Divine justice

by Benjamin Ong

Following Evensong today, the following, in the light of the reading of three passages from the Bible, and on the assumption of their usefulness, came to mind:

1. Psalm 93:1 states that “the world… is stablished, that it cannot be moved”.  Perhaps the world as a whole cannot be moved: but what comfort is that to the victim of an earthquake or a flood, or of theft, i.e. one to whose detriment parts of the world or things in the world have been moved?  It may be that, as Psalm 93:4 states, that “The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters”, but this is true only in the sense that deficits can be remedied by re-arranging the contents of the world.  What is sometimes termed divine justice is not necessary satisfied by trivialising material distributive disparities in favour of some divinity-related value system; rather, it is a matter of noting what exactly divinity does promise and what it does not.

2. Thus, for instance, while the story in 2 Kings 4:1-7 of Elisha telling the widow to borrow jars from her neighbours, then pour what turned out to be a seemingly limitless supply of oil into them and sell them to pay off her debts may be told in a manner that focuses on the widow’s faith, God’s generosity, etc., the crux of the story is perhaps actually the willingness of members of the community to hand over their property for seemingly no reason and with little hope of getting it back.

3. Similarly, little attention is drawn to the fact that, in the story of Jesus changing water into wine in John 2:1-11, the water was held in pots which were used for ritual purification, such that the servants were told to do something that went against not only logic, but also social norms.

4. Therefore, it is not true that mere faith, without more, will bring about distributive justice.  Nor is God the only proper object of such faith; so, too, is others’ conscience (which, one may go on to say, God inspires).  Might (taking as an assumption that a certain state of divine action, viz. the in-principle (only) willingness to perform the miracles, is a given) a different result have occurred if the neighbours had dismissed the widow as one who would use the jars to make drugs, or if the servants had refused to use the jars for a private celebration for fear of disapproval by religious elders or divine wrath?

5. But, on the other hand, their fears would not have been unfounded.  And so, while there is a need to exercise cautiousness in undertaking activities that seek to bring about justice, there is equally a need to ensure that risk-aversion does not unduly, as the Compensation Act 2006 puts it, “prevent a desirable activity from being undertaken at all, to a particular extent or in a particular way, or discourage persons from undertaking functions in connection with a desirable activity”.  (The concept of microcredit comes to mind.)  While an element of faith in other people is necessary, and may sometimes turn out to have been misplaced, faith in the divine is unintelligible without the idea of faith in people, for the hands of God are the hands of humankind.