In a 1999 address to the annual meeting of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, the late Ruth Ann Foster, a professor at Truett Seminary in Waco, called the areas of social justice and righteousness “dangerous waters.”
The danger, she said, quoting Jon L. Berquist, lies in the “mind and the spirit. For the mind, the danger comes in our finitude, our inability to think beyond our general sphere of reference; for the spirit, the danger is in the temptation to build our own theoretical ‘Babel,’ rationalizing a comfortable way to deal with the uncomfortable.”
Foster explained the waters of justice and righteousness “are dangerous to those of us who have promised to follow Christ and to live in covenant with his people. God’s justice is dangerous because:
• to ignore it reveals we are not truly his;
• to misunderstand it can lead to depersonalizing and compartmentalizing those made in God's image;
• to rationalize away its demands hardens our hearts to God;
• to seek to live out the demands of God's justice is risky and goes against the grain of normal behavior and cultural norms;
• to pray for God's justice calls us into involvement with those who need justice.”
Reading her address, we quickly get the sense that those in danger aren’t the oppressed, the weak, the widow or the orphan, but those who follow Christ who answer—or don’t—the call to serve. In fact, one of the most dangerous of her above points is actually praying for God’s justice: Because it just may lead to an all-consuming passion for helping others in God’s love. The danger for us lies in our status as followers of the Lord; we are called to a higher standard and must live up to it.
Are we willing to risk the danger of helping the oppressed in a world that needs to know about God’s love? Compare it to rescuing a drowning victim. If you don’t, you risk living with your decision the rest of your life. If you do, you may risk your own life.
Responding to the oppressed is a matter of courage. As Ruth Ann Foster said: “Are we courageous disciples? Are we brave enough to be God’s light and justice to those in the shadows? If we are to know God fully through his Son Jesus Christ, we must live justly. If the world is to know Jesus Christ through us, we must risk entering into the dangerous waters of God’s justice and righteousness.”
Often, the answer to those challenges are found from within. They must come from us. God’s people are to be people of integrity, acting with fairness and generosity and confronting injustice when people are oppressed.
Nehemiah responds to oppression
The prophet Nehemiah found himself in a moral pickle that challenged his leadership and demanded the highest ethical response from him. Unlike last week’s lesson, the challenge didn’t come from outside sources, it came from within the Jewish community.
In chapter 4, Nehemiah and the other rebuilders of the Jerusalem wall fought criticism from two regional governors: Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah, the Ammonite governor. Nehemiah dealt with the criticism in a godly fashion—he let God deal with it—asking God to bring justice to the critics. Later in the chapter, he had the wall-builders prepare for an attack by working armed and guarding the work when they weren’t building. Nehemiah’s get-it-done spirit proved he was worthy of our Bible study unit title, “Getting Things Done.”
While Jerusalem’s Jewish community has pitched in almost unanimously into the rebuilding of the walls, chapter 5 spotlights an ugly undercurrent from within that community.
In verses 1-5, Nehemiah is alerted by “a great outcry” (v. 1) from people who are being oppressed from within their own ranks by people of means. Because the events of Nehemiah’s time take place during a famine, the people are starving. Forced to mortgage their homes and fields and incur debt just to feed their families, the poorer Jews even are borrowing money against their mortgages to pay their government taxes to Persia. Many families have even sold their sons and daughters into slavery as payment to the wealthy. Those who bring these charges are, in their own words, “helpless” (v. 5).
Writer’s note: If you are already drawing comparisons to the current worldwide economic crisis, we’re on the same page. I’ve included a couple of timely questions for discussion in the “Questions to Explore” section below.
It is an abuse of the poor that causes Nehemiah to respond angrily. But his response, we see in verses 6-13, forms a great how-to when anyone is forced to confront social injustice:
• It’s OK to be angry when you are confronted by social injustice. Social injustice is an affront to God, and it usually means you are being confronted by sin. Nehemiah writes that he is “very angry” when given the news from the poor. Like many of us, his anger came from disappointment of seeing the people treat each other badly and because this sort of injustice was forbidden by the Old Testament law. Exodus 22:25 specifically prohibits the charging of interest between Jews—“If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him, you shall not charge him interest.” See Exodus 22:25-27; Leviticus 25:35-38; and Deuteronomy 15:1-18; 24:10-13 for more detail on these commands, and read Exodus 21:8 about prohibitions against slave sales.
• Look into your own heart. After his initial anger, Nehemiah says he “consulted with myself” (v. 7) before taking action. Whether he needed to take time to calm himself before taking steps or needed to work out his thoughts before sharing with others, his personal time was a necessary part of his response.
• Be open and honest about the injustice. Truth is a mighty tool. Nehemiah uses it in an open forum with the wealthy—the nobles and rulers—naming the particular sin so there is no misunderstanding: “You are exacting usury, each from his brother!” he says emphatically.
• Show courage. Along with the truth, Nehemiah is dishing out a fair amount of personal courage here. He is a addressing a concern leveled against the very nobles and rulers he needs to help finish the wall. In a real sense, he is risking the task God called him to complete for the sake of completing it with integrity.
• Set a personal example of integrity. In verse 10, and again in verses 14-19, Nehemiah shows his personal integrity by telling the gathered wealthy that he and his brothers are also lending money to the poor, but without the usury. In the latter verses, he records his integrity by refusing to partake in graft from the taxes the people paid to the government and collected by him. Without this personal example, doubtless the wealthy would not have given him an ear.
• Give a plan of response. In addition to telling the assembled wealthy what is wrong with their actions, Nehemiah very clearly shows them what is right: “Please leave off this usury” (v. 10) and “Please give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses … .” (v. 11)
• Demand accountability. In verse 12, we read that the oppressors agree to Nehemiah’s plan, and Nehemiah “called the priests and took an oath.” More than a legal, binding agreement, this oath was a promise before God to return to observing his law. It’s a recognition that, while we may be accountable to others, God is the ultimate author of accountability. The time is also a cause for worship, as those who have agreed to return to God’s ways praise God.
While these steps might not be a full list of overcoming oppression with integrity, they are a good model from a man who showed a lot of personal integrity and courage, someone who held the spirit of justice found in Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, And righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
Questions to explore
• What does God think when powerless people suffer injustice and God’s people do nothing?
• The financial concerns of Nehemiah’s time are startlingly like those being experienced in world markets today? Draw parallels between the borrowing and lending of Nehemiah’s time and current issues.
• The Jews were “forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves.” Is there a modern parallel to oppression of today’s poor? What can Christians do to halt it?
• Oppression exists in many forms. Ask the class to name several (the list may include poverty, lack of education, racism, hunger, class-ism).
• Ask the class to visualize your local community. Where is oppression evident?
• What courageous act could you take to stop that oppression?