Friday, October 5, 2012

Putting the O-Pressure On

You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow's garment in pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.
An ancient Hebrew law, also known as Deuteronomy 24:17-18

Perhaps, at reading the story in the last post ("Not for Children"), you might find it too shocking to be in a Christian blog.  However, all the major points of this story, including almost all of the most gruesome bits, are contained at the end of the book of Judges.  It is certainly one of the most shocking stories in Scripture.  And it is a parable about the world’s response to the anawim.

The actions of Gibeah of Benjamin in Judges 19-20 is intended to remind one of Sodom (of Sodom and Gomorrah fame).  In Sodom as well there is a man inviting strangers to his house.  There was a group of men threatening to rape the strangers. And women were offered in place of the men.  However, that story ended remarkably differently, for the strangers were actually powerful angels.

While most homophobic preachers emphasize the sodomy of Sodom (which is not necessarily to be neglected, as Jude in the NT also makes a point of it), both Genesis 19 and this story emphasize something different—the abuse of immigrants and women.  It is clarified in Ezekiel, spoken to the tribes of Israel, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.”7  And this oppression, while possibly the worst,  is only one of the many oppressions mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

Violent oppression was the most heinous act in the ancient law.  To oppress is to abuse or take advantage of another because of their weak position in society.    Some of the oppressive acts punished in the law of Moses8 are:

·      Poverty pimps: Abusing immigrants, slaves, poor by taking what little they have.9
This would include any taxes or fees on people because they are poor.  Like ticketing the homeless because they are “camping”.

·      Abuse of wealth: A creditor harming one who owes him money.10
This would include any creditor taking away the ability to work or live because of a debt owed.  Like the government taking away a driver’s license from a professional driver because of fines owed.

·      Palm greasing: Judge determining against the poor due to a bribe11

·      Guilt by association: Judgment against one for the sin of another.12
For instance, throwing someone in prison for years because they were in the vicinity of someone selling or making drugs.

·      Perpetual debt: Refusing to cancel the debt of the impoverished every seven years. 13
This would include punishing a person for their debt until the end of their lives, or insisting that another generation pay the parent’s debt.

·      Loan denial: Refusing to lend to a brother in need due to their inability to pay back.14
This would include the government refusing to help out a citizen in need because of a lack of picture ID.

·      Withholding wages: Neglecting to pay temporary labor at the end of the day.15
For example, holding one’s wage they need to live on for the sake of processing.

·      Classism: Not allowing the helpless and poor to have equal justice as the wealthy and important.16
Such as the wealthy having the ability to purchase legal teams able to manipulate the law for their own purposes, while the poor granted only the overworked lawyers.

From the perspective of our society, some of this we can truly see as oppression—no one should thwart justice due to a bribe, nor should violent abuse against the weak be left unpunished.  But what about “neglecting the needs” of a poor person, or refusing to lend to a poor person?  How can these constitute “oppression”?  Oppression in Mosaic law has a particular context that is constantly referred to—“Remember that you were immigrant slaves in Egypt.”  Because all of Israel itself was, at one point, an oppressed minority, they should remember what it felt like and so avoid responding to others in ways they found evil themselves. 

            Because Israel was once a slave, they should treat slaves well, and offer them freedom after seven years.  Because Israel was an immigrant in Egypt, they should treat immigrants well.  Because they were poor in Egypt, they should not ignore the needs of the poor when they arise among their own nation.  Because at one point Israel had no protector, no patron to assist them, they should in turn assist the widows and orphans who have no patron, no one to assist them. 

7. Ezekiel 16:46-50.

8. The “law” is traditionally the first five books of the Bible, or the “books of Moses”.

9. Exodus 22:21-24.  The poor are usually categorized the “widow, orphan and stranger” and sometimes includes the Levites and the poor farmer.  The first three are categorized without exception as the “poor” because they have no voice in a court—for women, children and foreigners were not allowed in official business.  For women and children, it was assumed that the husband and father would represent their interests.  The “stranger” is simply an immigrant, one who is a part of another nation and moved to join in the prosperity of Israel.  Such an immigrant is never given full rights of a citizen, although their children might be.  The Levites were considered vulnerable because they were landless and were dependent on people’s obedience to the tithing laws for income.  The poor farmer is one who might have had a bad year for one reason or another and needs a loan just to get a “hand up” for a temporary period.  In our society, the categories of poverty are different, but for similar reasons: the single parent, the homeless, the recent immigrant, the elderly, the mentally ill, some of the disabled, the felon.  For all but the first category, they might have no, or limited, rights in court.  And they are all vulnerable to the ravages of our economics.

10. Exodus 22:24-26

11. Exodus 23:8-9; Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Deuteronomy 27:25.

12. Deuteronomy 24:16

13. Deuteronomy 15:1-6

14. Deuteronomy 15:9-11

15. Deuteronomy 24:14-15

16. Deuteronomy 24:17

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