Justice and the Commonwealth Caribbean

Dr. Delano Palmer

Dr. Delano Palmer,
Deputy President

There are so many serious issues of injustice within our world that one does not know where to begin in addressing the problem.  A longstanding majority-world issue that has caught the attention of Bible scholars is the plight of the Dalits living in the world’s largest democratic nation. Though it bears some similarity to the Black-white impasse of the North Atlantic region, the Dalit situation is not related to post-slavery/post-emancipation vicissitudes. It is firmly entrenched in the history of Hindu culture. Then there is the seemingly intractable Palestinian question amidst the more recent Syrian civil unrest—all of which threaten to undo the best efforts of international jurisprudence and exhaust the resources of the United Nations. Turning to South America, the pre-world cup build up provided a fitting stage for some to draw our attention to deplorable conditions in Brazil, and the oil rich Venezuelans (the majority?) want the world to know as well that the post-Chavez era is not a bed of roses. As Priscilla the author of Hebrews would say, time would fail me to mention the challenges of the peoples of the Ukraine, South Africa, Nigeria, Malaysia, et al., but we must hurry on to the region that one theologian dubs the neo-exilic nation. Our main focus here will be on a few issues within the Anglophone community. In recent times both Jamaica and the twin-island republic—Trinidad and Tobago—have passed anti-gang legislation to (presumably) strengthen the arm of justice within their borders. Will it work? It is certainly too early to tell, but already there are voices of dissent. For example, Father Cyde Harvey (2013) believes that such a bill does not go far enough “Anti-gang cultures, whether it leads to legislation or not” says he, must begin in various places.” He continues:

  Those of us who have worked with youth at risk have been struck by the high percentage of them who have very poor reading skills. Many of our teenage boys are reading at levels half their age. Many of our gang leaders have reading disabilities which were not recognized at school, [which] left them at the back of the class and then saw them compensating through their other natural abilities of leadership, etc.

One way, some say, to tackle  challenges like these is to increase the support and full implementation of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), especially in light of the fact that our:

 Independence Constitutions were never the constituent acts of us as a sovereign people. Rather, they were all orders in council of the Westminster Imperial Parliament. . . . Our Independence Constitutions were not products of any communal act of constitution-making in the Commonwealth Caribbean. . . . The PROCESS Of constitution reform in the Commonwealth Caribbean therefore offers an auspicious occasion as any for critical reflection on the fundamental terms of our political and rethinking of the conventional understandings of West Indian constitutional law and practice, in order to rationally diagnose the more critical problems attending our political order, and to attempt resolve these problems by a discursive engagement of the West INDIAN citizenry on some of the larger questions of constitutional democratic governance. (MacIntosh 2012).

This worthwhile proposal raises at least two significant questions: can Caribbean leaders muster the political will to hasten such reforms? If and when they do, how far will these reforms go to effectively address the social ills plaguing the region?

Before returning to the Isaiah-Matthew inter-textual study attempted above, we highlight one more justice-concern: the Black presence in the Caribbean and the issue of reparation. This matter has caught the attention of the CARICOM secretariat as well as some of the most prominent academics in the regions. For all the stakeholders, except the former colonizers, the main point here is one of natural justice. One Caribbean scholar argues that:

There is no doubt that reparation is a just cause; and clear precedence exists. . . . [P]erhaps the most famous case of reparation was that paid by the German state to the Jews in territories controlled by Hitler's Germany to indemnify them for persecution. In the initial phase, payments included US$2 billion to make amends to victims of Nazi persecution; US$952 million in personal indemnities; US$35.70 per month per inmate of concentration camps; pensions for the survivors of victims; and US$820 million to Israel to resettle fifty thousand Jewish emigrants from lands formerly controlled by Hitler. Later, other, and largely undisclosed, payments followed; and even in 1992, the World Jewish Congress in New York announced that the newly unified Germany would pay compensation, totaling $63 million for 1993, to fifty thousand Jews who had suffered Nazi persecution but had not been paid reparations because they lived in East Germany. Reparation has also been paid to First Nation People in the USA and Canada, as well as to Japanese-Americans, Koreans and Japanese-Canadians (Shepherd 2014).

We will wait and see what is the outcome of this latest call.

 In more recent times as well and in tandem with African-Americans in particular, the Anglophone Caribbean has been in the habit of celebrating the achievements of people of African descent, against the backdrop of five-hundred years of slavery and colonialism. Here in Jamaica, February is earmarked as the month to carry that celebration, along with a focus on Reggae, the most enduring musical genre coming out of the Caribbean. The appropriateness of February to highlight such events has not been lost on the majority of Jamaicans, since it is the month of Bob Marley, who is undoubtedly the greatest Reggae icon of the last century.There are especially two songs that are indelibly etched in my mind with respect to the Caribbean and its fractured history. The First is the soul stirring ode by Los Pop Tops, a vocal band of Spaniards with a Trinidadian as lead singer. Like the Jamaica National Anthem it is prayer full of soul-food for thought. It tells of the lead singer’s astronomical quest to ascertain why his beautiful skin is not recognized as such; why indeed it was thought to be an awful thing. The song is full of deep pathos, and is surpassed in this regard only by Sam Cooke’s magnum opus; I was Born by the River, posthumously released. The strong lyrical content of Los Pop Tops’ tune is regularly punctuated by the title- refrain ‘Oh Lord, why Lord’ reminiscent of the lament of the martyrs in Revelation chapter 6. Those who lived through the 60s and 70s cannot forget these words:

I've searched the open sky
To find the reason why
Oh Lord, why Lord
The color of my skin
Is said to be an awful sin
Oh Lord, why Lord
No, I cannot understand
No, I can never, never understand
Oh Lord, why Lord
I've got to live and give
Much more than I can give
Oh Lord, why Lord
Oh why, why why, why why
Why why, why why, why Lord
In this world it is no secret
All the problems and hatred
Oh Lord, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
I just can't seem to find why
My every move is so unseen
Oh Lord, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
Why this lonely man must try
And can have no peace of mind
Oh Lord, why Lord
I just can't help but cry
The tears won't stay inside
Oh Lord, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
I've got to live and give
Much more than I can give
Oh Lord, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
I feel the weight of everlasting hate
But my strength will not grow faint
Oh Lord, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
I'll wear the chains
So every man must see the change
Oh Lord, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
I ask no special kindness
I ask no special deed
Oh Lord, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
 
Only peace and justice
Forever more
Oh Lord, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
Is it so much to ask
Even of you
To be the same as the
Majority
Why is it that I must suffer
Without even a cause
And no one cares
Oh Lord, why God
I've got to live and give
Much more than I can give
Oh Lord, why Lord
Why why, why why, why Lord
.

This beautiful piece of poetic-petition was written at a time when a man was judged not by the content of his character but by the colour of his skin, to use words attributed to the late great Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. The other song of merit appears less painful but is no less removed from the reality of the day. It is what some may regard as a triumphal recital, and just like Sam Cooke’s lyrical master piece, it was released after the writer’s home going.

 

Old Pirates, Yes, They Rob I/Sold I To the Merchant Ships/Minutes Later Took I From The Bottomless Pit/But My Hand Was Made Strong/By’ The Hand of The Almighty/We Forward In This Generation Triumphantly/Won’t You Help To Sing These Songs of Freedom?/ ’Cause All I Ever Had, Redemption Songs . . . Emancipate Yourself From Mental Slavery/None But Ourselves Can Free Our Minds/Have No Fear For Atomic Energy/’Cause None Of Them Can Stop The Time/How Shall They Kill Our Prophets/While We Stand Aside And Look?/ Yes, Some Say It’s Just A Part Of It/We Got To Fulfill The Book.

 

Unlike ‘O Lord, Why Lord,’ the theme of liberation dominates this other piece written by an outstanding Jamaican. In the opening lines the individuality of the enslaved figures quite prominently to underscore the degradation of his bondage on the one hand and liberation on the other. What is of interest too is the skillful admixture of pronouns ‘I’, ‘my’, and ‘we’, which at the same time expresses personal interest as well as subtle inclusiveness.

The other pronouns in the song point ostensibly to the ‘fatalists’ who insist ‘We got to fulfill the book’, and also to those who murder genuine prophets. The Song also points to vestiges of slavery and the urgent need of Black people in particular to emancipate themselves from cognitive and spiritual bondage, words echoing a famous speech by a Christian statesman. This task must be carried out courageously even in the face of the threat of ‘atomic energy’. Some analysts find the second stanza intriguing in that it urges liberation of the self by the self, yet in the opening lines redemption was effected by the ‘Hand of the Almighty’. On closer examination, however, the song writer declares that his hand was indeed strengthened by the selfsame Almighty himself.

 The Ghanaian-Jamaican Kwame Dawes best sums up Marley's Redemption Song: “In four minutes Marley tells of a history that spans 400 years.” This begs the question: Why is it that after 400 years ‘man to man’ is still so unjust? To put the question differently, how it that in the 21st century human trafficking seems to be such big business for whites, for blacks, and those in between? I am glad that as it was in the beginning, it will not be so in the end!
The Good Book declares that slavery has its source in the human heart (sin, not skin).

This is seen, for example, in Jacob’s family when his older sons sold their brother into slavery and in the response of an African monarch to the rapid growth of Jacob’s great grandchildren in their first Diasporan experience: “Then,” the Bible says, “a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour”’ (Exodus 1: 9-11).

 

The Bible also teaches that deliverance from every form of oppression and slavery is the work of God, even when human agency is evident (Jonah 2:9). The Bible further teaches that the greatest and best experience from the agony of enslavement comes only through Jesus the Son of God who gave his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). This is essentially what the people of God celebrate, commemorate, and communicate yearly, monthly, and weekly in the Eucharist—and this is just the beginning. In the end, the best is yet to come! This vision of fulsome human flourishing in the Eschaton is just   what Matthew and Isaiah have laid before us. In their day they were no doubt those who hungered and thirsted after societal and personal justice, while awaiting the fulfillment of the pertinent promises. Twenty-first century members of the Messianic community cannot do anything less, especially in light of the fact that:

 The holy books of no other religion depict their followers so negatively as the Bible does the Jews and the Christians. Scripture describes very graphically the doctrine that Jews and Christians are also . . . [unjust] and capable of the most dreadful sins, and denounces not only the atrocities carried out by the Gentiles, but also those of the supposed (or true) people of God. This pitiless self-criticism is integral to Judaism and Christianity, in contrast to other religions.  No other faith criticizes itself so severely as Old Testament Judaism or New Testament Christianity.  Scripture exposes the errors of the leaders very clearly, and God often employs outsiders to recall His people to obedience (Schirrmacker 2008).)

 

Conspicuous by his absence, in relation to this ‘canonical criticism’—both in the Hebrew Bible and the NT—is the One identified as the Servant of the Lord.

This Servant of the Lord is also to be contrasted with some of the leaders of the region at various levels (Pastors, Politicians, Police?). Although they bear the name servants (of the people), few, it would appear, are committed to the concept of servant leadership. Certainly none can be truly compared  with the Isaianic Suffering-Servant in his pursuit of justice on behalf of the poor; too many, like Cyrus of old, serve the Almighty in what may be described as a ‘mono-dimensional experience’ (“you do not acknowledge me”). This notwithstanding, we are still optimistic concerning human flourishing in the region, for, “A Fresh Wind is blowing over . . . [the Caribbean] I hear it on the airwaves, the aspirations of our people in the cries of transparency For justice brotherhood and peace. Blow wind blow”(Keane 2012)

[And] As Christians, we are commanded to pray for those in leadership. . . .  I do pray regularly for the Most Honourable Prime Minister, her Cabinet and members of Parliament, as well as for leaders of the Church, business, the public sector and of the society in general. There are times, though, when we are called to do more than pray. God has given gifts and talents to His servants and He calls on us to use them in defence of truth and justice in our nation (Allen 2015).  

Works Cited

 Allen, Patrick, “Fortifying the Foundations,” CJET 14 (2015), 10.

Dingwall, M. http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20140424/cleisure/cleisure5.html

Harvey, Cyde. “‘Getting to the Roots’: A Reflection on the Trinidad and Tobago Anti-Gang Bill” Goundings: Catholic Theological Reflections on Issues facing Caribbean People in the 21st Century  29: 24.

Keane, J C. iPromise: Inspiration from Jamaica’s  National Pledge (Kingston: Peartree Press, 2012),  ix.

McIntosh, Simeon C.R. Reading Text & Polity: Hermeneutics and Constitutional Theory (Kingston: The Caribbean Law Publishing Co., 2012), 6-7.

 Sheperd, Verene.   https://www.google.com.jm/search?hl=en-JM&source=hp&q=verene+shepard+and+reparation&gbv=2&oq=verene+shepard+and+reparation&gs_l=heirloom-hp.12...336944.363074.0.365726.31.8.1.22.23.0.328.1295.2-4j1.5.0....0...1ac.1.34.heirloom-hp..23.8.1373.Zx8HPmuDoBk. For arguments against, see

Schirrmacker, Thomas Towards a Theology of Martyrdom (Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2008), 43.

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