Disclaimer: The picture for this week’s blog may be a bit misleading. The blog is nothing to do with Postman Pat, and there are no videos of me impersonating him at the end. Sorry.
If you came here for a Postman Pat blog, let me direct you here;
Any way, let’s begin with this video;
The people who walk by their loved ones clearly find it very distressing, and I am sure that those who are walked by find it very painful and troubling. I wonder if I my loved ones where out on the streets would I notice them? If I was out on the streets would they notice me?
I wonder what it is like to go unnoticed by person after person, over and over, day after day. What is it like to be incessantly ignored? I wonder what it’s like to be disregarded and discounted. I wonder what it is like to be society’s after thought?
It seems that it is very tempting for us all to ignore things that are inconvenient, difficult, troubling or upsetting. Think of the dishes in the sink waiting to be washed, the unfinished university assignment, the conversation with a friend about their gambling habit or making that call to a recently widowed friend. From trivial things to essential things there often seems a temptation for humans to avoid anything that is remotely unpleasant for us. We would love for disagreeable situations to become invisible; sadly this can even extend to other human beings, it can extend to homeless people sleeping on the streets.
When people are deliberately or accidently forgotten they will always face inequality and disadvantage. When society or individuals overlook and close their eyes to another person, or group of people, it will always lead to injustice.
As a counter balance to this problem philosopher John Rawls presented a thought experiment called the “veil of ignorance”1. The idea of the thought experiment is to render obsolete those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation. As Rawls put it, “in the experiment, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”2 Participants debate from “behind the veil” what the just and right rules are for the society they are setting out to create. In the imaginary society, one might or might not be intelligent, rich, or born into a preferred class. Since one may occupy any position in the society once the veil is lifted, the device forces the parties to consider society from the perspective of all members, including the worst-off and best-off members.
Essentially from the view of Rawls a just society is one that considers the perspective of all those within it.
This is a principal that is instituted from the beginnings of the bible and the forming of the nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy there is the command ‘Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice’3 and there is the declaration that ‘cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’4 When the word “justice” is translated in these verses it has the connotations of “making a decision, rendering a judgement or presenting a case.” Therefore, whenever individuals, groups or societies are making decisions the commandment demands that people who are most powerless and most likely to be passed over are remembered and accounted for in the process.
The word for justice I am referring to is the Hebrew word “Mishpat”5. It can be found in the following verse, “Do not pervert justice or show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.”6. The principal is more than just purely “remembering or accounting for”. Pastor and author Timothy Keller explains that “It occurs in the Old Testament in various forms over 200 times. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status.”7 Mishpat is the principal of treating people without prejudice, partiality or bias.
However, Keller continues “Mishpat also means giving people their rights.”8. A modern example may be a person’s right to representation in court, or another example might be a person’s “right to life” preserved by the human rights act. Often in the Old Testament, the word Mishpat is connected to people who are most vulnerable, and are most likely to have their rights denied; this includes the poor, widows, orphans and foreigners. Today we may expanded this to include, amongst others, the mentally unwell, the physically disabled, members of minority communities and the homeless.
Mishpat, then, is the recognition and representation of all people and it is advocating for the equal treatment of everybody in society. It is a broad justice system. Keller sums it up as “giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.”*
As a Christian, it is an important principal because it was instituted by God, and it therefore shows us a great deal about his character, his ideals for human social co-operation and what God sees as justice. God is clearly concerned that people who are at risk are protected, he is determined that people are treated without bias and that they are given treatment that is equivalent to the merits of their story. It shows that God has instituted a system whereby the consequences of people’s actions are commensurate to the actions themselves. We can see that God does not forget, exclude or ignore anybody.
Furthermore, not only does it show me about who God is and what God is like, but it gives me a code of behaviour for living in the world. I am to act on behalf of the marginalised and outcast, to lend them any strength that God has given me. The example for me to follow is to treat people without prejudice and to engage myself with them. I am to defend those whose rights have been stripped away, and I am called to bring people who are forgotten into community and friendship.
Once upon a time there was a society that had rules and precepts that were made to ensure that nobody would be forgotten or overlooked. The society had commandments to remember the widows, orphans and immigrants and to treat both rich and poor equitably. I believe a society like that is lacking now, but I believe that people, with the help and strength of God can resurrect that society again.
My hope, dream and prayer is that ‘The Shalom Project’ will be a vessel through which justice is resurrected and people who are marginalised, ignored and discounted are restored to a fair and equal footing in society. I pray that the Shalom project will a place of embrace akin to finding one whom you love on the streets and being able to welcome them into a home and a family.
Thank you for reading,
God bless you this week,
* This is where an important distinction lies between mishpat and compassion (which I covered previsouly) but I will go into more detail about that in a future blog.
1 Rawls, J. 2009. A Theory of justice. Havard University Press.
3 Deuteronomy 24:17
4 Deuteronomy 27:19
6 Leviticus 19:15
7 Keller, T. 2010. Generous Justice. Hachette UK