I’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.