The Prophets on Religious Practice and Social Injustice

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This post is the second of four written for students on an alternative spring break with the Farm Workers Support Committee here in South Jersey and in eastern Pennsylvania.

There have always been attempts to keep concerns over social injustices separated from religious practice. The “powers that be” have always expected the prevailing religion to support their administration of power, defend their divine right to privilege, and sanctify their programs and social structures.

Israel’s prophets rejected all such notions. For them, worship was never to be separated from God’s will for justice and compassion among the people, and it was the particular responsibility laid upon rulers and people of means to right wrongs and correct injustices.

To the privileged in the north kingdom of Israel, the prophet Amos declares for God:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV)

In the south kingdom of Judah, Isaiah prophesies:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation–
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17, NRSV)

The great Jewish teacher and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote in his book, The Prophets, that the world does not need more people who love justice as a concept or ideal but more people who cannot abide the specific injustices done to the vulnerable in society.

Religious devotion and unjust practices do not mix, and when they are mingled as though they went well together, God, the prophets warn, takes bitter offense and rejects the religion. God measures a society, not by its grand concepts and theories of justice, but by the injustices it perpetrates on its most vulnerable or simply tolerates “for the greater good” of order and prosperity.

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