Recently, the Bible study I am part of read Psalm 82—a passage familiar to many who are passionate about working for social justice. At first, I struggled to find much new meaning in the passage in which God commands other powers and principalities who “show partiality to the wicked,” to instead “give justice to the weak” (v.2-3). In this song of Asaph, like many of the Old Testament prophet texts, God admonishes rulers for being corrupt and concerned with gaining wealth and military power rather than with protecting His vulnerable chosen people. The first four verses in particular are a clear and classic example of God’s preferential option for the poor.
However, when I was challenged to consider how this passage might apply to my own life, I realized that while this psalm was originally directed at kings and rulers, it could also apply to anyone who holds power in society. Clearly, as a college student, I am not powerful enough to merit being part of a “divine council” (v. 1), but that doesn’t mean that I can excuse myself from the responsibility of defending the poor. As a white person with a college education living in a democratic nation, I actually do have power to defend the cause of the poor, even as I am still just a student.
In particular, one line of the psalm aided me with this realization: “maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute” (v. 3b). The theologian Margaret Farley says that “justice” means “to render to each her or his due” (Just Love, 208). In other words, the essence of justice is to protect human rights. From a Christian perspective, human rights exist in an abstract sense from being created in the image and likeness of God—the right to dignity, and the right to be loved. But I think the psalm is more than likely referring to a specific human right that was being violated by rulers at the time. Similarly, while it is important today to uphold the more abstract virtues of dignity and love, it is also important to ask ourselves what human rights are being threatened amongst the lowly and destitute, and what can we do to maintain them?
One thing that immediately comes to mind is the right to a safety and to life. In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida shooting, it has astonished me how little regard many people have for this right. It seems to me that defending the gun lobby is an obvious example of showing “partiality toward the wicked” rather than defending the rights of the lowly and destitute. However, it is not enough to chastise politicians for their lack of action. I also began to ask myself, what more can I do to support gun control? I can use my voice (online and in person), the democratic process (by contacting representatives), and my vote to help protect this human right.
The same can be said for many other human rights that are threatened by our current political comment. DACA recipients face the threat of having to leave a country they have lived in their entire lives. Millions of Americans face the threat of losing affordable healthcare should the Affordable Care Act be thrown out.
In Psalm 82, God calls us to action. We are not called to passively sit by and hope that those with the most power change. Rather, we must also recognize and use our own power.
I, for one, know that sometimes I become uncomfortable in Christian settings being the one to bring up politics. It is difficult to take a stand as a Christian without being labeled as part of a partisan agenda. But as people with power--even if our power seems insignificant to us--we have an obligation to defend human rights, and not to show partiality to the wicked among us who want to take them away.
Being a Christian means that we don’t get to pick and choose what parts of the kingdom of God we want to work for. Throughout scripture, God unequivocally calls people to join Him in expressing a preferential option for the poor. He calls people to use their power in the service of justice, and in the service of protecting human rights. Though our society is evidently different than the societies that existed throughout scripture, the call of God to be active in promoting justice is the same. Thus, we must ask ourselves: Who are the lowly and destitute today? What rights of theirs are being threatened? And, what can we do about it?