When you write a thesis you believe in the importance of the work you are doing. After all, you are dedicating months of research and writing to a single project.
At the same time, you have to be willing to admit that your work, while important to you, may be of limited consequence to those around you. When I wrote my MA thesis people would politely ask about my topic. I would say ‘social justice issues in Ecclesiastes’ and the conversation would fizzle out.
But right now I think that my humble thesis on Ecclesiastes has something to contribute to the current discourse within the church on justice, Black Lives Matter, and Critical Race Theory. My hope is that what I present here will be helpful to those who are weary of entering discussions on racial injustice, or who are eager to dismiss them altogether.
Ecclesiastes is a book that records the observations and reflections of Qohelet, a wisdom teacher. His two conclusions are that life is futile (life just doesn’t make sense) and that you are to enjoy what you can. Everything that exists ‘under the sun’ is open for his analysis. He does not shy away from life’s heaviest questions, including oppression and injustice. I believe that three of his observations on matters of injustice and oppression are relevant for the church today.
The Place Of Justice
“And furthermore I have seen under the sun:– Ecclesiastes 3:161
the place of justice; there, there is wickedness,
the place of righteousness; there, there is wickedness.”
First Qohelet observes the place of justice: the courtroom. The very place where he expects to see truth upheld and justice prevail. He also calls the place of justice the place of righteousness because this is where things that are wrong are to be made right, where those who have been oppressed are to be restored, and where those who have committed evil are to be judged. But what does he find? Lawlessness. Wickedness.
Last week a Grand Jury chose not to indict the three officers who killed Breonna Taylor. They charged just one of the officers with ‘wanton endangerment’ because of bullets that missed and ended up in neighbouring apartments. Many have been looking to the courts to see justice delivered, to see wrongs made right. But just like Qohelet, many have found no justice, no righteousness. Instead they see wickedness: that even if the ruling is correct in that the officers did not break police policy, there is still no accountability for the undeserved death of this black woman.
The story of Breonna Taylor is just one of countless cases where people have looked to the courts to see justice delivered only to have their hopes crushed by overwhelming wickedness. If you don’t believe me, I would highly recommend reading about the work of Bryan Stevenson and Equal Justice Initiative in his book, Just Mercy. Repeatedly, in the very place where we expect to find justice, there has been wickedness.
So how does Qohelet deal with this failure of justice? He struggles with it. He believes that God will judge the righteous and the wicked for every deed in time (3:17), but he does not understand when that will happen. It is certainly not here and now. So as he struggles with seeing wickedness in the place of justice, he holds onto some hope or belief that God will make things right in the end.
This tells me that we can (and should) struggle with seeing injustice in the very places where justice should be found. In the case of Breonna Taylor, we cannot simply default to some explanation that makes it sound like justice was delivered, and then forget about the whole thing. Her wrongful death has not been made right. But we need to also find ways to hold onto the belief that God is the righteous judge who will someday judge the righteous and the wicked for every deed.
The Tears Of The Oppressed
“So I myself turned and observed all the oppressions that are done under the sun, and behold:– Ecclesiastes 4:1
the tears of the oppressed–but there is none to comfort them
and from the hand of their oppressors, power–but there is none to comfort them.”
After his observation of injustice in the courts, Qohelet turns to observe all acts of oppression under the sun. What does he see? That there is no one to comfort the oppressed. He states this twice. There is none to comfort the tears of the oppressed. Power comes from the hand of the oppressors and still there is none to comfort them.
He offers no solution. How could he? He doesn’t have faith in the legal system to bring about justice. But while he does not provide a solution or relief from oppression, he does give voice to the tears of the oppressed. He laments with them.
I understand that for some the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ only provokes the idea of a far left marxist group responsible for violent protests and riots (even though a report in August found that 93% of BLM protests were peaceful). But listen afresh to this phrase with Qohelet and what do you hear? You hear the tears of the oppressed. You hear the tears of people who have have been repeatedly hurt by the powerful hands of oppressors. Will there be none to comfort them? Or will we put aside our reservations with the Black Lives Matter organization long enough to see real people who are experiencing real grief and then join in with their lament?
Now I am certain that some have taken issue with the simplicity in which I have mentioned Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter. Maybe some have even taken issue with my assumption that racial injustice and oppression exists in places where we expect justice. For the last few months much of my reading has been focused on these issues. I have been listening to people share their experiences of racism and oppression–experiences that are foreign to me because of my privilege–and I believe it is undeniable that systemic racism exists. But I also think it is undeniable because of one final observation from Qohelet.
Even The King Is In On It
“If oppression of the poor, and theft of judgment and righteousness you see in the province, do not be astounded over the matter, for:– Ecclesiastes 5:8-9
a high one above a high one watches, and higher ones are over them.
But the advantage of a land is in all this: even a king by a field is served.”
Qohelet once again has some wise words for us. While some are working hard to deny the existence of systemic racism and explain away stories of oppression, Qohelet tells us that we really should not be surprised by it at all. He says that if you see a poor person oppressed, and justice stolen from them in the province (think back to how justice was not found in the courts in 3:16), do not be astounded by that.
Injustice and oppression are not at all surprising because the system is built that way. A high official is watching over another high official, carefully passing along benefits stolen from the oppressed and the poor. Even the king is in on it, sitting atop the whole structure and being served by the field at the bottom. When you see the system as Qohelet does, then oppression and injustice are just not surprising.
In the last couple of weeks Donald Trump has taken steps to ban discussions of systemic racism and Critical Race Theory from government organizations in favour of a white-washed view of American history and an inaccurate definition of racism that solely revolves around personal bias. But what exactly is Critical Race Theory?
John G. Stackhouse Jr. has provided an excellent blog series titled “Postmodernity, Critical (Race) Theory, Cultural Marxism, and You” that is worth reading both for its clarity and accessibility on these related issues. Critical Theory is from a group of German philosophers who combined philosophy and social sciences to examine the way that the modern world operates, expose issues with how it works, and figure out better ways to move the world forward. Stackhouse summarizes their findings: “Everywhere the Critical Theorists have looked, people with power were exploiting people without it.”3
Critical Race Theory asks the same questions about modern life but through the perspective of race. It started with an examination of the legal system, and then moved to other institutions. What do Critical Race Theorists find? Racism. In legal settings and other institutions, those in power “use it to alter systems to their advantage.” Again Stackhouse summarizes: “Thus the finding of ‘systemic racism’ is not so much a shock as a foregone conclusion.”4
Did you catch that? The finding of systemic racism is not a shock, but a forgone conclusion. You may still disagree with their methodology or findings, but Qohelet said much the same. When we see oppression and the theft of justice, we are not to be surprised. Because it is systemic. Qohelet shows us that the system is built this way. Time and time again those in power exploit those who do not have power and turn the tables in their own favour. There is nothing new under the sun.
I readily admit that these issues are far more complex than can be articulated in a short blog post. But my purpose has not been to fix everything (or anything). I simply offer some of Qohelet’s wisdom that can help us as we approach these issues (instead of arguing away from them). Qohelet himself offers no solution, no way forward. He has little to no faith in political change. Those in power are not going to put an end to the oppression of the poor when they benefit from it.
While he does not offer a solution, he does open our eyes to the oppression and injustice around us. He helps us recognize that injustice has entered the very place we expect justice to be–the courts–and allows us to struggle with this reality while holding onto the belief that God will one day judge the righteous and the wicked for every deed under the sun. He helps us hear the tears of the oppressed, tears caused by the powerful hand of oppressors, and invites us to grieve with them or else there will be none to comfort them. And he helps us see that none of this is surprising because the system is built in a way that oppresses the poor and benefits those in power.
Ultimately, Qohelet teaches us that we cannot simply deny the existence of oppression and injustice. We cannot ignore conversations about systemic racism in our world and our institutions. We need to take the time to struggle with these issues, and more importantly to truly see the people affected by them.
1 Translations are my own from my thesis.
2 For a look at correcting some information about Breonna Taylor see this article in The Washington Post.
3 These excerpts are from part 2 of Stackhouse’s series.
4 These excerpts are from part 4 of Stackhouse’s series.