24.7.09

Humanity

They say that a society is judged by what it contributes to the welfare of the least advantaged. In the Israelites' early days, God established a social welfare system within Judaic law to take care of the 'least of these': the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger (sometimes called the foreigner or the alien). These divine laws were not just for the purpose of redistributing wealth, but to uphold the worth and dignity of every individual. To retain their humanity. I remember way back in my college days I did 'Urban Plunge' where I was dropped off on the streets of seattle with a bus ticket and a quarter for an emergency phone call, leaving me and 2 of my friends to fend for ourselves. After awhile we sorta got hungry so we sat in U-Village and pan-handled....begged. We had a little cardboard sign and everything..."Spare change?" It was so embarrassing. Even though I knew that I wasn't really homeless, I felt so judged and dis-respected. Maybe I judged myself as I unconsciously judged others so many times before. Poverty not only deprives - it humiliates and robs you of your humanity.

But in Israel, God's laws were put in place to avoid this kind of humiliation. Money was given in secret, and it was taken in secret. The Temple itself had a 'hall of secrecy' where the rich could give without knowing who took it, and the poor could help themselves know knowing who gave it. The story is told of a rabbi who would leave his wood shed unlocked so that the poor could take it without the embarrassment of having to ask (when his church complained that this was getting expensive, he responded by saying that he was saving them medical expenses, since otherwise he would be forced to sit in the cold and become ill. It was impossible, he said, for him to light a fire in his own home if he knew that the poor, in other homes, were freezing.)

A question that we have to re-ask ourselves is, Who are the 'least of these'? In Biblical times is was the fatherless, the widow, and the foreigner. Israel was a society who lived off the land: if you don't own land, you have nothing. Since the foreigner could not own property, he was unable to keep up with the way in which society worked...thus doomed to the the lower rungs of society. And because it was a patriarchal society, if you lost your father or husband, you were also nothing. Women didn't own anything. Must have sucked to be a widow or an orphan. But what does this mean for us today? Who, in modern America, are the 'least of these'? Which groups of people would find it difficult to function in our economic systems and society? I would say a few of the following: Refugees and immigrants (it's difficult to find work if you understand little English, and ever more difficult to rise to anything above minimum wage these days), single mothers, the elderly, the disabled, children who are abandoned, orphaned, or victims of abuse, and anyone else who is, for one reason or another, incapable of supporting themselves and becoming productive members of society. If God were to make a new law and a new system of social justice for the modern world, I wonder what that would look like. I'm guessing that it wouldn't look very much like our current immigration and welfare systems.

All I know is that the best way to restore dignity to a person is to empower them. "...You shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you...." (Lev. 25:35) Lift them up and equip them so that they can stand on their own. Relief (as opposed to Development) and hand-outs aren't bad; sometimes they're even necessary - but tomorrow they will be coming back for more. But I look forward to the day when they can stand on their own two feet, stop receiving, and start giving.

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