Tag Archives: justice

Parsing Justice: Jill Lindsey Harrison’s Pesticide Drift

Image by MIT Press

In the course of batting around with a colleague the possibility of doing a paper about a biblical approach to environmental justice, I picked up Jill Lindsey Harrison’s Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice and, candidly, was disappointed. For those who are not familiar with the environmental justice movement, as I wasn’t until recently, it is an attempt to correct what are seen as deficiencies in earlier environmental activism. It does this by recognizing the overlap between environmental and social justice problems, especially the disproportionate environmental burden born by those who are socially and economically marginalized and the same peoples’ lack of voice in crafting environmental policy. Though the movement has been around for decades, and gained steam in the nineties, recently historians (like Ted Steinberg and Thomas G. Andrews), sociologists (like Harrison), and activists have begun to stress more and more that when environmental disasters “strike,” they affect the poor and racial minorities more acutely than anyone else. It is a trenchant critique of the system, one that demands the attention of any and all concerned either with environmental ethics or with social equity. I certainly do not want to imply by my critique of Harrison that there is some flaw in the environmental justice perspective. My problem with Pesticide Drift is more academic and less foundational.

Harrison’s book is not, first and foremost, an apology for environmental justice, though she does more than her fair share of preaching. Instead, she turns her critical eye on the movement’s own perception of its place in the greater environmental discussion to point out an error in thinking among environmental justice advocates.

My aim in this book is to both uphold and amend this EJ argument. This book pivots around…a case that illustrates in sharp, present detail how the workings of “raw power” shift the burden of pesticide pollution to the bodies of California’s most marginalized and vulnerable residents. That said, I also challenge the claim that environmental inequalities exist because mainstream (i.e., non-EJ) environmental politics are devoid of justice. I contend instead that environmental inequalities emerge from the cruelty and malfeasance, but also from the ways in which many well-intentioned actors are engaging in efforts to make California agriculture more environmentally sustainable.

Or, in other words, the road to the toxic contamination of Hispanic communities is paved with good intentions. It strikes me as something of an obvious point, but one that undoubtedly still needed to be made considering how haughty activists can be in the presentation of their causes as just and their methods as the lone means of achieving that justice. So, with the aim of exploring how alternate theories of justice have unintentionally collaborated with pesticides to create an environmental and social disaster, Harrison gives an overview of the pesticide drift problem in southern California and the many fateful ways that individuals, industry, and the regulatory bodies of the state have failed to prevent it.

Except that Harrison never actually proves her central claim, that there are other theories of justice operating in the various responses to environmental issues. That is not, of course, to say that she is wrong. Her proposition, having been stated, is so self-evident that it undoubtedly will stand without a proper defense. Her book, however, lacks a raison d’être without it. Harrison proposes the existence of two alternate theories of justice: the libertarian and communitarian. The former sees justice as primarily concerned with upholding personal property rights. The latter holds the community is best positioned to locate and enact justice. It is a simple taxonomy, so simple that it elucidates nothing for the reader. It would be just as convincing to say that a libertarian sense of freedom is centered on private property, or a libertarian conception of personal well-being. Or you could leave out “justice” altogether and say that libertarians focus on private property. Communitarians focus on the community. It says nothing about “justice” to collapse an entire worldview into it: Christian justice is cristocentric, utilitarian justice stresses utility. Harrison had the opportunity to explore the notions of justice–the ideas, the impulses, the cultural drivers–that inspire these alternate responses to environmental issues, but she declined to pursue any deeper than the most superficial definition of what “justice” might mean outsider her own movement.

Instead, she spends the majority of her time taking libertarianism and communitarianism to task more generally. (After all, not having defined their visions of justice with any rigor, it would be hard to do otherwise.) Libertarians have a false hope in the power of the person working in concert with the market. Individuals, while laudable in their efforts to farm sustainably, inevitably lack the ability to affect such a systemic issue as pesticide drift and struggle with the economic disincentive to do so. Industry, less laudable (why is not clear) has an even more powerful economic disincentive to create sustainable farming techniques, not when the pesticide industry is a multi-billion dollar quasi-monopoly for a handful of companies. Politicians, incentivized by industry, are content to shirk off their responsibility in exchange for campaign contributions. Communitarians are similarly naive in their assumption that a community can correct a structural issue in society and achieve social justice. Even agrifood advocates, the rank and file of the sustainable agriculture activists reading Michael Pollan and shopping at Whole Foods, reflect the kind of wealthy middle class assumptions about choice that cannot function for the impoverished communities that bear the brunt of environmental injustice. The problem with both mindsets is that problems of the size and scale of pesticide drift “require substantial government intervention” (189).*

Harrison is more than willing to set out detailed proposals for how to enact the environmental justice vision of justice on a national level, and for those who are interested only in exploring environmental justice policy, I can with all sincerity recommend (at least the last chapter of) Pesticide Drift. But for anyone expecting to have presented a compelling new intellectual framework for considering the way justice operates in environmental politics, Harrison proves an unforgivable tease. The book which will explore justice as an environmental concept in pre-EJ environmentalists, in industry, or in alternate political philosophies cries out to be written. Perhaps, if time and good fortune permit, we may yet make a contribution to that discussion by considering the implications a biblical approach to justice might have for environmental justice. In the meantime, Harrison has promised to fill a void and only stepped in to show us how empty it still is.

*(It is here that the regular reader will expect me to launch into a tirade about the gross inadequacy of the state to achieve anything of lasting good. I did just that in my personal conversations with my colleague who, like Harrison, seems to believe that after fifty years of intensive federal environmental legislation, the reason we are not seeing the kind of improvements we want is because we are simply not surrendering enough power to the state. I won’t distract myself with that nonsense here.)

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Answering Allison: Pacifism and the Unforgiving Servant

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The fourth error in Allison’s argument, his exegesis of the parable of the unforgiving servant, is intended to augment the third, but for the sake of keeping my comments brief I will treat it here separately. Picking up in the omitted portion of the previous quote, “But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured? Although this is a crucial question to which Matthew returns no explicit answer, in the parable in 18:23-25 a king, out of mercy, releases a servant from debt. But when that servant mistreats another, the king intervenes with punishment. In this story the king lets himself suffer wrong; but when it is another who suffers, mercy gives way to justice. Could it be that a similar sort of distinction should be read into 5:38-42?” The answer is, unequivocally, no. Why? Because that implication isn’t even present in the parable. It has been devised by Allison as a possible exemption from the ethical strictures of the Sermon on the Mount and then superimposed onto an unrelated parable.

It is simple enough to discern the correct intent of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, primarily because Jesus explains it at the end. Allison’s mistake can be understood (and, yes, forgiven) when one considers that the idea of a king being personally forgiving and institutionally violent fits very nicely with his other justification for ignoring the “resist not the evildoer” command. Still, Allison makes a fatal flaw by identifying the king with a human agent when Jesus himself says that the king figures “the heavenly Father” who “will do [likewise] to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” The figure which represents the questioner, in this case Peter, is the unforgiving servant. If there is a figure whose behavior is an analog to Christians’ it is the servant and not the king–lest our egos run away with us.

More than just being a gross exegetical failure, Allison’s reading of the text as a tacit approval of institutional violence to correct injustice misses entirely the point which Jesus is making to Peter. When Peter asks how often to forgive, Jesus gives him an astronomical number and, just in case Peter thinks he’s exaggerating, he follows up with a parable explaining the consequences of not forgiving. Quite in line with Christian pacifism, God is the only agent authorized by the parable to decide when “mercy gives way to justice.” Human agents are expected to forgive because God has forgiven then and to expect the Father to remove that mercy if they are unwilling to emulate it. The suggestion that the parable might decide when Christians should be allowed to punish instead of forgive not only misunderstands the clear purpose of the story, it directly contradicts it. A more careless reading hardly seems possible.

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Answering Allison: Pacifism and Love

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The third attempt Allison tries to make to undo any pacifist interpretation of Matthew 5 sees a contradiction between total pacifism and the all-important command to love. He argues, “One can also, on the basis of the command to love (7:12; 19:19; 22:37-39), question the pacifist’s interpretation. Each situation envisioned in 5:38-42 is one in which the disciple alone is insulted or injured. But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured…Non-retaliation is one idea embodied in our text; but what if the equally important imperatives for justice or defense of the innocent appear to demand the exercise of force?” Allison proposes some interesting problems, but the assumed answered to his own questions leave a lot to be desired, as, to a degree, do the questions themselves.

For example, he makes an allusion to the imperatives for justice and defense of the innocent in the Sermon on the Mount but curiously offers no citation. He came up with three separate verses from Matthew as a whole for the command to love but can apparently offer none at all for the command to defend the defenseless or dole out justice. That is not to suggest that justice and concerned for the defenseless are not biblical principles. If Allison were willing, he might point to the command to give alms in Matthew 6 as an example of such a measure on behalf of the weak. Of course, it would, unfortunately for him, be an example of positive yet non-violent social action and wouldn’t further his point. In fact, the absence of a supporting citation turns out to be because there is no text which might further his point, in Matthew or elsewhere in the New Testament. The reader is never presented with an occasion when “defense of the innocent appear[s] to demand the exercise of force.” Perhaps the biblical authors just left it out. After all, the Greco-Roman world was such a friendly, well-policed place—unlike the modern West. They probably never encountered the kind of injustices demanding violent reaction that we do on a daily basis in America.

More importantly than the now characteristically extra-biblical methodology, however, is the implied answer to Allison’s question. It is true that ethical cases do arise in which the love of neighbor and the love of enemy do conflict, and Allison seems to admit that to respond with violence toward our enemy is to do something other than to love him (something which not all proponents of violent Christianity are willing to admit). Setting aside the evocation of the illusory moral category of “innocents,” the problem, unfortunately, with choosing love of neighbor over love of enemy is that it seems to directly contradict the very logic of Jesus presented in the command to love one’s neighbor. Jesus makes the point very explicit, and Paul will later as well, that human logic would suggest that we give preferential treatment to our neighbor. In Christ, however, no one gets preferential treatment. The commands to love our neighbor and our enemies are parallel, and there is no ethical hierarchy about them. If anything, indulging the vulgar tendency to love our neighbors just a little better than our enemies undermines the Christian spirit and nullifies the teaching. Allison admits, and I agree, that the conflict between loving one’s neighbor and loving one’s enemy are impossible to resolve perfectly and logically. We differ in that I embrace the reversal of terrestrial logic imposed by God in Christ and argue that it is nearer to the heart of the Gospel to shower your enemy with love than to love him only when there is no impediment to that love, when it doesn’t get in the way of you loving the people you really want to love.

(Parenthetically—which is a word I feel strange using when there are actual parentheses visible—my wife joked with me that we ought to buy each other guns so that, by Allison’s logic, so long as we’re together we can be protected. If someone attacks me, she could shoot him and be morally justified because her action was the defense of others rather than self. If someone attacks here, the situation could play out in reverse. It was so magnanimous of God to give us such a convenient end run around ethics.)

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