Spare me the sound of your songs.
I won’t listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice flow like a river
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
THE BOOK OF AMOS, 750 BC
According to the journalist John Pilger, author of Freedom next time, some 3,5 million black South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes and land between 1960 and 1982. This statistic has limited shock value until we imagine ourselves and our loved ones in the position of the dispossessed. We need to have a picture in mind of petty government officials arriving – accompanied by police and bulldozers – to systematically erase our entire community. If you think the word erase is hyperbole, then you’ve never walked around the desolate wasteland that is all that remains of the once vibrant community of Cape Town’s District Six.
In The discarded people by the British Catholic priest Cosmas Desmond, the author, who witnessed at first hand the devastation of apartheid forced removals under the Group Areas Act(1), described one such scene.
“… a wretched and desolate place. There is not enough water and not enough land for even subsistence farming. There is no industry and no work within daily reach. The inhabitants struggle against disease on the edge of starvation. It is impossible to say whether the physical degradation or the mental torture in such a place is the more terrible.”
If we think that letting bygones be bygones (that proverbial refrain “why can’t we all just move on?”) is a solution to South Africa’s current problems, then we are dangerously deluded. God will not listen to the music of our harps if our society continues in unrighteousness – neither correcting the imbalances of the past nor addressing the evils of the present. To the Jews, the word righteousness did not mean an exclusively personal, virtuous orientation of the heart. To be righteous was to lead a life pleasing to God. It was an act, something to be lived out. It was about relationship with our fellow man as much as with God. To the Jew of the Old Testament this was about how he was to treat the stranger, widows, orphans. It was about Justice. Fairness. Honesty.
“Tzedakah” is the Hebrew word for the acts that we call “charity” in English: giving aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes. However, the nature of tzedakah is very different from the idea of charity. The word “charity” suggests benevolence and generosity, a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy. The word “tzedakah” is derived from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due…”
– Source: http://www.jewfaq.org/tzedakah.htm
“Let justice flow like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, said the prophet. Our songs will remain an offence to God in a society where justice is deferred – and thus denied. The recent student protests, the violent service delivery protests, the unceasing calls for land redistribution and restitution all bear witness to a profound dissonance and increasingly loud demand for justice, born of hundreds of years of the absence of Tzedakah.
(1) Group Areas Act: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_Areas_Act