Essays Practical Notes

Thou Shalt Not Respect the Person of the Poor

Respect of persons is wrong in the context of justice, with regard to judgement (Proverbs 24:23). When it comes to matters of justice, right and wrong, crime and punishment, the persons, the individual characteristics of the litigants are irrelevant. When a murderer is brought to trial it doesn’t (that is to say, in justice it doesn’t) make any difference whether that murderer is rich or poor, famous or unknown, smart or stupid, Korean or Icelandic, male or female, Christian or Muslim, likeable or aggravating, Deuteronomy 1:17. It’s not a situation where the rich, powerful, famous or popular can escape; nor is it proper that the poor, weak or unpopular should be favored, Exodus 23:1-3; Leviticus 19:15: Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour. It’s not a popularity contest; it’s not a beauty pageant; it’s not a quiz show; it’s a courtroom, and all that matters is guilt or innocence. Wrong is wrong, no matter who commits it.
It’s interesting that the Bible makes such clear prohibitions against favouring the poor: outside of Israel, that doesn’t seem to have ever been a temptation. Roman law, for instance, did not allow poor people to sue the rich, although the rich could sue the poor. While sympathy cannot be allowed to override right, it is very intriguing that it was only within the context of those whose lives were in some way affected by God’s grace that it would seem to be something that needs to be warned against. We see in our day that this prohibition against favouritism towards the poor needs to be trumpeted again: one of the most successful ploys you can use to get special treatment for yourself is to play the victim card. If you are a victim, the feeling seems to go, it can’t be right to punish you for anything, no matter what you’ve done. The French anthropologist Ren´┐Ż Girard has pointed out that this is a radical change from the way society used to be. In ancient times, the community would vent its wrath upon a scapegoat of some kind: a victim would be sacrificed in one way or another, and peace would be restored. But since Christ has come and the story of His unjust condemnation and subsequent resurrection from the dead (a clear vindication of His righteousness as over against the officials who condemned Him), that’s all changed. Before the victim was assumed to be unrighteous, and that wasn’t a point of dispute; now, we assume that the victim is right, and the officials are wrong. The Bible gives us a more balanced position: it upholds the absolute righteousness of everything God, the ultimate authority, does; and it shows us that human “justice” is often simply cruelty according to parliamentary procedure. But it is remarkably helpful for our understanding of the ancient and modern worlds to realize that the events of Christ’s life have had such a powerful sociological impact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *