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DEBATE
The prophet in the face of Social Injustice:
A model of faith which does justice
Stefano Bittasi SJ

 

Rather than speaking about the real capacity to relate our faith with justice in our Jesuit way of proceeding, I want to confront it with a prophetic attitude which is proposed in the Scriptures.

Introduction: The prophet and his social context.

Every prophet in the Bible, like every Jesuit today, is a man of his people and of his time. The prophet’s experience of his own reality is an important starting point to understand his message. The prophet lives the reality which he judges! Seeing reality with the eyes of God, does not put the prophet at a different level in relation to reality. Jesus himself experienced this situation (Mk 6,1-6) (1) :

1Jesus left that place and went to his home town accompanied by his disciples. 2When the Sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue; and the large congregation who heard him were amazed and said. 3‘Where does he get it from?’, and, ‘What wisdom is this that has been given him?’, and, ‘How does he work such miracle? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ So they fell foul of him. 4Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet will always be held in honour except in his home town, and among his kinsmen and family.’ 5He could work no miracle there, except that he put his hands on a few sick people and healed them; 6and he was taken aback by their want of faith.

The contempt which Jesus expresses in this situation is the symptom of the ‘normal’ condition of a prophet. Especially when it touches the social relations of the people with whom he lives. This is, however, a normal attitude: none of us accepts a critique of our way of living, of the social system sustaining us, from someone who is ‘with us and like us’. And yet even in this we find an evangelical icon of this attitude. Remember Herod with John the Baptist (Mk 6, 18-21a):

18John had told Herod, ‘You have not right to your brother’s wife.’ 19Thus Herodias nursed a grudge against him and would willingly have killed him, but she could not; 20for Herod went in awe of john, knowing him to be a good and holy man; so he kept him in custody. He liked to listen to him, although the listening left him greatly perplexed. 21Herodias found her opportunity…

There is an interesting parallel between these two situations and our lives. An author has referred to this phenomenon as prophetic alteration (2) :

“It is from this alteration that the pain of the prophet starts. A man becomes different. He is torn away from his own family, his environment, from his life situation, from his way of thinking, from his temperament and thrown elsewhere by God. He is pulled from his own self and, transformed, he does not recognise himself. He becomes his own contradiction, he says what he has never thought, proclaims what he has always feared. His existence is the paradox of his being.. […] The prophet faces that which is ‘absolute”. The final consequence of alteration is abandonment… Transformed by prophecy, to the eyes of people, the prophet is in the Absolute; and to God, he is among people. He is himself, without ever being so. (3) 

So what the prophet is called to do, naming reality as it is seen by God, does not put him in a comfortable situation. He finds himself having to proclaim not a painful and inevitable status quo, a situation which is unacceptable to everyone. No, he finds himself having to proclaim the incongruity between this reality and the Absolute. A reality, however, wanted and sought by the most important and influential people (and often the largest group, that majority which has become synonymous with democratic justice and justification of the rightness of the common choices). This makes him truly isolated in his own reality, which yet he shares.

As an example we can take the prophet Micah as a starting point. This prophet lives in the Jerusalem of the 8th century BC. At that time Jerusalem’s context is characterized by two phenomena which are interrelated: large landed property in the countryside and the consequent wealth in the sacred city. Whoever would have entered that world as a tourist would certainly have been struck by the wealth of the city, its luxury, architecture, and the numerous stores. A prosperous and peaceful city. Furthermore, the external appearance of the countryside, gave the impression of fertility, of order, and of easy and intense agricultural business transactions, favoured by the network of national and international relations. And the tourist would have definitely appreciated the luxury enjoyed by the big families, the financial transactions and the variety of the cultural world. And yet Michea in his time does not offer a ‘tourist’ vision, but a ‘prophetic vision. He sees with the ‘eyes of God’ and, from this perspective, he highlights the consequences for the majority of the exploited poor rather than the artistic or cultural beauty of the homes of the ‘financial operators’ (as we would call them today). He highlights the hypocrisy of the religious hierarchy which hides this situation by providing a reasonable ‘plausibility’ for the beauty and solemnity of the sacred and devout worship. In other words, he puts before our very eyes an uncomfortable and critical perspective, which, however, as we will see, is open to God’s logic, who is always open to an encounter with the people when the conditions of their earthly lives provide a possibility to experience fraternity.

Mi 2, 1-3: Large landed property and the mentality of landowners

1Shame on those who lie in bed planning evil and wicked deeds
and rise at daybreak to do them, knowing that they have the power!
2They covet land and take it by force; if they want a house they seize it; they rob a man of his home and steal every man’s inheritance.
3 Therefore these are the words of the Lord:
Listen, for this whole brood I am planning disaster,
whose yoke you cannot shake from your necks and walk upright; it shall be your hour of disaster!

The mentality of accumulating land in order to gain wealth (very similar to today’s economic accumulation which has to multiply wealth going beyond the need of each ‘actor’) supplants the rights of the small owners for whom their small plot of land is the source of their survival. In order for wealth to be accumulated in the hands of a few who want ever greater access to prosperity, the very survival of the poor is denied. These either submit to the logic of large landowners, or they die. This logic is well described in the first two verses which refer to the nightly ‘planning’, which begins in the mind in the evening and is implemented at sunrise. It is a particularly significant image which shows the ‘omnipotence’ of the rich. They can plan their schemes at night and execute them in broad daylight, without needing to be afraid! If there were risks, they would plan during the ‘day’ and they would act ‘at night’!!! In fact it is said that they have the power (4) . There is a taking which is the consequence of coveting. It is not a coincidence that here the same verb as in the Ten Commandments is used (Ex 20, 17): the coveting forbidden by the commandment is the driving force for the wealth of the landowners of Jerusalem.

We note that what is put into question is not the way the system is managed (more or less violent or with ‘a human face’), but the very roots of the system, which does not reflect God’s vision of the earth, of wellbeing, of human relations.

The prophetic therefore, announces in an interesting way how God will use the same “way of proceeding’ used by landowners, and the rich, against them. The same words are used. The game in fact is not a punishment, but making them touch with their own hands what they inflict on others. This is one of the key interpretations of each so-called divine punishment in the Bible. It is not a judicial sentence, but a way of experiencing which has to lead to the life of the sinner, to his becoming aware and to what we call his conversion, in other words to a change in mind and heart which is the consequence of ‘having had an experience’.

3. Mi 3, 9-12: Prosperity, is it a sign of justice and blessing?

9Listen, you leaders of Jacob, rulers of Israel, you who make justice hateful and wrest it from its straight course; 10building Zion in bloodshed and Jerusalem in iniquity.

11Her rulers sell justice, her priests give direction in return for a bribe, her prophets take money for their divination, and yet men rely on the Lord. ‘Is not the Lord among us?’ they say; ‘then no disaster can befall us.’

 

12Therefore, Therefore, on your account Zion shall become a ploughed field, Jerusalem a heap of ruins, and the temple hill rough heath (5) .

 


The second passage which I propose refers to the reaction of the prophet to the thinking of those who believe that their prosperity is an acquired right and a sign of God’s blessing which extends from the more specific religious and cultural aspects to the more civilian and administrative. I do not think that there is much need to comment on these verses which, in this context, are very explicit and evocative.

First, the prophet uncovers the very basis of Jerusalem’s prosperity. The city (with all its characteristic symbols) is presented not through its externally admirable appearance, but through the foundations which in God’s eyes sustain it: social injustice, blood, crime of the powerful against the powerless.

Then the prophet shows one way of operating. There are, in other words, self-made rules which guide the economic actors, there are the ‘rules of the game” which do not take into consideration the others. The machine runs favouring the interests of those who run it! And furthermore, the result, the success, the very functioning of the ‘machine’ is perceived as the intrinsic sign of its goodness, which includes the very relationship with God.

The comment made by L. Alonso Schökel is interesting: “they consider the presence of God incompatible with evil understood as misfortune, while in fact his presence is incompatible with evil understood as injustice”.

Here, once again, we are faced with the therefore of God which reaches a level of violence unheard of. In order to understand why this oracle is considered to be one of the most violent against Jerusalem in the whole Bible (6)  we have to begin by understanding the symbolic significance of Jerusalem. This city, the city of David, is first of all the place where God is present among the people through the ‘king’. It is also the place of the Temple, of the mysterious presence of God.

Well this city is proclaimed to be abandoned by God in a state of total destruction (the image of the ploughed field) and, even in stronger terms, the Temple is called by the prophet, who claims to be speaking God´s Word, “a rough heath” (a term used for the sanctuaries of Baal built on the hills).

You can understand how the denunciation of the mechanisms which generate injustice is not just a question of “morality” (custom). In the prophetic discourse there is a close link between the way we live our social life and the very relationship with God. What would we call today a statement like this? Our awareness of the ‘secular’ nature of social relations has taught us not to confuse the supposed ‘will of God’ with specific political or social models. And yet, in my view, there is a strong invitation to keep eyes of faith when we look at the social phenomena which take place, with the capacity to both ‘see’ and ‘judge’ them, when we witness the same mechanisms at work in the past and today.

Michea 7, 8-20: Hope.

8 O my enemies, do not exult over me;
I have fallen, but shall rise again;
though I dwell in darkness, the Lord is my light.

9I will bear the anger of the Lord, for I have sinned against him,
until he takes up my cause and gives judgment for me; until he brings me out into the light, and I see his justice.

18Who is a god like thee? Thou takest away gilt, thou passest over the sin of the remnant of thy own people, thou dost not let thy anger rage for ever but delightest in love that will not change.
19 Once more thou wilt show us tender affection and wash our guilt, casting all our sins into the depths of the sea.
20Thou wilt show good faith to Jacob, unchanging love to Abraham, as thou didst swear to our fathers in the days gone by.

The few verses that I propose here are the beginning and the end of the last page of the book. It is the canticle to a Jerusalem which the prophet considers to be totally destroyed. The holy city is no more. The ‘curse’ has come true (and this more than one century before it really happened). And yet in the midst of this destruction the canticle of hope for the sinful city arises. What it says is very interesting because it constitutes both the authentic horizon for the resolution of social injustice, and God’s gaze over the sick human reality.

Social sin is defined by the city a sin against God and because of this understanding, the destruction is accepted. Yet, this very reference to God allows the city to declare firm and proud words against its enemy (the foes of Israel and Judea). God is presented as the One who has destroyed Jerusalem for the love of the poor…. Jerusalem, destroyed, has become in turn ‘poor’. This is why God now defends the sinner who has understood his own life with authenticity. The city waits for the overturning of the situation which at this point as a double overturning:


Beautiful and prosperous city                                 
but with obvious social injustices        à     destruction         à    reconstruction
                            fall/darnkness         rising /seeing

It is interesting that now God’ justice becomes the right of the city and becomes the light through which ‘one can see’. What a difference from darkness!

The praise is for a God who removes sin and makes of mercy his own identity. What God is interested in is not to judge and reward those who are good and punish those who are evil, but to rebuild just relations. God is interested in building a more ‘just’ world, where the term ‘just’ does not refer to a retributive or legal justice, but to a world regulated by just reciprocal relations.

I emphasise only verse 19 because here the image of Exodus 15.5 in relation to the Egyptian troops is used: the flood waters covered them, they sank into the depths like a stone. Now it is said with the same images: he will treat underfoot our guilt and he will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins. The enemy that God will win over is no longer external to the people, but is within it, it is that sin that God will bury in the depths of the sea, because his logic of love will guarantee the promise made to Abraham, to have descendants who are called to be brothers among them.

Jesus did the same when he gave us the prayer Our Father. That should be the basis for us to build a world of brothers and not a world where we seek our own wellbeing without considering the interests of the others, or worse still in destructive competition with them.

Original Italian
Translation by Jenny Cafiso

Stefano Bittasi SJ

 

Pontificia Facoltà Teologica dell’Italia Meridionale - Sez. San Luigi
Via Petrarca 115
80122 Napoli

 

ITALY

 

 

1 The English version of the texts from the Old and New Testament have been taken from The New English Bible: Oxford Study Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972).
2 The term ‘alteration’ used by the author refers to the change that takes place in the life of a prophet after his call.
3 Neher, Andrè, L’essenza del Profetismo, (Casale Monferrato: Marietti, 1984) pp. 244-246.
4 The translation of this verse offered by the original Italian version of the author reads: can do anything they want. The linguistic term ‘sintagma’ is a verbal structure containing, in this order, a verb, an adverb and a complement. (Note of the Editor) This is the meaning of the Hebrew sintagma “have the capacity in their hands”.
5 According to the New International Version-UK, this last verse reads: “Therefore, because of you, Zion will be ploughed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.” followed by the author [Note of the Editor].
6 See the note of the TOB: “It is the first time that the announcement of such a radical destruction of the city and its sanctuary is heard in Jerusalem. This prophecy will provoke such an impression that a century later the hearers of Jeremiah will not mention it” (Jer 26, 18).