By Troy Jackson
God hears the cries of those suffering from injustice. Do we? The Bible’s story of Ruth challenges us to look with new eyes at the plight of those still seeking justice today.
When many think of justice, they reflect on the inequities that plague our communities and our world. Others consider the hundreds of millions of people who have little access to clean water. Some mourn for those caught in the horrors of human trafficking, and some are angered when they know people are mistreated and wounded because of race or gender or ethnicity or even geography.
As followers of Jesus, however, we are always on solid ground when we put the challenges and crises of the day in conversation with Scripture. I learned this lesson early on in my cinder block-framed, Sunday school classrooms at Bethany Christian Church in Anderson, Indiana. I am forever grateful for those at Bethany who pushed me to ground my faith in Scripture.
But I have heard people argue too many times that the Bible does not focus on justice. Few sermons emphasize justice. As God has grown my heart for this topic, however, I’m noticing that God’s concern for justice, and the consequences of injustice, are found throughout the Bible. We just need to see the stories with new eyes.
As an example, let’s consider the Old Testament book of Ruth. Allow me to share a brief synopsis of the typical way the story is told.
The book begins with Naomi and her husband fleeing Bethlehem due to famine and lack of resources. They depart a place of scarcity and head to Moab on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, where they find provision and where Naomi’s sons marry two Moabite women.
Tragically, over the next several years, Naomi’s husband and two sons die, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law economically and physically vulnerable. The social safety net for women in those days came from one’s sons and the men in their lives. All were gone. When Naomi hears that the famine has passed, she decides to return to Bethlehem and leave her daughters-in-law behind so they can remarry. But Ruth demurs and insists on returning with Ruth: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16*).
When Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem, they need to find a source of provision and are blessed to return during the barley harvest. In the book of Leviticus, God had made provision for vulnerable immigrants, orphans, and widows through a practice called gleaning. The people harvesting the crops were not to go through the field a second time and were not to pick the crops all the way to the edge. The crops left behind were available to those in need, and such folks could pick these leftover crops for themselves and their families.
So Ruth goes out to glean and ends up in Boaz’s field. Over the course of the next few chapters, and through a series of interventions, Boaz protects, provides, rescues, and redeems Ruth, and by extension, saves Naomi. Boaz and Ruth marry, and an immigrant woman from Moab becomes the great-grandmother of King David.
The Spirit of Boaz
Let me be clear: in the American church, we do well when we embody the spirit of Boaz. We respond to pain and suffering and hurt and vulnerability by helping one person at a time.
Perhaps you have heard the story of “The Star Thrower,” inspired by Loren Eiseley. The story tells of an old man walking on the beach at dawn who sees a young boy picking up starfish that washed ashore the night before and hurling them back into the ocean. The old man asks why the boy is doing this, since there are so many starfish and he cannot possibly make a difference against such odds. The boy reaches down, picks up another starfish, and hurls it into the sea and says, “It made a difference to that one.”
The story is a great reminder that acts of compassion and mercy are vital, as each person matters to God. No act is too small for God and God’s people.
But it seems to me there is a fallacy in the way the “Star Thrower” story is used. The fable implies the despair and hardship facing human beings happens by accident and can be addressed with a few short seconds of activity. It places the rescuer in the place of a savior, opening up troubling paternalism that reinforces positions of superiority and dependence. Put simply, people created in God’s image are not starfish, and they don’t wash up on the shore by accident.
Let us look at the narrative of Ruth from another angle, with particular focus on Ruth 2 and what it says about Bethlehem. Trust me, this is not the romanticized Bethlehem of Christmas carols. Let us consider what Bethlehem was like for other women forced to glean in other fields.
The Situation in Bethlehem
Think about the implications of just a few verses:
“Then Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you’ (Ruth 2:8, 9).
“When [Ruth] got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, ‘Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her’ (Ruth 2:15).
“Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, ‘It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field’” (Ruth 2:22).
Sometimes the translation of the text into English blunts the sordid truth. Ruth was told to avoid these other fields because they represented a clear and present danger to her well-being. These vulnerable women in Bethlehem were constantly in danger of sexual assault. Every day, as they sought to find enough food to stay alive, they had to guard against unwanted advances.
So while we may celebrate Boaz for the mercy he provides for Ruth, there is no indication he used his power and position to protect other women even in his own fields. He tells his workers not to “bother” Ruth, implying that he would look the other way were they to “bother” another woman gleaning in his fields. And he certainly does not challenge the cultural norm by working to make sure every woman who gleans in Bethlehem is safe from rape in the fields.
While on the one hand, we can celebrate Boaz for his willingness to redeem and protect Ruth, we also must acknowledge that the people of Bethlehem failed to act to protect vulnerable women in their community, and this was a failure of justice.
Our Commitment to Justice
Based on this story, let me suggest three ways we can grow our commitment to biblical justice.
1. Look at Scriptures with new eyes.
This does not mean the ways we typically read Scripture are wrong or inadequate. Rather, most of us have experienced reading the Bible and seeing something we have never seen before. With the new reading, God reveals more of his heart to us.
This is my experience with seeing justice emerge in the text, and not only in Ruth. I think of the sobering implications of learning that Ahab and Jezebel killed Naboth for his vineyard after Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel! How could this be? Maybe this is the price when God’s people are hiding in caves and running away from public life: innocent people die.
I am still growing in my appreciation of the full implications of the Exodus story. God was not interested in a more spiritually fulfilling slavery for the Hebrew people. God was fully vested in liberation.
2. Look at systems and structures.
The renowned German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom the Germans killed because of his connections to conspirators who plotted to kill Adolf Hitler, once said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
When we give clothing and canned goods to the local mission, when we tutor a child who is struggling to learn to read, and when we offer job training to a man getting out of prison, we are doing good work. We are doing our part to bandage the wounds of society’s victims. But sooner or later, we need to find out why so many people are being ground to a pulp.
3. Do justice.
Micah 6:8 is very clear: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Sooner or later, we must move from conversation about justice and actually begin to do justice.
Perhaps we could get involved in the efforts to end human slavery by connecting with those working tirelessly to end human trafficking and sex trafficking, not only in India and Thailand but here in the United States.
Maybe we could fight to address the horrific race-based outcomes of the war on drugs, which has resulted in a sevenfold increase in the prison population since 1980, when roughly 300,000 were incarcerated in the United States. Today more than 2 million are in prison here, and these are disproportionately people of color. Could we join with bipartisan efforts to end the era of over incarceration and over policing of communities of color?
Maybe we could fight to protect the unborn and work to provide opportunities for young children by committing to a greater investment in quality education for economically vulnerable children. Study after study shows that brain development and social skills are forming most rapidly between birth and age 5, but we are not sufficiently funding early childhood education, and those who serve in this field can work full time and still be on public assistance, as the pay and benefits are so inadequate.
Maybe we could work for the rights of refugees and undocumented immigrants in this nation. Ruth was a refugee and an immigrant in Bethlehem. We know that well over 50 percent of undocumented immigrant women have experienced unwanted sexual advances and even been victims of sexual assault when working here in the United States. When a whole group of people lives in the shadows, other women in other fields pay a horrific price.
No matter what we do, may we look beyond ourselves and remember the other women, the other fields, and those whose hearts are crying out for justice in this broken world. God hears their cries. May we also hear their cries.
*All Scripture verses are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Troy Jackson serves as executive director of The AMOS Project, a faith-based organizing effort that engages more than 50 congregations to work for racial economic justice in Cincinnati, Ohio.