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The Modernist, Western era has pursued, with considerable advantages at times, an approach to ethics through ‘rights.’ The USA added an addendum to the Constitution of ten amendments, called the ‘Bill of Rights.’ The United Nations’ charter was written in the language of certain ‘rights’. This ‘rights’ approach is not entirely wrong in ethics, but it cannot adequately ground or ensure the morality that societies need. Among its inadequacies is a tendency to see society in terms of groups, groups whose rights need to be identified and protected. This has, in turn, led to a notion of victimhood, that is, that some groups as such are victim-groups.
Alongside this trajectory in Western society has been a progression from modernist to postmodernist to tribalist perspectives and practices (as I have been arguing for the past three years). Tribalism’s understanding of ‘rights’ is strongly coloured by an assumption of victimhood. On this perspective, if society is broken up into various groups, then some groups are victors and some groups are victims.
There are victims of injustice, to be sure, and many Old Testament texts address this. Sometimes the victims are victims without being complicit in any way. Psalm 10 offers an example. It says,
Psalm 10:8-11 He sits in ambush in the villages; in hiding places he murders the innocent. His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless; 9 he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket; he lurks that he may seize the poor; he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net. 10 The helpless are crushed, sink down, and fall by his might. 11 He says in his heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
Sometimes victims are victims because they have succumbed to the allures of an evil person, in which case they are complicit in their own demise. Proverbs, for example, repeatedly warns the young man against the prostitute and adulteress who entices him to sin (cf. especially chs. 1-9). He should stay away from the evil woman, ‘from the smooth tongue of the adulteress’ (Proverbs 6.24). Both the evil woman and the young man, giving in to his desires, are at fault:
Proverbs 6:27-29 Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? 28 Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? 29 So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.
Yet Scripture does not present a class of people as victims. A particular gender or race does not, ipso facto, make one a victim. Liberation theology has tended, to one degree or another, to create a victimhood mentality in theology with regard to the poor, women, or colonies. Typical groups constituting the poor in the Old Testament—widows, orphans, and aliens—are not victim-groups. If we make such groups out to be victims, then we create a concept of ‘victimhood’ whereby such groups are, as such, righteous. We enter a world of ‘identity politics.’ We create classes based on how many groups of victimhood we are in (this is now called ‘intersectionality’). ‘Justice,’ then, becomes a matter of ruling in favour of those within groups holding victim status.
Biblical justice, on the other hand, treats the poor as vulnerable. They may be victims of injustice, but not simply because of their belonging to a certain group. Instead of a protected status, they need protection against those who would exploit their circumstances. Instead of continuous handouts offered to a group because of its status of victimhood, they are to be given opportunities (such as to glean at the edges of fields) and advocates to help the vulnerable to receive justice despite the power of the strong. They are not righteous because they are poor, but the righteous will plead the cause of the poor. Typical of Biblical justice for the poor, we read, ‘Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them’ (Proverbs 22.22-23). We read, ‘Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause’ (Isaiah 1.16-17). Biblical justice is not just defensive; it is active in the cause of the vulnerable. But it is not about the ‘rights’ of certain groups who hold a righteous status because they are granted victimhood status by the reigning tribe.
The reason for this difference is that Scripture consistently sees individuals as sinful. A Biblical perspective can see women as sinful just as much as men or the poor just as much as the wealthy. In the latter case, it is possible that wealth has been gained through sinful activity, and it is possible to use wealth sinfully. However, to the consternation of some, being wealthy does not in itself make one sinful any more than being poor makes one righteous. The sinfulness of every individual requires a broader approach to social ethics than a focus on groups and their rights. With regard to groups, however, the Biblical approach to justice is in regard to vulnerability, not victimhood status giving people special status. A ‘rights’ approach has called for ‘equal rights’ for men and women, but a ‘vulnerability’ approach protects women as the ‘weaker vessel’ (1 Peter 3.7). A ‘rights’ approach has claimed that ‘God is on the side of the poor,’ meaning not that God is concerned for the vulnerability and exploitation of the poor but that the other group, the wealthy, are sinful. Scripture presents various views about the wealthy, from being blessed by God to being in danger of not entering the Kingdom of God. This difference can be accounted for when we understand that one group is not sinful and another group righteous but sin and righteousness have to do with the hearts and actions of individuals.