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Social Justice: A Holy Struggle

This is a holy struggle, but it is not the one that the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells would have you believe in. Our enemy is not the poor, but poverty; it is not homosexuality, but homophobia.
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I spent a lot of time on the Internet as a teenager. I also, as I always have, placed myself firmly on the left of the political spectrum. And, of course, I had known that I was gay for years. As I argued with socialists, liberals, conservatives, libertarians and everyone in-between, I frequently encountered befuddlement about how I could, on the one hand, identify firmly as a liberal and, on the other hand, strongly espouse a belief in God.

Nonetheless, my reaction to those who consider themselves religious and conservative has often been a similar reaction of shock and, to a degree, confusion. In the United States, religious observance tends to go hand-in-hand with conservatism, or at least Republican voting. But these tendencies -- to oppress LGBT people and immigrants, to fight against a social safety net, to advocate policy which benefits the already-rich -- seemed so diametrically opposed to what I knew of faith and religion. It is only with enormous difficulty that one can pass over the passages that urge social and economic justice, which are interwoven into the very essence of Abrahamic faith.

The Christian right would have us believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because they tolerated homosexuality, and that beneficence and charity are a matter to be relegated to individual conscience, not an issue of public morality. This is quite plainly not the case. It is written, "Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy" (Ezekiel 16:49). In Ezekiel, it is not individuals being condemned for failing to help the needy -- it is a community that is condemned. We all have an obligation to help those are in need, not merely on an individual basis, but as a matter of policy.

Indeed, the prophetic tradition emphasizes the importance of policy, and specifically taxation, as a tool that can be used either for righteousness or moral wrong: "Assuredly, because you impose a tax on the poor, and exact from him a levy of grain, you have built houses hewn of stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted delightful vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I have noted how many are your crimes, and how countless your sins -- You enemies of righteousness ... you who subvert in the gate the cause of the needy!" (Amos 5:11-12).

Some might read these passages and conclude that it would be enough merely to refrain from doing harm; that to simply not engage with politics or social justice is acceptable. They would be wrong. As people of faith, we are commanded, "צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף" -- "Justice, justice, shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20). We are further told, "Do not stand idly by as your neighbor bleeds" (Leviticus 19:16). These passages do not merely enjoin us from committing wrongs, but in fact urge us to actively work toward a better society.

The question remains: Who are the "needy," on whose behalf we are called upon to struggle? From these passages, we can already tell that we are obliged to "support the poor," and not "impose a tax" upon those who struggle to make ends meet. But we must also work for others, as well: our neighbors who suffer ("bleed"; Lev. 19:16), those ostracized as "other" (Lev. 19:33-34), and the elderly (Lev. 19:32), are only some.

This is a holy struggle, but it is not the one that the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells would have you believe in. Our enemy is not the poor, but poverty; it is not homosexuality, but homophobia. We are called upon to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. It is never right to stay silent as evil is perpetrated, but today the assault on our social safety net, the torment of our children, and the attack on sexual minorities and immigrants has reached such a point that it is unconscionable to say silent.