this codex kills fascists?
October 5, 2013 5:51 PM   Subscribe

What are some Biblical characters (OT or NT) whose deeds might be considered inspirational by a contemporary, secular, social justice-oriented audience?
posted by threeants to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Is it too obvious to say Jesus? (Feeding the hungry, sharing meals with the outcasts of society, reprimanding the sinful, hypocritical rich and powerful.)
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The Gospel of Matthew, 5:3-10.
posted by cairdeas at 6:04 PM on October 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

i am not a christian, but my favorite verse in the new testament is luke 10:7, where jesus says "the laborer is worthy of his hire" and in newer versions, "the worker is worthy of his wages."
posted by bruce at 6:19 PM on October 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

The Old Testament prophets had a LOT to say about social justice issues, and how it grieved the heart of God.

Isaiah spoke out against this social injustice in Israel: "[Israel] was once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her-- but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them. Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel, declares: "Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes and avenge myself on my enemies. I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. I will restore your leaders as in days of old, your rulers as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City" (Isaiah 1:21-24).

Tradition has it that Isaiah was martyred by being sawed in half for being so outspoken, perhaps by King Manasseh.

Jeremiah was also outspoken against Israel during its darker days, and it in large part was due to neglect of social justice issues: "This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place." (Jeremiah 22:3). Also, "Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, 'I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.' So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? "Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the LORD. "But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion." Therefore this is what the LORD says about Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah: "They will not mourn for him: 'Alas, my brother! Alas, my sister!' They will not mourn for him: 'Alas, my master! Alas, his splendor!'" (Jereremiah 22:13-18).

Israel, of course, was taken captive for their lack of attention to social justice issues, and Jeremiah desperately tried to turn things around to avoid the judgement of the impending captivity, but to no avail. The book of Lamentations is all about his grief of that reality. He was persecuted and threatened with death by his own people for being so outspoken about these issues (Jeremiah 38).

These are just a couple of examples, but often the reasons that are given for the prophetic activity in the OT have to do with neglect of social justice issues, not just sin in general, and usually the cost for speaking out was very high.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:20 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another biblical figure who may be a bit obvious: the Good Samaritan.
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”

So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”

And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’

So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”

And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Gospel of Luke 10:25-37
It's worth noting here that the Levites were one of the highest classes of people in Israelite society, and the priests were the highest class of Levites. By contrast, there was enmity between the Israelites and the people of Samaria. Samaritans were considered outcasts, heathens.
posted by cairdeas at 6:24 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Daughters of Zelophehad ensured the inheritance of women in families without sons
Rachav, a non-Israelite prostitute/brothel owner (it's unclear), saves the lives of the two spies Joshua sent to scout out Jericho.
posted by atomicstone at 6:39 PM on October 5, 2013

In addition to cairdeas's mention of the Beatitudes, there are verses in Micah, Joel and Isaiah that mention swords into ploughshares that get attention in peace churches. There used to be a Mennonite website with peace-focused Bible studies, but I can't find it right now.
posted by hoyland at 6:45 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the narrative of Job, Job was considered to be a righteous man, which the Devil challenges. There are a number of things throughout the book that are designed to support this notion, but one of the main things is his concern about social justice issues despite his great wealth:

Job 31:16-20, 22, “If I have withheld anything that the poor desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or have eaten my morsel alone, and the fatherless has not eaten of it (for from my youth the fatherless grew up with me as with a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow), if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or the needy without covering ... then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket."

Also, Job 29:11-13, 16-17: "Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them. The one who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. ... I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth."

I'm not sure how inspirational this is to a secular audience, in light of where Job's travails take him. But by themselves, they argue for the virtue of a high priority for the plight of those who have far less.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:47 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

It could be argued that Noah was the ultimate environmentalist.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:49 PM on October 5, 2013

Jesus taking his whip to the usurious moneylenders in the temple might be inspirational if you're looking for something a little more aggressive.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:01 PM on October 5, 2013

He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out upon the surface of the earth....who makes destruction flash forth against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

(They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth.)

Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.

(Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.)

Seek good, and not evil, that you may live...

Amos 5.8-14
posted by R. Schlock at 7:03 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

In fact, I think the whole of Amos 5 is one of the most fearsome and penetrating theories of social justice ever articulated. Don't get caught up on the God language, or what seem like irrational predictions of supernatural destruction. The text is an absolute repudiation of the perennial idea that we are autonomous and self-sustaining agents. Evil is real. It is not an external force, but an attribute of human action. The universe was built with grandeur and beauty and qualities of moral goodness (justice and righteousness) undergird that construction. Human actions, no matter their seeming grandeur, must be aligned with that cosmic order. A beautiful human act, if it rests on a foundation of exploitation or theft, will necessarily cause a shift in the cosmos: disaster will ensue in order to bring the universe back into alignment.

It's a huge, bold claim that attacks the very fundament of we know as the Cartesian self. It's an articulation of a theory of subjectivity that is radically dependent on super-human structures of order. It sets ethics at the core of cosmology. Even if it's wrong in empirical terms, the value of Amos 5 for asserting the reality of human limitation and the necessity of interdependent, equitable human community to sustain life are as relevant today as they were in the 8th century BCE. Maybe more so.

There's a reason the sternest expression of an American ethic of social justice used Amos 5:24 as a signature line.
posted by R. Schlock at 7:29 PM on October 5, 2013 [15 favorites]

Queen Tryphaena shelters Thecla overnight to preserve her chastity after Paul leaves her in an alley to be raped. The townswomen of Iconium are also pretty bad-ass in their demands for justice for Thecla. [Text]
posted by DarlingBri at 9:23 PM on October 5, 2013

moses and his classic "let my people go" to pharaoh who was holding the jews as slaves for 400 years. this is a classic passage for abolitionists. sadly, slavery is alive and well today with all the human trafficking but many are becoming abolitionists again.

isaiah 58 talks about what true fasting is. it is all about helping the poor & oppressed rather than not eating food.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

the OT concept of shalom is about a lot more than just peace. really, it's about wholeness in many (all?) areas of life. it really is beautiful because who doesn't want that?

boaz took care of the foreigner (immigrant) ruth by allowing her to glean in the fields to earn money and then fell in love with her and married her. see the book of ruth.

part of micah 6:8 is engraved in really large type on some building in NYC. i can't remember which building but it is so cool to see as i whisk by in a taxi/bus when there.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.

jesus quoting isaiah 61 in luke 4:18-19. really, this was jesus' mandate.

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[a]

here's some brief info on pacifism and how it jives with the bible from the mennonites peace & justice network

luke 6:28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

luke 6:35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.

matthew 5:43-44 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

voluntary communal living (a common purse) happened in the early church in acts 2: 44-45 and acts 4:32

44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
posted by wildflower at 1:23 AM on October 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

one more: jesus not condemning (and stoning!) the woman caught in adultery in john 8

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

social justice is just a huge part of the entire bible.
posted by wildflower at 1:33 AM on October 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in Christian Anarchism. This page does a good job of laying out the Biblical inspirations (mainly Jesus' Sermon on the Mount).
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:59 AM on October 6, 2013

Oh I was going to suggest Amos also and am happy to see that R. Schlock has that well covered. The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery has MLK's quote from Amos engraved in marble, with water running over it. Very beautiful.
posted by torticat at 2:21 PM on October 6, 2013

It is interesting, though, the question asked for characters whose deeds might be inspirational, and though there are many, many social justice-oriented quotes from the Bible, I think it is harder to find characters working for social justice, at least in a way we see it today.

I alway thought it was cool that it was encoded in Hebrew law that crop owners were not to reap to the edges and corners of their fields, but to leave that for the poor to glean. This is seen in practice in the book of Ruth, when Ruth and her MIL glean in the fields of the wealthy Boaz. (But there is more weird cultural stuff in that story that wouldn't be as relatable to a contemporary audience.)
posted by torticat at 2:35 PM on October 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

It is interesting, though, the question asked for characters whose deeds might be inspirational, and though there are many, many social justice-oriented quotes from the Bible, I think it is harder to find characters working for social justice, at least in a way we see it today.

Mary Magdalene offers examples of actions rather than proclamations:

When Jesus is travelling around preaching the Gospel, Mary travels with him, supporting him financially out of her own pocket. [Luke 8:1-3]. To me this is the best kind of (non-anonymous) charity. When Jesus is crucified, she stays throughout and bears witness to his suffering [John 19:25]; of the Apostles, only John was there. In a social justice context, we have an obligation to bear witness to atrocities and not look away because it's easier, or hide away safely in Jerusalem even if our own lives are at risk.

I do agree direct action examples are a bit thin on the ground, though.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:19 PM on October 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

The book of Daniel talks about people refusing to compromise their moral beliefs (and ethnic heritage), even under the threat of death.

The book of James, while an epistle and not a narrative, is all about showing one's faith through acts of charity and love (like feeding and clothing the poor), rather than with empty words.

Esther can be interpreted in a social justice context, because there's a part about not remaining silent when you see injustice/violence taking place, just because you're in safety and don't think it will affect you. Esther outs herself as a Jew, at great personal risk, because she realizes the potential to effect change inherent in her privileged position.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:38 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

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