A defined code of law is a staple of what most people would consider a “modern society.” Every American student learns in their first serious world history lesson about Hammurabi’s Code from Babylon. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” — the most famous excerpt from that ancient text — has taken on a clichéd tone in our modern world. While the image of people gouging out each other’s eyes and teeth may be perceived as too literal an interpretation, the principle, archaic as it is, is still quite appealing today.
We all hope in some secret (or maybe very apparent) part of our hearts, that the wrongs done to us will be met with equal repercussions, and maybe then some. How, then, are we to approach the subject of justice as Christians, when Christ calls us to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:54)?
The New Testament is full of examples of these principles being lived out by the apostles and their disciples, but Paul and Silas at the hands of corrupt businessmen paints a particularly complicated and modern situation. During their missionary travels the two happen upon a “demon possessed” girl whose unholy gift for prophecy has made her masters quite rich (Acts 16:16). At some point Paul, overcome with “annoyance” at the woman for disrupting their ministry and possibly even with her exploitative slave masters, casts the demon out, causing her to lose her power and apparent value (Acts 16:17-18).
When one reads the first part of this story, one cannot help but draw parallels between the exploitation of this possessed woman and the exploitation of countless millions across the world and in our own country. Business, while not inherently evil, can be leveraged to prey upon the disenfranchised and desperate — and it often is. Child labor, sexual slavery, broken visa programs, meager wages, and lack of worker protection are just a few of the wrongs which critics of big business rally against on a daily basis. And rightly so!
However, in the case of Paul and Silas, their just action receives unjust punishment as they are savagely beaten and thrown into prison without trial (Acts 16:19-24). Even though they are Roman citizens, the justice system fails them; just as it failed the slave girl. Those with the most to gain circumvent the law to protect their own interests at the expense of the righteous. Sound familiar yet?
As we look out at the world around us, we see this same story played out across the world and even in our own United States. Daily, the system fails to achieve justice for those who have no voice, as well as for those who choose to speak up for them. No matter what reforms are passed or how many people march, their efforts seem to be in vain. I would propose that this current state of affairs has jaded many people, justifiably so, into ignoring such issues. More of them have grown so weary with the struggle that they have become ambivalent or outright cold-hearted.
But not Paul and Silas. Beaten, bloody, and stagnating in prison, these two men, in the midst of horrible suffering, sing hymns and offer prayers (Acts 16:25). They worship the God who is the reason that they are in prison in the first place. It was His work, the casting out of demons, the commitment to justice, that got them there in the first place.
What is our response to the injustices we witness in our communities and in our workplace? Do we step up to confront evil when we see it or are we cowed by fear of losing our jobs? Do we use our privilege to speak up for those who have no voice, or are we too self-interested to care? The world’s justice is imperfect, but God’s is not. As followers of Christ we are obligated, by His incredible act of mercy and justice, to fight to redeem the injustices of the world as Paul and Silas did; no matter the consequences.
Stanton Coman works in the not-for-profit sector and is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program in McLean, VA.