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Justice in Psalm 146

irrigation trenches

And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice,

to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The words of Micah are among the best known in the Hebrew Bible. Justice has always been a central theme in Jewish thought and practice and the word ‘justice’ appears more than 200 times in the Old Testament. It is the subject of justice that I want to focus on.

I am going to begin with a brief excursion into agriculture – canal irrigation technology in particular. That there is a connection with justice will hopefully become evident quite soon.

The specific situation I am talking about takes place in the northern part of Karnataka State in South India, where the Tungabhadra Project (TBP) provides irrigation to about 425,000 hectares of land in a semi-arid region of the country, allowing for spectacular growth in agricultural productivity. The TBP canals feed into over one hundred distributaries and irrigation channels that carry water to hundreds of thousands of farmers.

In the head end, or the upper section of the system, immediately downstream from the dam, the canal is full throughout the year and supplies plentiful water, allowing farmers to grow two lucrative crops of rice, each averaging more than 7 tonnes per hectare.

Moving downstream along the canal, the distributaries tap water from the canal until in the tail end region the supply has often dwindled to nothing at all. The distributaries run dry. Farmers then have to make do, frequently surviving with no irrigation and relying on the meager 350 mm annual rainfall that falls erratically over much of the Deccan Plateau.

So there are head-enders and tail-enders: the privileged and the vulnerable.

I think you can see the connection that I had talked about.

It is evident that in this globalized world there are also head-enders and tail-enders. We are among the head-enders.

That there is extreme inequality on this Earth goes without saying. And there are many complex reasons for this. Let me suggest two. First, in some important ways, inequality is defined by situation. We can call this situational inequality.

In a canal system, there will always be tail-enders; it is intrinsic to the design. Water starts at the reservoir in the head end and eventually runs out. Globally, there is also an uneven distribution of resources: some countries are well-endowed and others are resource-poor.

To some degree, situational inequality can be dealt with. Some tail-enders in canal systems make creative cropping choices and do very well. Likewise, industrious and creative populations in resource-poor countries can also grow culturally rich and prosperous civilizations. Japan is an example. Where we can, we must support those resourceful and imaginative people everywhere who work for renewal of challenging situations. Enlightened trade and aid can be of help. But creativity and industriousness have limitations and we have to admit that there is intrinsic situational inequality in the world.

Why is that? Why did God create a world where these apparently unfair differences are found? It is a question I often consider and I have not found a satisfactory answer.

There is, however, another aspect to unfairness: human-created injustice. The head-enders in the TBP enjoy unlimited access to water from the reservoir and they take full advantage. Too much advantage. Water is extracted in great excess – and so besides the bountiful paddy fields, we see evidence of waterlogging and the wide-spread environmental damage this causes. The long- term health of the head end would be much better served by planting only one rice crop a year and using the second season to support diversity with lightly irrigated crops like maize.

More thrifty use of the finite water supply by the head-enders would mean more water for the tail-enders. The sharing of limited resources is a win-win situation, if only we could see it.

Again, you can see the connection. I am thinking of our extravagant and careless exploitation of resources found in the bountiful world where we are situated, causing no end of social and environmental problems. And critically, our profligacy leaves less for those elsewhere and for those who will come after us.

This is not situational inequality. It is human-created injustice and a clear response is required of us in Micah 6:8.

The translation I have given here uses the phrase ‘do justice’. In Hebrew, there are two words for justice. The first, tzedeq, is perhaps best translated as ‘right relationship’. It is the kind of justice a parent practices in trying to treat all her children equally. This is the justice that preserves order and supports righteousness.

The other word is mishpat, and that is the word used here by Micah. It carries a much more active sense; mishpat is action to make change, to correct what is wrong. It means bringing together, restoring, healing. This is what the translator means by ‘doing justice’.

Head-enders in the Tungabhadra project could do justice by establishing rules and following practices that more equitably share the limited water supply.

Head-enders of the world can do the same – sharing wealth, saving resources, changing laws that perpetuate inequality, offering alternatives to political systems that support individual and national acquisition…thinking always of smoothing the mountains and valleys of inequality.  

We read about God’s priorities in Psalm 146:

He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry

The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow.

God’s priority is the tail-enders, and this priority was embodied in the life of Jesus. It is for us, his people and his Church, to reflect them in all that we do.

[Image: Flickr user Michael Foley]

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