On May 14-17, I had the fortunate opportunity to have traveled to the Dominican Republic with Children International and a group of committed advocates for the poor. This non-profit organization, which serves mostly Latin America, Asia (the Philippines), Africa and India, helps to provide impoverished children with meaningful benefits and services that help them grow up into viable leaders in their given community.
In our visits to families, we encountered those who belong to the bateyes, which are home to the poorest families in the country. With populations of nearly exclusively migrant Haitian labor who earn less than the minimum wage, laborers live on subsistence, unable to save. During the harvest season -- approximately 8 months -- workers harvest the fields for their low wages. During this time they are also not permitted to leave the plantations. In cooperation with the state cane corporation, the police force the braceros (sugarcane cutters) back to the plantations when they try and go to town.
Many bateyes have neither running water nor electricity. Water for laundry and bathing is collected rainwater in oil drums on the property. As those living on the bateyes are the poorest populations in the Dominican Republic, they are the most in need of aid, but the cane cutters are animals, says Dominican common wisdom. They are good for labor and no more, worth consideration only to make sure they do not leave the bateyes and spread their inferior culture, their black skin.
In reflecting on the bateyes in particular, I think about the narrative of Job and his suffering. He had lost his sons and daughters, his house, his flocks, his health and was estranged from his wife who presumably had never uttered the words "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health." Undeterred, and convinced of the rectitude of his position, Job kept a power hum going as best he could, chin up, body straight, tail erect and full eye contact, beating his chest in the face of God.
We're hardly in a position to blame him. There is nothing to suggest that he deserved the treatment he was getting. By all accounts, he was a righteous man. That's not Job talking, but God. "Have you considered my servant Job?" God says. "There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil" (1:8). Isn't this all that God asks of anyone, to be a blameless, upright God-fearing person who turns away from evil? What more could be required of a person than to "do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)
Yet, Satan cast aspersions on his piety by suggesting that Job was merely raiding the larder of religion for his personal benefit, and that his faithfulness was merely the product of his prosperity. Take away the one, and you remove the other.
Both God and Satan had a point. Job was certainly the man God saw him to be, but he was also someone whose experience of God was completely framed by his perception that God's favor was contingent upon his good behavior. His consistent defense as he sits in the ashes of despair is that he is undeserving of this treatment: "I have done nothing wrong, and in fact have done everything right." He continues: "I delivered the poor who cried and the orphan who had no helper" (29:12). The apostle James calls that "pure and undefiled" religion (1:27). Clearly, Job wasn't like those who, rather than seeing the problems of people, see people as problems.
In this high state of annoyance, Job continues the litany, making himself sound like an early version of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Teresa: "I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger.
These facts are not in dispute. What Job did not understand and I struggle with in my recent trip to the Dominican Republic is that it was not his concept of himself that was faulty; it was his concept of God that begged for revision. In the face of inconsolable grief, Job, like us, could do no more than ask the questions, "Why?" and "Why me?" Although he had extravagant prima facie evidence of the greatness and dominance of God, he could not grasp the dominance hierarchy as it related to him. He understood his relationship with God as nothing more than symbiotic back-scratching
When the verbal hoohah dies down, God answers us in our questions on why certain people suffer and others enjoy it seems the favor of God at least in our capitalistic expectations and immediately points to the problem of the low hum: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" (38:2). Job is utterly incapable of modulating his tone, his life, to match that of the Almighty. God then lashes at Job saying that for all his righteous behavior, he's been acting like a wuss: "Gird up your loins like a man" (38:3).
God is direct: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (38:4). The subsequent Socratic interrogation is utterly withering. And when God is through, Job is rolling in submission, exposing his underbelly: "See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?" (40:4). This is what happens when we don't understand the sufferings of this world, God reminds us that in our human fallacy and knowledge that our role is to submit and listen for the hum.