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Quote Unquote

‘Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.’

By David Giuliano

Now there is a quote that I sometimes wish I’d never read. It makes sense. In theory. In practice, close to home, it seems implausible.

In the co-authored book To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly, Walter Brueggemann tackles the first of God’s requirements in Micah 6:8: “To act justly.” He writes that justice means: “to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.” That’s biblical, 50th-year, Jubilee justice (Leviticus 25:8-13). That’s restorative justice.

A stolen car is returned to its owner. An elder’s sense of security is restored after her home is vandalized. Bank employees finally get their overtime pay. Slaves in America are set free. Apartheid in South Africa ends. And if Israel were to end its illegal settlement of the West Bank? Justice. Personal property, security, wealth, freedom, equality, dignity and land returned to whom they belong. Justice rolls down like a mighty river.

Apply that same definition of justice to the Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario. In 1784, six Iroquois nations were rewarded for their loyalty to the British with 384,000 hectares of land — nearly 10 kilometres on either side of the Grand River — “to enjoy forever.” Today, less than five percent of those hectares remain. Figuring out to whom it belongs is easy: they have the deed. Justice suddenly seems not so simple.

The Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation, here in northwestern Ontario, was lumped into the 1850 Robinson-Superior Treaty. They, however, never signed it. At the time, the chief and elders boycotted the signing in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. They did not cede their traditional territory. What belongs to them includes the town where I live, the land my house occupies.

Here’s a version of a story you may have heard before. A very proper middle-aged woman is seated alone at a table for two in a crowded tea shop. She orders a pot of tea and plans to enjoy the newspaper and the package of cookies she has brought with her. A teenager with pink, spiked hair and a nose ring politely asks if he might share her table, there being no other empty chairs. The woman offers a stingy nod, barely glancing up from her book.

When her tea arrives she takes a cookie and sets the open package back on the table. She nibbles her cookie and reads. The young man takes a cookie from her package and dips it in his tea. The woman glares, takes another cookie and pulls the package to her side of the table. The youth reaches across and takes her last cookie. He smiles and offers her half of it. The woman huffs, grabs up her belongings and marches out of the shop. At the bus stop, she rummages in her purse for exact change and discovers her unopened package of cookies.

Like most Canadians, I grew up believing I was eating my own cookies. I am coming to see that I have been eating someone else’s cookies all along. As a person of faith, Brueggemann’s definition of biblical justice makes me squirm. I both resist and am grateful for the discomfort it causes me, for the way it mocks our rationalizing, sidestepping and complexifying of Indigenous treaty rights in Canada. Not only land but language, culture, self-determination and access to resources have also been unjustly taken.

There is scant evidence that the restorative Jubilee justice described in Scripture ever happened. Nonetheless, I will mark National Aboriginal Day on June 21, challenged by the kind of justice described by Micah. It is a demanding, costly sort of justice, but reconciliation is impossible without that kind of justice. As a nation, we are being called by an ancient voice to seek justice — to sort out what belongs to whom and to return it to them — to love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

Author's photo
David Giuliano is the former moderator of The United Church of Canada, an award-winning writer and author of "Postcards from the Valley: Encounters with Fear, Faith and God." He lives with his wife, Pearl, in Marathon, Ont.
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