Process, Prophecy, and the Theme of Justice: An Overlooked Relationship

In recent past, the prophetic corpus has gained renewed appreciation among Jews and Christians. Recognized as God’s messengers of justice, many scour the prophetic literature in search of rich and rhetorical statements that might be helpful to confront the rising tide of social and economic injustice that plagues our own time. Not incidentally, this emphasis on the establishment of “social harmony”—a predominant theme in the biblical prophets—is also consonant with process thought.

According to Hebrew Scripture scholar Terence Fretheim, the theme of justice explicitly emerged in the prophetic tradition when uncanny economic change swept the entire Syro-Palestinian coast. The situation of trade was especially prosperous, which brought great wealth to a privileged few, who then used their wealth to become wealthier. The cycle was vicious and fueled a single-minded rapacity. This nascent form of “conspicuous consumption” of early Mesopotamia set in motion a new prophetic posture, namely, the call for complete and undivided devotion to God and the formation of a just society that focused on the significance of ethical behaviors in relationships rather than on sacrifice or cultic activity. Such moral behavior, which directly conformed to the social norms of the law, was most pleasing in the sight of God. The prophetic utterances of Isaiah, Amos, and Micah are keen and instructive. Isaiah announced:

Bring no more vain offerings;
Incense is an abomination to me […]
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
My soul hates;
They have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them […]
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your doings
From before my eyes;
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Rescue the oppressed,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow (1:13-17)

Amos declared:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
And for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
Because they sell the righteous for silver,
And the needy for a pair of sandals—
They who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
And push the afflicted out of the way (2:6-7).

And, finally, Micah briefly captured the essence of this new prophetic movement toward justice:

[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

While Alfred North Whitehead constructed a philosophical system in which he demonstrated the interrelatedness of all things, process philosophers Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb expanded Whitehead’s theories to include the theme of social harmony, one that is much more resonant with prophetic texts. Like the biblical prophets, process theology affirms that social harmony will only be fully actualized when social justice, in all its diverse permutations, is itself victorious. This demand for justice invites us—lures us—to work toward a future in which the human dignity of all is reverenced and respected.

Notes:     

[1] Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 121.

[2] Ibid., 88.

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