The gospel spiritual, “Go Down, Moses” begins, “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go. Oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go.”
That spiritual and countless others testify to the conviction that our God hears the cry of the poor and the oppressed and does not sit idly by.
We are told in Exodus 3:7-10 that God witnesses the affliction of the slaves, hears their cries, knows well what they suffer and comes down to rescue and to lead them. But notice this: God chooses to work in and through human beings to accomplish this purpose of liberation. God chooses to rescue the slaves from their suffering by sending Moses to Pharaoh, and then sending Moses, Miriam and Aaron ahead of his people into the wilderness. God chooses to end their oppression by removing them from Egypt and by entering into a covenant with them.
The story of the exodus and its surrounding events becomes the lens through which all of God’s actions are seen. While God is known in many ways, most fundamentally God is the great liberator. By making a covenant with those released from bondage, God reveals to them their own capacity for becoming like him. He acts with loving faithfulness, justice and mercy, and now expects them to create a community to do the same. The Ten Commandments spell out what that looks like and how to live in right relationships: in three commands about loving God and seven commands about loving your neighbor.
The prophets of the Old Testament can be our guides in this regard. They do not waver in identifying systems that are sinful and in spelling out the consequences of misplaced loyalties (for example, Isaiah 10:1-3; Jeremiah 7:5-7; Amos 4:1-3).
They criticize shady business practices that hurt the poor the most, empty worship that does not transform the worshippers and attitudes that neglect basic human dignity. They help us understand that a tangible sign of being in right relationship with God is living in a way that gives priority to building a society that is loving and just.
God used the prophets to help identify evil with the hope of conversion rather than mere retribution. We sometimes oversimplify and equate justice with punishment that fits the crime. But God shows us a better way that can best be summarized by the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. … love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:38-39, 44).
What has this to do with justice? Everything. Jesus echoes the message of the prophets of Israel who knew that justice (mishpat in Hebrew) had to be accompanied by righteousness (tsedekah in Hebrew). Righteousness might be understood as the right relationship we have been talking about. It is also a way of speaking about the moral will to do what is good — the just deed — that will build a community of right relationships.
Understood in this way, justice becomes a calling card of God’s people and a standard by which we evaluate our priorities. Our communities of faith become training grounds for transformation so that our attitudes and actions reflect God’s justice and righteousness. We learn to identify those who are neglected or oppressed, and to embrace the moral imperative to address the situations and systems that inflict harm. We try to resolve differences creatively and in ways that honor human dignity.
Far from tolerating evil, God’s justice, acting through God’s people, can transform it. This is a tall order. Our God is up to the challenge; with God’s grace, so are we.
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith.
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