I think we’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing injustices when they occur between individuals. Some injustices are built into the fabric of the way we operate, though. And I think we have this tendency to ignore what the bible has to say about these. We’ve become a culture so obsessed by individualism we want to deny the fact that an entire society can sin.
The current political climate is feeding into this.
And I was contemplating a story from the bible, I got this insight into what God thinks of our injustices built into the system.
Judah is one of the people who the 12 tribes of Israel were named after. He seems to have been the “brains” of the operation in the whole selling Joseph into slavery affair. Later, he has sons. One marries a women named Tamar. Then the son died.
A systemic injustice within their society was that a widow would not have many options, freedom, or possibilities. It had become traditional for the husbands family to care for the widow, often by remarrying her to younger siblings. Judah promises to do just this. He tells Tamar that he will have her marry his younger son, once the son is old enough. But he doesn’t actually follow through on this plan.
Time passes. Tamar masquerades as a temple prostitute and sleeps with her ex father in law. The fact that Judah doesn’t recognize her suggests one of several things. None of them are pretty.
It could suggest that so much time has passed since Judah made the promise that he forgot what she looked like. It could mean that having to fend for herself took such a toll on her that she didn’t look anything like she used to. It could mean that Judah didn’t give temple prostitutes a second glance, didn’t think of them as real human beings worthy of looking closely.
Or maybe he was just a dummy.
Whatever the reason, Judah didn’t recognize her. And she talks Judah into leaving the symbols of his office, power, and prestige with her as an I.O.U. The agreed payment was a goat, and Judah didn’t seem to have a goat in his wallet. (Seems to me that a goat in the room while the transaction was done might have been a little creepy, anyway.)
Tamar reappears, months later. Pregnant, and baring Judah’s sceptre. It’s only then that all the pieces fall into places and Judah realizes what he’s done.
The thing about systemic injustice is that we can rationalize that we don’t have a meaningful part in it. Judah’s failure to honor his word with Tamar, to do the honorable thing and protect his daughter-in-law, this might have felt like a small thing.
But this failure could easily have lead her to no alternatives except becoming a temple prostitute. If Tamar had never found Judah, and he found out about what Tamar had become, he might rationalize, “Well, it’s not really my fault. It’s not like I’m one of her customers.”
The bible does not tell us if Judah bought the services of any other temple prostitutes. But he does seem quite non-challant about the whole thing. I’d suggest it’s likely that temple prostitutes were a part of his life.
It’s easy for us to avoid connecting the dots, sometimes. We can think, “Well, I’m not responsible for the fact that those women are prostitutes, because I’m just their customer. I didn’t force them into the situation that lead them to become prostitutes in the first place. In fact, I’m helping them. If I didn’t hire them they’d starve.”
And then we look at the situations we did create. We look at the Tamars in our own lives. And we say, “O.K. so I made some decisions that lead her down that path. But I’m not supporting her decisions on a day-to-day basis.”
Further when we’re removed from the people who suffer these injustices, we can dehumanize the victims, we can rationalize that things aren’t that bad, that maybe they deserve it.
Judah’s circumstances confronted him with the brute fact that he was both the initiator of this injustice and the enabler of it on a day-to-day basis. It brought it close to home, and forced him to recognize that he’d once known and cared for the victim.
We can always blame the other perpetrator of injustice. But the truth is that both are to blame. We can always try to dehumanize the victim. But the truth is that they are a child of God.
The hard part of all this, I think, comes in wrestling with it in our own lives. Owning that having either role in systemic injustice is wrong is tough and uncomfortable. But I think it’s what we are called to do.