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Equity or the Flood: Two Visions of Justice

It is now seven weeks to Passover and the Passover foods are already for sale in my local supermarket. My family is already planning when to do our shopping and whom to invite to the seder. Like many Jewish families, we put a lot of time and preparations into this holiday because we want to make it special and different from the rest of the year as was done when we were children.

But our preparations are not only about shopping, cooking, invites and the changeover of dishes. Every year, we spend at least a little time considering what we should talk about at the seder table. We try to discuss something related to the theological and spiritual themes of the holiday. Usually, our discussion centers on the ethics of justice and liberation and how they apply to a some particular case in the world today.

The theme of justice is central to Passover and many of the texts in the Haggadah, Torah and Haftarah readings mention the connection between freedom and justice. The Haftarah for the last day of Passover is taken from the book of Isaiah (chapters 10-12). Chapter 11 contains the famous vision of the ideal ruler, descended from David, who will be filled with the spirit of God which will fill him with wisdom, valor and insight. This king will then rule with justice and will protect the poor of the land. At the same time, humanity and the rest of Creation will return to an Edenic state where there are no predators and no prey; where “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.” (v. 6) and “the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea.” (v. 9b)

This vision is on many levels profoundly unnatural and unsuitable for modern ecological and political sensibilities. For example, biologically there can be no life without death, and today we would demand that justice is participatory and does not depend on a single male royal authority. Nonetheless the vision still stirs us emotionally as a desire for peace, justice and harmony in the world.

I look at the vision as also one of sustainability: if we have a political system that is equitable only then can we begin to live within the rhythms of the natural world. Justice in the human world is intimately bound up with a more sustainable relationship with Creation. So I hope for such a world where peace and harmony result from justice and sustainability.

But there is another vision in the Hebrew Bible that warns us of what will happen if we don’t create such a world. In the Book of Amos (5:18-25) the prophet mocks those who wish for “the Day of the Lord,” thinking that the end of human history will be pleasant and good. He says that the end will be destruction: “It shall be darkness, not light! As if a man should run from a lion and be attacked by a bear!” (v. 18b-19a) Creation will not be benign but the instrument of God’s judgment over an unjust world. God does not want our festivals, our hymns or our sacrifices, “But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (v. 24)

This last verse is often quoted in a positive way by both Jews and Christians but I think that they miss the point when it is not put in context. Amos is referring to a new Flood as in Noah’s day that will wipe the slate of Creation clean of the unjust. It will not be a time of harmony but of destruction. It will be a cleansing of the impurities of human injustice. Injustice leads to environmental degradation which leads to instability and violence.

Thomas Homer-Dixon is a political scientist whosehas focused on threats to global security and on how societies adapt to complex change. He is widely regarded as a central figure in the environment and security debate and has significantly shaped the discussions in this field. In his book, Environment, Scarcity, and Violence (1999) he wrote:

…scarcity is often caused by a severe imbalance in the distribution of wealth and power that results in some groups in a society getting disproportionately large slices of the resource pie, whereas, others get slices that are too small to sustain their livelihoods. Such unequal distribution—or what I call structural scarcity—is a key factor in virtually every case of scarcity contributing to conflict…(p. 15)

The choice lies before us: we can work to create justice and stability now in a way that will bring equity, peace and harmony, or we can continue on the path to scarcity, conflict and environmental destruction.

Let use this time of Passover preparation to consider the real meaning of the festival and be provoked to take action.

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