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I heard a segment on NPR the other day about the effect that power has on the brain (the piece is fascinating, and I urge you to have a listen).

Long story short, researchers found that when a person is given power, it makes it more difficult for them to be empathetic.  This makes some sense of the news I read of despotic governments, insurance companies who deny life-saving care, and the ever-widening gap in income inequality in the U.S.  When we fail to empathize with others, especially the powerless, we fail to treat those people justly.

Thankfully, though, the NPR piece ended on a somewhat optimistic note: “research … suggests [that] powerful people who begin to forget their subordinates can be coached back to their compassionate selves.” And this is where the Bible comes in.

God’s View of Heinous Sins

Several years ago, I took a course in the Latter Prophets as part of my studies for a Master of Theology.  I was astonished to read, again and again, that among God’s indictments on Israel and Judah (and other nations), was that the rich and the powerful of those nations had neglected and oppressed the poor (see, for example, Isaiah 3:13-15, 10:1-4, 58:1-12; Jeremiah 2:34; Ezekiel 16:48-49, 22:28-31; Amos 2:6-7, 4:1-3, 5:11, 8:4-6; Zechariah 7:8-14).night highway

Of course, God charges the nations with all manner of heinous sins.  However, when I think of what counts as a wicked deed, injustice toward the poor is not typically on that list.  But read the description of the wicked son in Ezekiel 18:10-13.  This wicked son is a thief, a murderer, he worships idols, and commits adultery.

These are all things that we commonly abhor.  But this wicked son also “oppresses the poor and the helpless, steals from debtors by refusing to let them redeem their security” (v. 12), and “lends money at excessive interest” (v. 13).  These are things that are every bit as detestable to God as theft, murder, idolatry and adultery.

And these are the sins of the powerful, who neglect empathy for those over whom they hold that power.

God Has a Different Way

Thankfully, though, the God of the Bible is not on the side of the powerful.  “From ancient times,“ writes Timothy Keller in his book Generous Justice, “the God of the Bible stood out from the gods of all other religions as a God on the side of the powerless, and of justice for the poor.”  In other ancient civilizations, “the power of the gods was channeled through and identified with the elites of society, the kings, priests, and military captains, not the outcasts.”

offering pineBut Yahweh, Israel’s God, is identified with the powerless, and described as the “father to the fatherless” and the “defender of widows” (see Psalms 68:4-5).  This God demands that his people “administer true justice, [and] show mercy and compassion to one another”; he exhorts them not to “oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10-11).

And in the Latter Prophets he declares himself again and again to be on the side of those without power (see, for example, Isaiah 25:1-5 esp v. 4, Isaiah 32:1-8 esp. v. 7, and Isaiah 41:17).  He structured his society so that even the powerless would have a share (see, for example, the gleaning rights in Exodus 19:9-10, Leviticus 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:21-22).  Ultimately, God’s desire was that there be no poor among his people (Deuteronomy 15:4-5, 7-8).

Back to Our Compassionate Selves

It is this knowledge that can help the powerful to come “back to their compassionate selves.”  When we know that God is on the side of the powerless, that injustice toward the poor is as abhorrent to him as idolatry, murder, and adultery, then we know that we must exercise power not for our own benefit only, but also for the benefit of the powerless, whom God loves.

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Justice toward the powerless is how God will evaluate those in powerful positions: “‘Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar [building beautiful palaces]?  Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness?  Then it was well with him.  He judged the cause of the poor and the needy; then it was well. Is this not to know me?’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:15-16).

When we are like the God of compassion and justice, compassion and justice will rule in us.


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