Monday, April 14, 2008

Participating In Unjust Social Structures

Three times in the past month or so I have heard a Christian claim the Bible in general, and the prophet Amos in specific, declares that we commit injustice when we participate in unjust social structures. (The milder version is that we are commanded to work to correct unjust social structures.)

That’s a lot of elastic words in one phrase: participate in – if I decide that lottery tickets, tobacco, pornography, cigarettes, beer & wine, fossil fuels, & high markups on food are unjust, do I have to actively try to overthrow a state government that allows convenience stores, or can I get away with just biking around that state on the way to my vacation? Unjust – is 99% good enough? If something drops below 90% justice – jeepers, romantic selection by young people is notoriously unjust, does that mean we have to forbid dating, or would merely requiring a government license be enough? Social structures – oh wow. Funerals are pretty unjust, and so is Little League. Or do you mean like Ed at the water department hiring his girlfriend?

Do I purchase justice offsets by sending money to Democrats, or just the certain ones?

Surely I jest? Sure they jest. These terms have been the principle grain of academic marxism for fifty years, but if we sprinkle some Bible-words in it all comes out of the oven Christian? (See “sacred conversation,” previous post)

Simplest first: there is no positive command from Jesus to change political structures. The examples usually given, such as Christ speaking fearlessly to various authorities, actually illustrate the opposite idea. Jesus essentially tells Pilate that politics and governments are not very important. His actions certainly had political consequences, but these were never primary.

This isn’t to say that seeking to improve justice in one’s society isn’t a good thing. It’s a very good thing. It’s just vague, and not everything called “working for justice” actually is. Prophets make sinners uncomfortable. This preacher is making you uncomfortable. Therefore, he is a prophet and you are a sinner. That is nearly psychotic reasoning, but it has been put forward in defense of Revs. Lee and Wright. But why pick on black people for this, when Jim Wallis, Rich Nathan, and John Thomas are at hand?

As for Amos, his first focus is on Israel’s worshipping other gods. There are several mentions about justice, some specifically about the poor, but none mentioning institutions or social structures, even by other names. Rich people – maybe lots of them, maybe all of them – were cheating poor people, and for these acts they were accused. Remember that the courts dispensing injustice in these verses were like our civil courts, not our criminal ones. Powerful people were fixing the outcomes of property disputes and such.

Complicated discussions of economic and social justice should certainly include understanding and repairing institutions. But there’s nothing about it in Amos.

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