Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wednesday in Passion Week

Leviticus 19:1, 2, 11-19 / John 10:22-38

Respect not the person of the poor ...

How is one to restore right order after having lived for years, generations, even time immemorial within a system that unjustly shuts some of its members out from the goods meant to be enjoyed by all? This is a question which has animated modern thinkers especially, if not uniquely, and a thought which runs from Marx through the national, racial, and gender liberationist movements of the twentieth century, is that inequity cannot be set right merely by making a decision to treat everyone fairly, to give to each the same treatment without respecting class, national origin, race, or gender. But why not? Why not simply treat all with equal respect and give all equal opportunities?

According to liberationist criticism, the very equality we think we are upholding turns out to be itself infected and twisted to bias against the oppressed and in favor of those in power. On this view, the supposedly "neutral" stance turns out to be, even against the sincere good wishes of the empowered, to be yet another tool of oppression. Indeed, it can be even worse in its own way from direct oppression since, masked by words and intentions of fairness, to blinds both the oppressor and the oppressed to the deeper reasons that inequality remains and shows no signs of going away. It turns out that real equality, real fairness, will be experienced by all, and especially by those privileged by the social order, as decidedly unfair, a preferential treatment of the oppressed without regard to what the privileged insist to be their common, shared, equal claims to fair treatment.

To the extent that this view has some claim to be right, the words of the Lord in Leviticus come as something of a surprise. Trained as we are to see the Lord God as decidedly on the side of the poor and downtrodden, not a neutral arbiter but a partisan on behalf of Israel, and of Israel's poor, we find this in the midst of his Law: Respect not the person of the poor. To be sure, this is followed by the balancing claim, nor honor the countenance of the mighty. Even so, we wonder of the first half is not mistaken. Did God perhaps mean to say Respect the person of the poor, and somehow by divine forgetfulness or scribal error, the phrase became negated? Ought we not to take the side of the poor, to show him preference precisely because he is poor, rather than, against all obvious indications, treat him just as we would any other man?

The truth which God communicates here, I believe, rests in the very real worry that, in identifying ourselves with the cause of the poor, in fighting against others on their behalf, we have a real risk of imagining that we are not among the oppressors. That is, contrary to the liberationist view, it is precisely in our self-righteous advocacy and partisanship on behalf of the poor that we are most likely to obscure from our vision our own complicity in their oppression. Treat the poor man fairly and impartially, and we might discover, much to our discomfort, that a fair and impartial judgment ought to fall on our own heads. Treat him as though he falls under our special care, and any hope of seeing that it is not some villainous "other," but rather our own unrighteousness that has betrayed and abused him.

This is why it belongs to God, and God alone, to be, in the manner of a paradox, impartially partial and unequally equitable on behalf of the poor. Only God is free from the web of injustice in which we snare our neighbor, and only his judgment of another's wickedness stands without reflexive blame. It remains for us to stand up for the right, not of this man or another man, but for the right wherever it should fall. It remains for us to defend our neighbor's blood when it is shed, even when we have the bloody knife in our own hand. It remains for us to serve the poor precisely in our impartiality, and in that fairness, to expose not only our own wickedness against him, but also our own claim on God's mercy.

Seek not revenge, nor be mindful of the injury of thy fellow countryman. Thou shalt love thy friend as thyself.

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