“It’s not fair!” is a familiar response to the world. Children are quick to shout it, especially when they think a sibling is better treated. Adults can feel it in a variety of places but often learn to hide it.
For Rachel – the wife of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson - it became a familiar refrain. It had been love at first sight when Jacob first came into the family of the beautiful Rachel. When he was tricked into marrying her plainer sister, Leah, Rachel had to wait another seven years before she could become Jacob’s wife. To add insult to injury, Leah conceived one son after another. Slowly, it must have dawned on Rachel that – in those portentous words for a woman in Abraham’s family – she was barren. Like Sarah in the first generation of the Abrahamic family and like her mother-in-law, Rebekah, initially, Rachel seemed unable to help Jacob fulfil his grandfather’s God-given dream of siring a great nation.
The injustice of her situation seeped into Rachel’s soul. Her childless life seemed not to be worth living. What was she going to do with her envy and frustration –her anger that her body would not perform its assigned role, her sense that she did not belong fully to the patriarchal family? As she searched for someone to blame, imagine her half shouting, half sobbing to her husband, Jacob. “Give me sons or I shall die!”
From a sense of injustice and frustration about not being able to produce life as Leah was doing, Rachel threatened to destroy. She turned her destructive energy on her husband and on herself. She couldn’t create new life to fulfil her role in the family, so she threatened to destroy her own life. It was an ‘either-or’ position. White or black. Nothing between.
For most of us, there come times when the world either is or seems to be unfair. Other people get lucky breaks, we get made redundant. Other people live in happy families, we are lonely. Others are healthy, we get sick. When we see that we don’t get what we believe we deserve, we feel angry and frustrated.
And those words ‘what we believe we deserve’ are important! L’Oréal’s idea of giving ourselves rewards ‘Because you’re worth it!’ has percolated into our souls. But it is sometimes helpful to remember that it is not a dream but a myth that we can all have what we want or be who we want to be if only we will try hard enough, think positively and, if we are religious, pray hard enough. Of course, the American dream has been the foundation of great progress but unless we accept that the world is sometimes an unfair place and that not everyone gets what they want, we shall set ourselves up for frustration and bitterness.
But anger at perceived injustice does need to ‘go somewhere’. And on the surface, we seem to have pretty much the same choices as Rachel did – to get angry with ourselves or with others. We beat ourselves up: “If I had worked harder, tried harder, cared more, prayed with more faith, things would have been different”. Or, like Rachel, we turn our anger at injustice outwards. We can direct our frustration at those closest to us giving them more power than they actually have in making things go well for us. Or we can turn to those impersonal groups who wield power in our lives and whom we so often call ‘they’. ‘They’ are the problem: our employers, the government, the church – or outsiders of some kind – foreigners, immigrants, refugees. It’s so easy to give ‘them’ a tongue-lashing or make them the object of our resentment.
In his angry response to his wife’s demand, Jacob suggested, rather unkindly, that there was another repository for Rachel’s anger about the injustice of her infertility – God. He suggested that some of the injustice of Rachel’s life should be seen for what it was, ‘an act of God.’ Like the psalmist who came after him (see Psalm 44:9-26)), in his own frustration, Jacob reminded Rachel that her God was the one she should be shouting at – not him!
Although he didn’t speak compassionately to his beloved wife, Jacob spoke an important truth. The book of Job and many of the Psalms suggest that taking our anger to God is a thoroughly acceptable part of being a child of God. And that God can handle it! Rachel’s subsequent history suggests that, although she struggled more with anger and injustice on the way, she did discern God at work in her life. She bore only two sons, but Rachel took her place alongside the other ‘barren’ women in whose personal lives God was directly at work, just as in their husbands’ lives. Although Rachel didn’t live to see it happen, her son, Joseph, became the family leader and the means of preserving the lives of Leah’s ten sons.
Thinking about who is responsible for the injustice in our lives and in the wider world is an important task if we are to manage our anger. It is a difficult and sometimes impossible problem to solve but we must not shirk it. It will lead us to recognise that sometimes there is some ‘one’ to ‘blame’ someone for injustice. More often, if we are honest, we will be unable to identify one culprit. But trying thoughtfully to discern the knotty roots of injustice in our own complex lives and in the wider world will make us wise. Maybe more importantly, it will make us compassionate not only towards ourselves, but also towards others in our lives, and especially towards those even less fortunate than we are.