In the past week, a cry of protest against systemic violence and racism has erupted in our world.
Jakob Steinhardt, Job and His Friends (woodcut, 1913)
Dr Rachelle Gilmour (Tuesday 9 June)
In the past week, a cry of protest against systemic violence and racism has erupted in our world. The cry is not unlike the cry of Job in the Old Testament. Job has suffered undeservedly. He is afflicted by the Sabaeans, and the Chaldeans, who fall upon his children, servants and property leaving nothing. But the bigger cause for these aggressions is unseen by Job: Job suffers because of an accusation by a heavenly being before the Lord, a conversation he has not heard and knows nothing about.
Like the Sabaeans and Chaldeans, there have been overt aggressors of racism, who can and must be held morally responsible. But at the same time, there is systemic oppression which is harder to pinpoint, a narrative larger than any isolated incident. I don’t want to take these parallels too far: Job’s story starts with wealth and privilege, unlike the voices of the Black Lives Matter. We do not yet know whether there will be justice, like Job’s restoration at the conclusion of the story. Moreover, Job’s suffering is not mine to voice.
There is one parallel with the story of Job that is worth pressing, especially for those of us who are not in the position of Job himself: Job has friends. Those protesting their suffering from racism also have friends, allies who feel deeply about eliminating racial violence. Job has friends who see Job’s suffering and want to help.
Job’s friends make a series of speeches to Job in which their claims are, in a sense, true, but yet completely miss the point of his suffering. They hear Job’s protests; but have some “friendly” advice to offer. “Job, yes this is hard; but be careful. Maybe you sinned and you did not know it? Maybe God is teaching you something? It’s dangerous to accuse God!”
“I can understand protesting but I cannot understand why some protesters are rioting and looting”. Job’s friends think that Job’s accusations of unjust suffering go too far. “It is just an isolated incident, but we are on good terms”. Job’s friends cannot see that there is a deeper, more fundamental injustice at work here. “COVID makes protesting at this time too dangerous”. Job’s friends urge Job to accept his lot.
In the book of Job, the advice and explanations of Job’s friends are as much a part of Job’s afflictions as the Sabaeans or the Chaldeans. The “friendly” advice of allies, and rationalising of specific acts of violence, quickly become a participation in the policing at the centre of the protests.
When God finally speaks in the book of Job, no answers are given for his suffering. But God does affirm that Job is righteous, and his protest is righteous. From the outside, we may think we have explanations, and that we can see a right, more sensible course of action. We have “friendly” advice. But the book of Job teaches humility before the sufferer, and willingness to accept the sufferer’s own account of the violence against him. And in the current protests, the cause of suffering is not “out there”, but from something we are all a part of, making humility more essential than ever.