Voice for the Voiceless

Martin Luther King Jr

Speaking the words of Christ includes giving voice to the voiceless. This theme runs through the heart of the Old Testament. The law insists upon it, the prophets rail against Israel’s failure in this regard. The church too has a long tradition of giving voice to the voiceless. Chrysostom, in the 4th C, gave voice to the poor: in every sermon Chrysostom preached he called his congregation to do justice for the poor.

In the years of the prophet Micah the poor were voiceless. As rich land owners grasped more and more land for themselves there was no recourse to the legal system – every court of appeal was corrupt. Micah declared over Jerusalem:

Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money (Micah 3:11).

All three tiers of the legal system had been bought out: heads, priests, prophets! The poor were helpless.

The voiceless need a voice. I used to pastor a wonderful church in a government housing area in Western Sydney. Government housing in our area was notorious for unexpected electrical fires. One day a house around the corner from ours burned to the ground due to an electrical fault. The father who lived there was 20 years old at the time. He knocked on my door and told me that his three year old daughter had been burned badly by the fire. He had asked the department to fix the electrical fault a number of times. On the day his house burned down, the housing commission promised him that they would, I quote, ‘look after him’ and provide him with another house, so long as he stayed quiet. The young man’s hands were tied. His family needed a house, so he stayed quiet. The world needs prophets who give voice to the voiceless.

But back to Micah: all three tiers of the legal system had been bought out:

  1.  ‘Heads’: these were the community leaders responsible to settle disputes – they could be sweetened with a bribe.
  2.  ‘Priests’: they were responsible to teach torah, calling the community to the justice of Torah – the priests had been bought out too.
  3.  ‘Prophets’: I didn’t realise this until this week – these were a court of appeal too. Perhaps they were called upon to inquire of the Lord regarding difficult cases. Prophets could be payed off.

Of course the idea of giving voice to the voiceless didn’t begin with Micah. The prophets were guardians of Torah, Old Testament Law. Torah shaped society to be a place where every person was able to thrive. In the passage above Micah has the 9th Commandment in mind: You will not give false testimony. The ninth commandment ensures that every person has a voice, through the law courts. This was a most important principle in Israel’s law that would ensure that no family could be deprived of land.

Today voicelessness is a global issue involving nations. In ‘The End of Poverty’ Jeffery Sachs describes the voicelessness of Malawi in securing international help to treat an ongoing aids epidemic. Malawi currently has a population of 15.4 million with 1 million suffering from aids. Some years ago Malawi made proposals to reach about a third of the total infected population – about 300,000 people over five years. It include Drug delivery, patient counseling and education, training of doctors. In the estimation of Jeffery Sachs it was a responsible program. Donor countries, including the US and European countries, said that the program was ‘too ambitious and too costly’. Negotiators drafted a second proposal, reduced to treat one hundred thousand at the end of five years. Again the donors said ‘no’. In a ‘tense five day period’ the donors prevailed upon them to scale back request by 60%: 40,000 saved over 5 years. This was submitted to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. The donors who run that fund cut it back again to 25,000 at the end of five years, ‘a death warrant from the international community for the people of this country’.

The church is called to give voice to the voiceless. Proverbs 31:8-9 says: Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and need. Giving voice to the voiceless is a part of the mission of the church. Here are two suggestions of how we might do this:

1. Be informed on global issues and domestic poverty, and inform others. Even this much is counter cultural. Westerners, on the whole, are inoculated by the inane. Mark Zuckerberg, creator of facebook, explains our fascination with the insignificant:

People are more interested in the squirrel in their front yard than global poverty. So we give them the squirrel.

Westerners, on the whole, are inoculated by the inane. However giving voice to the voiceless begins with being informed. One way of being informed is to read the N.Y. Times online for five minutes each day.

2. Voting in elections: Assess political parties on their welfare policies, both domestic and global. Don’t vote for a party just because we always have. Christians aren’t called to an allegiance to a political party, but to an allegiance to Christ, and through Christ, to his world.


About Mark Glanville

Mark Glanville is a pastor-scholar who ministers in a missional urban community, Grandview Church, Vancouver. Mark is Professor of Old Testament and congregational studies at the Missional Training Center, Phoenix (missionaltraining.org), and he teaches at Regent College, Vancouver. Mark's research focusses upon the Pentateuch, biblical ethics, and mission. Mark has authored "Adopting the Stranger as Kindred" (SBL, 2018), "Reading Exodus: Society Reshaped by Kinship" (Lexham, forthcoming), numerous refereed articles (including in the Journal of Biblical Literature (2018), Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (2019), and Refuge Journal (2013)) and chapters on the Pentateuch, mission, and refugee related issues, as well as numerous popular articles. Mark is presently co-authoring a book, "Providing Refuge: A Missional and Political Theology." Mark is called upon to speak on in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. His previous career was as a jazz pianist in Sydney, Australia (Chick Corea and Wynton Kelly are his musical heroes).
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