can Israel teach us about meeting it?

 

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