Poems for justice (2)

Israeli grain mill

Israeli grain mill

This is the second of 3 posts about the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah, based on sermons I preached at St Brides Liverpool. This one is about the relationship between justice and fairness.

The first describes how Micah lived in a society with conflicting beliefs about justice. So do we. To illustrate the difference, here’s an old story. You may have heard before, but it makes a point.

A tramp is wandering about in some woodland. Another man sees him and shouts at him. ‘What are you doing here? This is private land. Get out!’

The tramp says ‘Is this your land?’

‘Yes’.

‘All this, yours?’

‘That’s right. Now clear off.’

‘How did you get to own it?’

‘If you must know, I inherited it from my father.’

‘And how did your father get it?’

‘He inherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father. It’s been in the family for a thousand years’.

‘And your ancestor, a thousand years ago, how did he get to own it?’

‘He fought for it.’

The tramp says:

‘Shall we fight for it now?’

In the 1970s two political philosophers, Robert Nozick and John Rawls, defended diametrically opposed theories of justice.

Nozick thought justice was based on law and contracts. He would have supported that landowner. We are all familiar with it. It is just that I have more money than you because I work harder or I got a better paid job or I inherited money from my father who built up a business.

Rawls wanted to base justice on fairness. All those people who spend their day sitting and begging on the pavement in every town today – is that justice? You buy a machine, take it home, it doesn’t work, take it back to the shop, and it turns out that because of the small print you haven’t got a leg to stand on. You’ve lost your money for nothing. Grrr. Where’s the justice?

One idea of justice appeals to the law. The other presupposes that sometimes the law is unjust. It appeals to a sense of fairness that transcends the law.

Micah lived about 800 years before Jesus. In his day the official account of justice was of the first sort. The logic was: the nation’s chief god appointed the king, and the king acted on behalf of the god. Therefore justice was whatever the king said it was.

Micah, on the other hand, appealed to the values Israel had had 400 years earlier, before it had a king, when it was a loose alliance of self-sufficient communities that looked after each other and were suspicious of anyone who wanted too much power.

Inequality in Israel and Judah

A little before Micah’s day, the small kingdoms of Israel and Judah went through a an unusually long period of peace and wealth.

International trade increased. What they imported was luxury goods, building materials and military equipment. What they exported was wheat, olive oil and wine. The ruling classes benefited from the imports, the peasant farmers had to grow more crops to pay for them.

If you have ever grown food, in a garden or allotment, you will know it’s a good idea to grow a variety – because every year something will do well and something will do badly. It matters a lot more for people whose only source of food is what they can grow for themselves.

Because governments wanted crops for export, their tax policies encouraged peasants to grow just one crop. For the farmer, this was dangerous. If all you are growing is grapes, one bad harvest and you are in debt.

Debts were settled in the courts. The system of courts was inherited from the old tribal system when every village had a court. They might have worked well in the days of small self-governing egalitarian communities, but in the 8th century it was easy for the powerful landowning elite to make sure they got the decisions they wanted.

The law stated that if a debtor couldn’t repay their debt on time the creditor was allowed to take possession of all the debtor’s property. In other words, get into debt and you could lose everything.

Micah appealed to the older tribal tradition. According to that tradition, the land belongs to God. God provides it so that every family can have their share. Therefore land could not be bought and sold.

So although the countries of Israel and Judah became more prosperous as a whole, the poorest were worse off.

Micah 2:1-2

Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance.

These people coveting fields and seizing them were acting within the law. Micah’s point was that the law was unjust.

It gets worse. When people got into debt, creditors were even allowed to enslave debtors and their families.

Micah 3:1-6

And I said:
Listen, you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel!
Should you not know justice?—
you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin off my people,
and the flesh off their bones;
who eat the flesh of my people,
flay their skin off them,
break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a cauldron.

Then they will cry to the Lord,
but he will not answer them;
he will hide his face from them at that time,
because they have acted wickedly.

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry ‘Peace’
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you, without revelation.
The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
and the day shall be black over them.

One of the effects of an unequal society is a decline in a sense of community. We stop feeling that we’re all in it together. We stop noticing what life is like for social classes other than our own. The powerful get used to their power and gradually adapt it in their own interests. In one way or another bribery becomes common. This was happening in Micah’s time. The elite were powerful enough to abuse the system, but it didn’t shake their faith that as long as the sacrifices kept coming in, God would protect the nation.

Micah 3:9-12

Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
and pervert all equity,
who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with wrong!
Its rulers give judgement for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
‘Surely the Lord is with us!
No harm shall come upon us.’
Therefore because of you
Zion shall be ploughed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

Micah was threatening doom. In his day the period of prosperity had come to an end, with invasions by the emperors of Assyria. People disagreed about what to do next. Would they soon get back to peace and prosperity, or would things get even worse?

The ruling classes responded just like governments do today. When government ministers get asked what they are going to do about the increasing numbers of homeless and starving people, the usual response is that they are going to manage the economy so that it grows.

In the same way, Micah’s governing class would argue that the solution to peasant poverty was to have a rich and successful country. If they could achieve that, all would be well. Micah disagreed.

Micah 2:6-9

‘Do not preach’—thus they preach—
‘one should not preach of such things;
disgrace will not overtake us.’
Should this be said, O house of Jacob?
Is the Lord’s patience exhausted?
Are these his doings?
Do not my words do good
to one who walks uprightly?
But you rise up against my people as an enemy;
you strip the robe from the peaceful,
from those who pass by trustingly
with no thought of war.
The women of my people you drive out
from their pleasant houses;
from their young children you take away
my glory for ever.

Egalitarianism vs celebrity culture

It was a culture clash. Today, political analysts ask why the unemployed of rust belt America voted for Trump, why Wales voted for Brexit. One side says:

‘We had our financial crash 10 years ago, but apart from that we’ve had 60 years of economic growth. Most of the time it worked. We want to get back to that.’

The other side says:

‘All those economic policies may have made you better off, but they made us worse off. The last thing we want is to carry on as before.’

It was a bit like that for them. Could they get back to the earlier prosperity, and who wanted to?

Prosperity theology was already around: if you’re rich, that shows that God is pleased with you. These days we associate it with Americans, but it’s as old as history.

Micah, and the other prophets of his day – Amos, Hosea and Isaiah – believed there was a better way.

We could put it in modern language something like this. We humans have evolved with conflicting instincts. One is to live together cooperatively, making sure we are all content. Another is to identify with the winners, the successful, the celebrities, even at cost to ourselves. Yet a society which idolises winners is always a society full of losers.

We can choose. We can define justice either way. We can define it as the decrees of the most powerful humans, or as Micah believed, as fairness, so that nobody has too little and nobody has too much. It depends on who or what you worship.

For reflection

1) What do you think justice is?

2) What should society do about people who get into debt and can’t repay it?

3) Micah’s language is not the kind of language one often hears in the after-service coffee in churches today. Should it be?

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