I don’t know about you but when I hear the phrase social justice I tend to think of defending the plight of the poor and the unfortunate. Helping those who have been exploited, marginalized, and have very little to no power or influence in society at large. With this image it is easy to create the enemy out of the wealthy and powerful.
In creating such an enemy it is then easy to assume that the one holding wealth and power is always wrong. They’re the enemy, the bad guy, the one holding down others. I know I think like that sometimes.
A couple years ago when I was leading a study on Leviticus (yes, that Leviticus) I ran across an interesting verse that made me pause. It was Leviticus 19:15 which says, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” As I write this out it doesn’t seem like it should have been that unusual, but for some reason it was.
That justice should be impartial is something that I think we know is the ideal of justice, after all justice is blind. When it comes to our own reactions about issues of justice I wonder if we’re really that impartial. It often seems like we’re split in how we treat this subject.
For some the rich always seem to be an object of admiration and the example for everyone to follow. The mantra of this group is that people are rich because they’ve worked hard and earned it. This also sends either implicitly or explicitly that poor people just aren’t working hard enough, are lazy, or wanting everything handed to them.
Others focus on the reverse. Rich people are the enemy. They have wealth, power, and privilege, but only use it for their own gain and often at the expense of anyone less fortunate than them. This message indicates that the poor are victims of a system where they can be taken advantage of.
Now I know I can vacillate between both of these positions pretty easy. I think the reason is that both can be true. Some people are rich due to hard work, ingenuity, and perseverance. However, there are people who are rich by dishonest means, by not paying the people who work for them very much, or other negative ways of gaining wealth. Then there are the people who are simply wealthy because of the family they grew up in.
The same goes with those who are poor. Some are poor because they make bad decisions in life. Addictions, poor money management skills, living beyond our means, and other poor decisions can make people struggle financially. However, there are those who are poor even though they work hard, are dependable, and maybe are struggling due to circumstances that have little to do with their direct choices.
Now while Leviticus 19:15 does talk about not favoring either, in other places in the Bible the emphasis is on not giving favor to the rich and powerful. The exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful is more often the case even in other places in the Bible. That’s part of the indictment brought by many of the prophets later in the Old Testament.
I still think that’s true today. People who have more power and money can take advantage of people a lot easier. When you’re the one in control it’s not too hard to try to gain as much money for yourself while your employees struggle to make ends meet. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone who is rich does this. We must judge fairly in these circumstances and not be skewed in favor or against those with wealth and power.
At the same time we must do this as well with those who are less fortunate. It is all too easy to label someone as lazy or entitled because they are struggling financially. In a country that has seen income inequality grow fairly substantially in the last forty years, this seems to be a rather hasty judgment. Does this mean that there aren’t people out there who are lazy or entitled? No, I’m sure there are. However, just like with the wealthy, those who are poor must be judged fairly.
Ultimately, life is just not as neat an organized as we would like. Neither the wealthy or the poor are always heroes or villains, however they are always human. This often means there will be a tangled web of selfish and selfless intentions. That is what Leviticus 19:15 reminded me. That one side isn’t always right or always wrong, but that we’re to judge fairly and not show partiality to either the rich or the poor. To treat them as equals which is so difficult in a world that is often so full of inequality.