I’m reposting the last part of a blog I wrote in May 8, 2014.
One of the great influences on the social justice traditions of Christians and Jews are the Old Testament Prophets. The Old Testament prophets had a strong sense of social justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the marginalized. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel, and the great prophets of Israel inspired later day human rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, William Sloane Coffin, Ralph Abernathy, Pauli Murray, Bayard Rustin, Cesar Chavez, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and countless others to fight for the poor and the marginalized in society. The beauty of the prophet’s poetry inspired activist poets like Muriel Rukeyser, Allen Ginsberg, Alicia Ostriker and June Jordan.
Stephen Colecchi wrote an article about the influence of the Old Testament prophets on Catholic Social Thinking. He wrote:
The ancient Israelites were inspired by God’s Spirit to build a society that ever more clearly protected human life and dignity. And like us, they were not always successful.
In their day the prophets raised their voices to defend the poor and call for greater social justice. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed:
Ah! Those who enact unjust statutes,
who write oppressive decrees,
Depriving the needy of judgment,
robbing my people’s poor of justice,
Making widows their plunder,
and orphans their prey! (10:1-2).
Time and again the prophets of the Old Testament defended the poor and powerless.
Dr. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary, wrote about the Old Testament prophet Amos:
Amos spoke to an oppressed society and his concern for the poor and the oppressed made him a prophet for all times. Amos is also a prophet for the twenty-first century, a time when the gap between rich and poor has never been greater.
The sources of oppression and injustice may look different today, but people’s concern for material prosperity reflects the days in which Amos lived. Amos’ message of God’s opposition to injustice, his criticism of the people’s worship of material things, and his witness of God’s special concern for the poor and oppressed, affirm that the worship of God in any age is worthless if social oppression and injustice are ignored.
Amy Clampitt wrote a wonderful essay titled “The Poetry of Isaiah” for the book Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible a collection of women writers’ essays showing the female perspective on the Bible. Clampitt wrote about the prophet Isaiah:
In the approximately two and a half millennia since Isaiah lived, human nature can hardly be said to have pulled out of such crass unconcern for the victims of misfortune. A society that goes on arguing over entitlements and curtailments, as of the right to beg on subway platforms, seems to have come no nearer to what could be called social justice. Nor have we very noticeably advanced beyond the mayhem and the hypocrisy of organized religion…
…Poets are always a nuisance, and often dangerous. On public matters they are anything but the last word. That is in a way their virtue- that what gives them their power comes from somewhere beyond allegiance to any system of belief or behavior. By nature they are unstable, sometimes unruly, now and then giving way (as in Alice in Wonderland) to subversive fits of merriment, as well as to an uncensored sublimity. Without them, who is there to tell us the best, along with the very worst, about ourselves?
Here are some passages from the prophets of the Old Testament.
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
The Lord will enter into judgment
With the elders of His people
And His princes:
“For you have eaten up the vineyard;
The plunder of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing My people
And grinding the faces of the poor?”
Says the Lord God of hosts.
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
You have been a refuge for the poor,
a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
and a shade from the heat.
For the breath of the ruthless
is like a storm driving against a wall
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn
Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.
Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,
his upper rooms by injustice,
making his own people work for nothing,
not paying them for their labor.
“He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the Lord.
“But your eyes and your heart
are set only on dishonest gain,
on shedding innocent blood
and on oppression and extortion.”
This is what the Lord says:
“For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain;
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame
So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.
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