Monday, September 14, 2015

Widows and Orphans Today

There’s a lot talked about “widows and orphans” in the Bible, as if they represented the poorest of the poor.   But we have examples of widows that did pretty well, like Naomi of the book of Ruth (she did well eventually) and Lydia who sold purple cloth, which means she was a salesperson to the wealthiest of her society, and who was well off enough to care for the rest of the widows of her community.  So widows weren’t always impoverished, and they weren’t always desperate for the charity of God’s people.  So what’s the big deal?

We see a hint as to why right near the beginning of the law.  “Do not afflict a widow or an orphan.  If you do afflict them at all, they will cry out to me and I will hear their cry and I will make your wives widows and your children orphans.”  (Ex. 22:22-23)  Okay, so, don’t mess with widows or orphans because God will kill you if you do.  That’s what it says.

But why is God stepping in himself?  Why is God dispensing justice?  Both before and after this passage, God is telling the people how to dispense justice themselves.  So why is he taking on this task himself?  Because widows and orphans had no possibility of getting justice. 

In a completely patriarchal society, women and children needed an adult male to represent them, because they couldn’t represent themselves.  They were often taken advantage of by creditors and swindlers because they had no legal recourse.  This is why the widow in Jesus’ parable of Luke 18 was knocking at the judge’s door—she wasn’t allowed to go in and see him.  He had to step out and give her an audience outside.

And for all the talk about widows and orphans in the Bible, they were just representative of a larger group that could not get justice.  In Exodus 22 just before the passage about widows he speaks about immigrants, who also have no means of obtaining legal justice.  And after them, those who were in debt, because the law is on the side of the creditor.  God, and God only, represents the rights of these groups, because no one else does.

I hate to tell you this, but in our low-patriarchal society, widows and orphans are doing pretty well.  Women have as much right as men to be represented in court, and they do so as well as men do.  Children have special rights and are occasionally over-represented in court.  This is because society’s attitude toward women and children changed in the last hundred or so years.  Children are now seen as precious instead of a nuscience, and women are seen as equal human beings as men (by the law, anyway).

Are we now in a society that offers equal and fair representation to everyone?

Um. No.

So who are our “widows and orphans” in Western society, if they aren’t literally widows and orphans?

First of all, immigrants are still not represented by the courts.  They are still seen as the “strangers” and the unwelcome foreigner who has no legal rights and so can be abused by our system.

Also, black men, as more and more statistics have shown, are not given full legal protection by the law.   This doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to represent themselves, but that they are often treated as only a percentage of a citizen, not given their full legal rights.

The other group that is not fairly represented by our society are the poorest of the poor, especially the homeless.  The homeless are seen as guilty by a police officer before they are ever approached.  If they are picked up by the police on serious charges, they are likely to be sentenced without ever facing trial.  Why is this?

A friend of mine on the street a number of years ago was accused of molesting a little girl.  I knew this man and he and his friends all agreed that he would never do such a thing.  The story came out that he had been trying to give the girl a gift, and in receiving the gift she fell in the mud.  He took her over to the hose to wash her off, and in doing this the six year old girl stripped off her dress and then went over to her mother.  Her mother saw the situation and she saw molestation as a motive, as if he had stripped the girl.  He had been inebriated, and could barely remember the incident, and his friend, who saw the incident was on the street and so difficult to find.  My friend’s legal “representative” told him to accept a guilty plea or else the sentencing would be harsher.  As it was, he was sentenced to seven years in prison and a harsh lecture from the judge who clearly believed a story that simply wasn’t true.

Multiply this story in different situations by hundreds, thousands. 

When a group is rejected by society, it is assumed that they would be involved in criminal activities.  Recently, I heard a man say that the homeless were “sociopaths” and deserved to be locked up.  This is the attitude of many, perhaps most people within the legal community as well—police, lawyers and judges.

What are we to do?  What are we told to do in Scripture for widows and orphans?

1.       We are not to harm them
God says that he is the judge for those who have no representation, he represents them himself.  If we do anything that harms those who have no legal recourse—evict a desperately poor family, charge unfair fines to those who can’t afford it, insult a person who cannot stand up for themselves—then we will be judged by the God of the universe who is on the side of the poor.

2.       We are to give them justice
Just as we have been working to begin to provide justice for the black man through protests and legal action, so we need to work to provide justice for the immigrant and the poorest of the poor who have no legal recourse.  We need to find those who will fairly represent those who have no means to be fairly represented.

3.       We are to care for them

 James said that true religion is to care for the widows and the orphans.  Even so, we are to meet the needs of the immigrants and the desperately poor.  The Scriptures understand that those without legal recourse are those who have extra stresses on their lives, extra unfair costs in their lives that others need not pay.  We need to step in and help them, in whatever way we can.  This does not mean going to the park and feeding the poor.  Rather, true religion is meeting the poor, getting to know them and asking them what their needs are, instead of assuming we know what they need.  If we give without asking, we are simply continuing the process of not allowing them the opportunity to be represented.

Art by Kathe Kollwitz, who did these charchol sketch drawings in the 1920s of the German sufferers of WWI. 

1 comment:

  1. Good words! Thanks Steve. Keep up the good work!