Torah and Social Justice: Anchoring Prophetic Rhetoric

The Prophet Isaiah, RaphaelI have recently been discussing the ways in which our anti-poverty and “social justice” efforts need to be properly guided, noting that our execution of God’s will is not as simple as robbing the rich or cherry-picking our favorite warm-and-fuzzy verses. At its root, helping others is about sacrifice, and — as I continue to emphasize — sacrifice is fruitless without obedience.

But obedience to what/whom, and with what as a foundation?

In my last post, I argued that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a big piece of the puzzle, and at First Things, Peter Leithart adds to this approach by reminding us that it also has something to do with the Word itself. What is the long-view of Biblical truth in application, and what else should be taken into account when considering our mandate to help the widow and the orphan?

Calling out folks like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, Leithart begins by examining the Biblical bases to which they refer, explaining that much of their rhetoric is based in nothing more than rhetoric. Yes, Israel’s prophets condemned the exploiters of their day, but what was the substance behind their fervor? What was the back story, the underlying foundation, and the overarching goal? Was there anything grounding that rhetoric?

As Leithart explains:

For the prophets, care of the poor is a matter of righteousness or justice, not mercy. Yahweh Himself maintains “justice for the poor” (Psalm 140:12), and rulers (Isaiah 10:2) and people (Ezekiel 22:29) are expected to do the same. Filled with the Spirit, the Messianic Branch will judge the poor with righteousness and act for the afflicted (Isaiah 11:4).

Protection and defense of the poor is embedded in Israel’s defining exodus story: Because Yahweh delivered His people from bondage, Israel is to be a liberating people. And this demand is imprinted on the Mosaic law. From an exhaustive survey of the Old Testament laws on wealth and poverty, David L. Baker concludes that, in comparison with other ancient Near Eastern codes, “Old Testament law is more concerned to ensure that widows and orphans are not abused, nor exploited in law courts or in financial dealings.” As Jesus said, the weighty things of Torah are justice, mercy, and truth (Matthew 23:23).

Leithart then moves ahead with the modern-day application:

That connection with the institutions and practices of Torah is fundamental to grasping what the Bible tells us about justice and poverty—fundamental, and neglected. Unless prophetic rhetoric is anchored in Torah, it floats free, gets transformed by modern statist idolatry, and comes out ready to be co-opted in support of the latest federal entitlement. When the Torah-prophet nexus is neglected or minimized, ‘justice for the poor’ tends to be reinterpreted as ‘the state will save us.’ Thus, in a quasi-creedal statement, Jim Wallis made support of Obamacare a litmus test of justice for the sick.

Israel’s prophets say nothing new but reiterate the demands of Torah. When Isaiah condemns Israelite landowners for “devouring the vineyard” and taking the “plunder of the poor” (Isaiah 3:14), for instance, he is alluding to gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Landowners are forbidden to harvest the corners of their fields, pick up dropped stalks of grain, beat olives from trees a second time, or strip the vines of all grapes. The remnant of grain, olives, and grapes is for the poor, who are permitted to harvest the corners and follow the harvesters. What Baker calls “scrumping” allows anyone to eat his fill of grain or grapes (Deuteronomy 23:24-25). Hebrew farmers are not allowed to maximize efficiency or to squeeze out the last bit of the harvest. Torah has built-in yield inefficiencies, as a gift to the poor.

So what, might we ask, is Wallis “alluding” to in his efforts to conform us to his vision of “what God requires”? Is this rhetoric based in something beyond mere rhetoric? Is his pro-poor sentiment guided by something other than mere progressive whimmery? Why food stamps, why Medicare, and why not the alternatives (including even modest reforms to the supposedly blessed status quo)?

One might assume that a man as passionate as Wallis would be willing to engage — or at least acknowledge — the political, legal and economic concerns competing with his progressive vision. But alas, as I have already detailed at length, no such efforts ever seem to emerge, leaving his growing number of “WWJC” campaigns with a generic message of “help the poor,” paired with failing policies, political pandering, and some token verses for extra Christian-y flair.

As Leithart concludes:

Obviously, Torah is designed for an agrarian society and the prophets’ tirades are directed at agrarian abuses. Still, it would be healthy for evangelicals to devote a good portion of their considerable zeal and energy to exploring creative ways to enact the justice of Torah in the twenty-first century. Welcome and biblical as it is, evangelical rhetoric of ‘justice for the poor’ will collapse into vacuity unless it is linked to political, legal, and economic institutions and practices that actually protect the poor and do justice to everyone. Worse still, evangelicals may end up giving aid and comfort to a bloated, and broke, welfare state.

Instead of doodling petty Circles of Protection, we might start by trusting and believing in something first, and then make sure that something is actually true.

Lucky for us, it’s the Truth itself.

(HT to Matthew Anderson)

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  • Remnant Culture

    Our execution of God’s will is not as simple as robbing the rich or cherry-picking our favorite warm-and-fuzzy verses.

  • Remnant Culture

    "Our execution of God’s will is not as simple as robbing the rich or cherry picking our favorite warm-and-fuzzy…

  • Joseph Sunde

    How to anchor your prophetic, social-justice-y rhetoric:

  • Remnant Culture

    How do we make sure our Biblical social-justice rhetoric is more than just rhetoric? How do we anchor it?

  • qlovejoy

    Does ur pastor push "social justice"? Why? @RemnantCulture: Torah/Social Justice: Anchoring Prophetic Rhetoric #fb

  • Common Sense Concept

    How do we make sure our Biblical social-justice rhetoric is more than just rhetoric? How do we anchor it?

  • Joseph Sunde

    "Israel’s prophets say nothing new but reiterate the demands of Torah." – @PLeithart // How do we ground our rhetoric?

  • Pingback: Phantom Needs: Projecting Poverty Where It Doesn’t Exist by Joseph Sunde « Remnant Culture