jets on Halifax runwayWe landed in Halifax around 1 p.m. on September 11, 2001, and only then got the news about the attacks, and then we waited aboard our plane hoping that the FAA would open the airspace up back in the United States to let us fly home. After two hours without even a hint of departing, it seemed unlikely that any of the forty-two stranded commercial jets were going anywhere soon. And our 777 was parked at the end of that queue. No one knew that it would be Saturday before we flew home.

But we had access to the pilots, so I put on my journalist’s hat and found a spot to stand unobtrusively near the open cockpit door. I looked in and was struck by the complexity of the massive instrument panel. I heard the scratchy, AM radio signal coming out of Halifax that was the pilots’ source of sporadic newscasts about the attack, much of it still rumor. The pilots said Hello to me and returned to their conversation. The atmosphere appeared busy but relaxed. A flight attendant occasionally walked up to check in with the pilots about life in the cabin.

There were stories in that cockpit, I knew, and I had a question. At an appropriate moment I introduced myself and asked Captain Williams why he had made such an indefinite announcement over the Atlantic. “Why not just tell us what had happened?” I asked. He didn’t hedge. He explained that after turning off the video screens, he and his co-pilot discussed what kind of announcement to make and what language to use. “We’ve got almost sixty years’ experience between us,” he revealed, “but neither of us has been in this kind of a situation before. But colleagues who have been have told us that, in the air, some passengers may panic when they hear the words ‘terrorist attack’ or ‘hijacking,’ so we talked for a long time about the right words to describe the urgency but not panic anyone.”

Two flight attendants arrived and explained that the cabin was getting stuffy and some passengers were getting ornery. Others need a smoke, one said. Water and snacks are running low and two infants need formula. Squeezed into my spot near the cockpit, I listened to nearly sixty years of experience process each problem and take wise decisions.

Captain Williams radioed the ground crew for water, lunches, and baby formula. He announced that the port side door would be opened for fresh air and the port rear door for those who needed a smoke. “But don’t crowd that rear area, please,” he said. “Take turns smoking. And try to keep your smoke outside the plane.” Such gestures lightened the mood and brightened outlooks considerably in our cloistered social microcosm. I later learned that decisions made by crews on some of the other grounded carriers had not been as wise.

inside delta planeThere was still the crucial matter of reaching my wife. I had no idea if she knew where I was. After we landed in Halifax, a flight attendant had been letting me borrow her cell every so often, but it was impossible to get an open line each time I tried, so after two hours I stopped trying. Nodding to Captain Williams, I relinquished my space to another passenger and walked the narrow aisles a few times. From that brief reconnaissance I knew that it was still pointless to borrow “Terri’s” cell again. I saw only one or two passengers talking on their phones; others who had phones were still wearing out their resend buttons. I would wait.

There would be more stories on this plane. I kept my journalist’s hat on and stopped at the side port door to take in the fresh air. I struck up a conversation with a friendly couple who, apparently like me and many others, had no phone. They introduced themselves as Robert and Georgia, from Memphis. Robert, a Christian minister, explained that they had been in London for the opening ceremonies of a colleague’s church. While we were comparing notes about London, we heard the mike cue. Captain Williams announced that the FAA had decided not to reopen U.S. airspace today. “We might be here for another day,” he said.

As Robert and I were considering the implications of this development, his trouser pocket suddenly began beeping. His daughter in Memphis had been playing phone robotics herself and had finally beat the odds. Voilà! A connection. Nearby passengers were astounded. After he finished talking to his daughter, she took my wife’s number and promised to get hold of her to explain where I was and that I was okay. Lunches began arriving through the side port door. I moved off to get one.

What should strangers stuck in crisis do? Try to make their situation better. Somehow the Halifax ground crew, the crew of our Delta flight, and we passengers were all pulling together in that direction, helping one another cope as best we could, hour after hour aboard the 777, with the resources we had to hand. Jesus’ Good Samaritan was no longer a mere story to me. The collective pulling together for our common good continued at the base.

Story continued next post……

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

9/11 runway image by CBC News (permission via Creative Commons)


helping handWhat do strangers stuck in crisis do? They can make their situation worse or pull together to try to make it better. During our days as guests of Canada, the Nova Scotians generously pooled their resources to create a relatively flourishing reality for us, truly remarkable given the crisis. The story of how the Nova Scotians opened their lives to their 10,000 unexpected guests was made into a moving, PBS documentary called “Stranded Yanks,” which aired on the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

For those of us now encamped at Shearwater Air Force Base – one thousand of us – countless gestures of kindness were being extended, as I began to discover in the lobby of the base’s huge gymnasium. While we had been cooped up in the 777 on the tarmac the previous day, and unbeknownst to us, parents, teachers, and schoolchildren from the Tallahassee Community School of Dartmouth were arriving at the base with large boxes full of goodies: toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, deodorant, shampoo, underwear, hair brushes, mousse, razors, bottled water.

The provisions seemed endless. Even ear plugs! Boxes were still arriving when I investigated the lobby at 8 a.m. after showering. “Take what you need,” a Red Cross worker told me. “It’s our gift to you.” Our hosts, to use a Christian expression, were giving grace. I was alone and disoriented but many of my concerns dissolved before the precise generosity.

We were given free roam of most of the huge base, including use of its recreational facilities and movie hall. We were fed three good meals a day from a wide-ranging menu in the large buffet restaurant. Wednesday evening, the officers’ mess was opened to us, where chefs grilled steaks and barbecued chicken in a terraced courtyard that included a well-stocked bar.

When they were off-duty, Navy personnel brought in to help run the base during our stay gave us lifts into town if we needed anything. That was a godsend because by Thursday my tight-fitting dress shoes were killing my feet from walking miles a day on the grounds. I copped a ride into Dartmouth with a Navy officer and bought a pair of comfortable walking shoes at Walmart. Some of us joked that “the service” here was better than what we would get at a four-star hotel – if we were offered that option, we decided we would stay at Shearwater.

Kathy, a passenger from Salt Lake City, told me, “It reminds me of Jesus saying, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in and fed me and clothed me.’” I thought about a time recorded in the Book of Acts, chapter 4, where the communal living in Jerusalem among Jesus’ followers is described as being that of “great grace” because everything was being shared and no one lacked any needed thing.

Even the weather was a grace to us. With the exception of two hours light rain one afternoon, blue skies and delightful temperatures prevailed – no small blessing, considering that hundreds of us spent many hours outside on the grounds.

This generous neighborliness, this shalom, at Shearwater had begun on the plane the previous day and I want to tell you about those fourteen hours in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Mandajuice (permission via Creative Commons)


Halifax Nova Scotia AirportDelta Flight 59 from London to Atlanta became the penultimate of forty-two jet loads of now stranded international travelers being granted safe harbor at Halifax International before the airport ran out of wing space for the huge 747s, 767s, 777s, Air Buses, and L1011s. I later calculated that about 10,000 people had arrived – a small town and all the problems that come with that. The scene from the air as we circled for landing looked as if a child had carefully positioned dozens of huge toy planes in two long rows, nose-to-tail and wingtip-to-wingtip on a long strip of black ribbon.

Still circling, I was also surprised to see that the service road that ran for a mile or more alongside the airport was bumper-to-bumper with cars, vans, and pickups. Like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing house fire, onlookers had queued to watch the landings. But for them, it wasn’t just the odd sight of forty huge planes from all over Europe landing in close succession. That was not the only thing that had brought them out. They knew what had happened in the States. We did not. They were talking about it. We didn’t know what to talk about.

Similar emergency landings had been repeated across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver, although many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights headed toward American cities had been ordered back to their departure cities. Across America and Canada, the extreme sudden workout demanded of thousands of air traffic controllers and pilots had the astonishing result of going without incident. The FAA had ordered some 5,000 civilian planes to be landed immediately so that the military could isolate any rogue planes still in the air. Within four minutes, 700 planes had been landed. Nearly 3,000 within the next hour. All 5,000 had been safely guided to the ground in under two hours. A truly impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history.

Taxiing to the end of the queue, far from the terminal, we eased past the staring congregation of onlookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. He cued the mike, thanked us for our “patient cooperation,” and gave us the sketchy details that were available to him. It was now hours after the attack but the news reaching Halifax was still an ambiguity of facts and rumors.

Two hijacked passenger jets had crashed into the Twin Towers, which had collapsed in rubble and dust. Thousands were dead. The Pentagon had been attacked. Hundred were dead. A passenger jet may have crashed in Pennsylvania. Hundreds were dead. Whatever any of that meant. America may be going to war. But against whom?

I’m not even going to try to describe our complete bewilderment. Quite unlike those watching television and getting to hear about the major events sequentially – as they happened, that is, having some breathing space between them to digest what was going on and talk to people about that – we did not have any breathing space. Astonishment upon astonishment piled up on us in seconds as we listened to Captain Williams over the intercom.

There were no televisions to watch on the plane and the crew was relying on information from the tower, from other pilots, and from whatever occasional news reports came over a scratchy, AM radio signal in the cockpit. “Hopefully,” Captain Williams concluded, “the FAA will re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. So maybe we’ll be able to get out of here in a few hours.”

It was now around 1p.m. Halifax time. At 3 a.m. – fourteen hours later – we were deplaned, hustled through customs, and bussed twenty miles through the cool night air to Shearwater Air Force Base, at Dartmouth, where we would live as guests of Canada until Saturday morning, though that departure date was unknown to anyone at the time. Everyday were told that we would probably be flying home “tomorrow.”

Twin TowersAltogether, about a thousand of us strandeds were now encamped at the Air Force base – two Delta flights besides ours, two British Air flights, and an Air Tours flight filled with Scots who had been on their way to Florida. I was first off the first yellow school bus to arrive at the base. It was 4 a.m. Two hundred of us were walked from the buses to a huge gymnasium, where I soon fell asleep on one of the military cots that had been set up for us in that large facility.

I awoke at 7 a.m. amid dim lighting to the sound of snoring, my lower back aching madly. I slipped from under the dark blue blanket, sat on the edge of the cot, and stretched to touch my toes. I took in the unfamiliar surroundings. Nearly everyone was asleep, but a few souls were shuffling in and out of the gym carrying white bath towels, evidently going to and from the showers. We had only been allowed to take our overhead bags from the plane. I wondered what I would do for fresh clothes, pajamas, underwear, deodorant, a shaver, my hairbrush.

Grabbing a white towel from beneath the cot, I walked into the corridor and leaned against a wall to get my bearings. My shirt and trousers were not too wrinkled, but I needed a shave. Military personnel wandered the long hallway and nodded at me as they passed. I saw Canadian Red Cross workers manning tables down in the lobby and a few strandeds milling about there. They seemed to be rummaging through large cardboard boxes. I heard a television blaring from somewhere and immediately remembered my wife cautioning me on the phone, when I had finally been able to reach her from the plane several hours earlier, about the horrible images I’d see. I would shower first.

It would be nearly twenty hours after the attacks before my imagination would be seared by the never-ending television images of the flying machines disappearing with a metallic burr into the Twin Towers and never coming out, of the intrepid jumpers who leapt hand-in-hand to their deaths rather than be burned alive, of the twisted I-beams crashing and billowing in the explosive alchemy of avi-fuel, office furniture, and the dust of human remains.

It was unbelievable. September 12, I realized, had dawned. Life would be different now. How different I did not know. But different it would be.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Phil LaCombe & Frank Culbertson respectively (permission via Creative Commons)


Halifax Nova ScotiaThree hours out of London and six miles above the Atlantic flying uneventfully through a brilliant blue sky, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 to Atlanta were as contented as possible on a nine-hour flight. The meal service had ended and people were now quietly absorbed in their laptops, reading novels, or drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick Airport thirty minutes late, so far so good.

But then all the video screens went blank. A hushed buzz arose as passengers wondered why. Not to worry, an air hostess soon announced. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes. A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, some ordered drinks, some queued for the toilets. A few broke the spell of counterfeit evening by sliding up their porthole shades. Outside, the bright blue heavens – pilots call it severe clear – stretched out into forever. It hurt one’s eyes to stare there for too long. Twenty minutes passed. The Boeing 777 droned on. The video screens remained blank. People fidgeted and some wondered why their cells phones had quit working. And then like restless compass needles locking on magnetic north, everyone’s wandering thoughts suddenly fixed on the thick Texas drawl now coming over the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Williams speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention. There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the country has been closed. All planes in the air over the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land Atlanta. We have been directed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we should be landing in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

A kind of holy moment filled the cabin as passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. No one spoke. No one dared. Finally some whispers. What do you think it is? Must have been a huge earthquake? A nuclear bomb, maybe? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

None of these events seemed likely to me, passenger 34G. Even if a nuclear catastrophe had occurred in one part of the country, why had all the airports been closed? What had happened? I had to know. Knowing would at least help me beat back the worst-case-scenario self-talk I now battled. I calculated to Eastern Time and concluded that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But then how could I be sure about that, if I didn’t know what had happened and where? It had to have been huge, but who had been effected? I was returning home from a demanding three-week book tour and speaking trip. I was completely knackered and just wanted to get home. Was I even going to get home?

Someone on this plane must know. Because I usually travel alone on these long flights, I like to make a connection with a flight attendant after I board. It’s a habit that has paid dividends, and I hoped it would now. Mine was an aisle seat a few rows behind the first class barrier and I had a few seats to myself, so I hoped to take advantage of that private space.

Coming down the aisle toward me from first class was “Terri,” a hostess I had befriended earlier. Our eyes met and I gently got her attention, hoping she would stop. She did, and then crouched to listen as I whispered, “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know. And I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued down the aisle on her errand. It was a small grace but it was enough – strangely comforting – and the first of many such gestures to come in the next few days.

Story continued next post….

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image of Halifax from “canoe too” (permission via Creative Commons)

Transition Week

Beginning today, I am taking several days away from posting. Three reasons, really. I need to think through the next series of posts, prepare for a speaking engagement, and tweak some technology.

Some recent discoverers of the blog have said that they are looking forward to digging into previous posts. This could be a good time for doing that. To assist all of us in that, I have revised and expanded the “categories” list in order to make it quicker to locate past topics and pieces (see here). So even if you have been here since the beginning, this might be a good time to check out past posts. And, as always, I look forward to reading reading and replying to your comments on any of the posts.

See you back here soon. We will then transition from the historical wisdom tradition into the contemporary scene.

Make every effort to live in peace with all. Hebrews 12:14

red loryImage by Rob Young (permission via Creative Commons)


U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listen during the G7 Summit working dinner in BrusselsThis week, Germany expelled the CIA’s top spy in Berlin. It was called an “extraordinary escalation” in the espionage confrontation between two close allies, which began with last summer’s revelation that the NSA was spying on its European allies (No!). Thank you very much Ed Snowden, whose cache of stolen NSA documents may possibly outlast the staying power of the Energizer Bunny®.

Shock. Anger. Breach of trust. All of this and more was felt by the German public last year. A formal investigation was launched, and now the expulsion, apparently for political reasons surrounding lingering public outrage in Germany at the United States.

What shocked me when the original story broke last year, and no doubt it shocked you too, was the disingenuous outrage of the European leaders themselves. Friends and allies spying on each other? That’s a surprise? To those in the corridors of power? Come on. They’ve read their John LeCarré.

The scene is the paneled library of Sarratt, LeCarré’s fictional school for British spies, who this evening, in candlelight, are being regaled by true stories from the guest of honor, the inimitable George Smiley, once Britain’s top spy, now retired. It’s the end of the Cold War. The students are graduating, and the usually secretive Smiley is being an exception his own rule, revealing instructive incidents from his legendary career – mind you, in a room where no recorders are running, no notes are being taken, and no official reference afterward my be made to what was said.

It’s now after dinner. Smiley’s introductory remarks about the globe and its spies are going down with the port, and now the questions are coming – about interrogations, about loyalties, about colonialism, about running joes, about espionage …. Then a challenge from Clare, seemingly about journalists but really a hint that spying may be a dying profession now that the Cold War has ended. Why bother with spying at all? she asks Smiley. Nine times out of ten a good journalist can tell us quite as much as the spies can.

True, says Smiley, “very often they’re sharing the same sources anyway. So why not scrap the spies and subsidize the newspapers? It’s a point that should be answered in these changeable times. Why not? It’s perfectly true that most of our work is either useless, or duplicated by overt sources. The trouble is, the spies aren’t there to enlighten the public, but governments. And governments, like everyone else, trust what they pay for, and are suspicious of what they don’t.”

Then quickly to the deeper issue. “Spying is eternal,” Smiley continues. “If governments could do without it, they never would. They adore it. If the day ever comes when there are no enemies left in the world, governments will invent them, so don’t worry. Besides – who says we only spy on enemies? You’re chosen profession is perfectly secure, I can assure you.”

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Sarratt story from John LeCarré’s The Secret Pilgrim

Image from Reuters


sparrow symphony“If we shall not have two states we shall have one conflict. And neither them or us should condemn our children to fight all their lives.” Recent words from Israel’s outgoing president Shimon Peres, who is leaving office at the end of this month. He was speaking to television journalist Charlie Rose at a synagogue in New York City, during an emotion-packed trip last week to the United States.

Peres is 90. His service to Israel spans the entire 66 years of the state’s history. He has worked with 10 U.S. presidents, labored for 40 years for a peace deal with the Palestinians, and seen Israel sign peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. “I am leaving office,” he said in Jerusalem before he left for the U.S. “But I am not leaving the battle for peace.” Nor should we.

We have been looking into the distant past of the old-world Middle East (the story of Moses and Jethro), to consider the wisdom of impartial justice as vital to peacemaking. Peres’s remarks gives us a moment to pause and reflect on the current Middle East, specifically on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

A gut-wrenching sense of impartial justice has for decades gripped the majority of both domestic populations. Both have recognized that neither side is going to attain perfect justice in a peace deal. Both have been willing, against great odds, to compromise and to show an inordinate amount of collective patience to reach an equitable solution. Both have absorbed acute pain and suffering, hope deferred, and tragedies of death as a witness to their strong, common commitment to a negotiated settlement. There may be a more poignant present-day illustration of two peoples seeking peace with each other, but perhaps not.

“A two state solution is not an empty desire,” Peres told Rose, as he then immediately reminded the synagogue audience about Moses. Moses, Peres noted, said that all people are equal and that nobody is superior or inferior because all are made in the image of God.

soul symphonyThe perennial drive for a negotiated peace in the Middle East is truly remarkable. I believe we can find a lot of wisdom about it in what James Skillen calls “symphonic justice.” Skillen, president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice, has been a public theologian and a policy adviser for more than thirty years, working with elected officials, advisers, and others on both sides of the aisle in Washington DC to create and implement just policies and agreements for the common good. Some years ago, during some conversations we had about justice in this world, Skillen explained that he had been thinking about justice as symphonic.

“I was trying to find an image,” Skillen said, “to capture the sense of a larger communal whole. When a maestro conducts a symphony, which of course the composer ‘heard’ in his or her head first, the symphony depends on each instrument doing its own work in keeping with its own distinctive character, and as close to a perfected art as possible. There can be no reduction of all instruments to some homogeneous totality. The very nature of musical meaning is that it is precisely many distinctive sounds (on the scale) and many distinctive kinds of instruments (playing with each other), blending, doing counterpoint, and all the rest to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.”

Picking up on Skillen’s analogy, Gideon Strauss, executive director of the DePree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary, wrote that before we vote for political candidates we ought to ask whether they are committed to helping our communities and institutions toward a more symphonic justice. “In a symphony orchestra, there are a multitude of instruments, each with its own tone and timbre. The conductor, working off a common score, makes room for and sets limits to the unique contribution of each section of instruments so that the variety of voices and melodies, rhythms and tones do not result in either an anarchic cacophony or a monotonous conformity, but instead produce a rich and beautiful harmony.”

Strauss, an adviser to portions of the 1996 South African constitution, goes on to argue that a “government has a responsibility to make room for and set limits to the great variety of persons, communities and institutions subject to its authority, so that each can flourish according to its inherent and unique potential, while interacting in peaceful and mutually beneficial harmony.”

Symphonic justice is what Jethro, a non-Israelite, counseled Moses to teach the diverse, exodus orchestra to play in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. And play it they did. Symphonic justice is what the majorities of Palestinians and Israelis desire and work hard at to play today, despite the region’s political cacophony.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by stevehdc & Temari 09, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


Continued from the previous post.

blue water ccence4) Yahweh affirms Jethro’s judicial wisdom. Whatever his reason, Moses, in his long speech to the Israelites, does not attribute Jethro as a key source of wisdom for establishing the desert society’s judicial system. But Yahweh does. How so?

Let’s begin with this. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is is an outlier. He is not even part of the non-Israelites who joined with the Israelites on the march out of Egypt to escape pharaoh’s oppression. He is a Midianite priest who, having heard about the great exodus from Egypt, has traveled from Midian to see his son-in-law. Nevertheless, wisdom for the judicial body that Moses establishes comes from this Midianite priest. This is doubly noteworthy because Moses has been commissioned by Yahweh, whom we would think has a pretty clear gripe against “pagans” like the Midianites. After all, the Midianties were one of the peoples that were to be exterminated in the “Promised Land.”

Yahweh, however, makes not a peep of protest about the “pagan” source of wisdom that, as indicated in Exodus 18, inspires the judicial system for the desert society.

What are we to make of this? Partly, it seems to have something to do with the “internationality” of wisdom. This does not mean that there was one common wisdom tradition throughout the ancient empires. It means that, ultimately, there is one source for wisdom, God, and that it is a wisdom that is available for all humankind, available to anyone and everyone. Of course this does not mean that everyone will avail themselves of it; after all, the wisdom literature speaks very candidly about “fools.” Also, the biblical narrative from cover to cover, beginning with the Eden incident, indicates that God’s wisdom can be and often is distorted by people. Nevertheless, the book of Proverbs, the apostle James, and even Jesus himself, explains that God’s wisdom is available to all. (Three consecutive posts, beginning with this one, explore these biblical themes.)

With that as a biblical backdrop, I believe that, concerning the creation of the courts, Jethro the Midianite priest had God’s wisdom for Moses the Israelite leader. This conclusion seems to be pretty clearly supported by the ideas mentioned in the previous paragraph, and by the Exodus 18 narrative (the primary text we are focusing on in these three posts), and by other biblical passages.

We also have Jethro’s attitude. Unlike Balaam, who tries to get Israel cursed into oblivion, Jethro is not mischievously hoping to get his son-in-law in Dutch with Yahweh. Nor is Jethro haughty or dictatorial. He is a humble man who fears God.

Look, he says to Moses, don’t take my words for it; let’s submit my proposal for the judicial body to God to see if its any good. If God will bless it, make it happen. That will be good for you and for all these people. You will be under less of a strain and they will have their cases settled quickly. Instead of queuing up at your tent in the hot sun, they “will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:23). Now the Hebrew word translated as “satisfied,” here in the NIV translation, is the word is shalom, whose core meanings are about the kind of peace that produces community-wide well-being, wholeness, and flourishing. (See this post and also this one for a discussion of the close relationship of wisdom and shalom.)

red leaves old doorConsider also the principle of impartial justice, which was a vital part of Jethro’s wisdom to Moses. It is being instituted at the heart of the new society of Israel, here in the desert, before the giving of the Law. Further, impartial justice was then, later, taken up, as it were, and made an imperative in the social legislation of the nation of Israel after the giving of the Ten Commandments. To cite just one example, the judicial nature of a law given in Leviticus 19:33-34 is stated in a way that makes it doubly-edged, in that it is both negative and positive: A foreigner must not be oppressed or disrespected; the person must be treated as an Israelite. “Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” This law extends to non-Israelites the reach of a law stated in verse 18, which commands fellow Israelites to love one another.

We are also given to understand that the principle of impartial justice and its close relationship to wisdom makes its way solidly into Israel’s wisdom tradition. The prologue in the book of Proverbs includes the attainment of wisdom as a necessary attribute for judging “what is right and just and fair” (Proverbs 1:1-3). Further, wisdom sought in the context of “the fear of the Lord” is said to bring insight to “understand what is right and just and fair – every good path” (Proverb 2:1-9). Lady Wisdom also takes up the theme: “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just” (Proverbs 8:15). And near the end Proverbs, in a section introduced as “These also are the sayings of the wise,” the principle is briefly stated in the negative: “To show partiality in judging is not good” (Proverbs 24:23; see also 28:21).

And there is this. William McKane discovered that impartiality in justice was required in the political wisdom of Egyptian state officials, who were not to wield their considerable power nakedly or arbitrarily. McKane determined that in Egyptian wisdom instruction, power “was regulated by the religious concept of Maat,” which put clear ethical constraints on the officials. For instance, an Egyptian official “cannot exercise power in the context of the Egyptian state unless he respects at all times the demands of equity, and endeavors scrupulously to act fairly without respect of persons… [Thus] a passion for [impartial] justice was an important ingredient of power and … whoever did not have this capacity for probity and fair dealing in public affairs was disqualified from holding office by a self-regulating process of selection” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 63).

Conclusion. Moses obtains Yahweh’s blessing to follow Jethro’s detailed counsel for instituting a system of courts for the new desert society. Perhaps this judicial system was not unlike today’s structure of family courts, civil courts, criminal courts, and appeals courts, with Moses as the supreme court. But whatever that court system was like, the principle of impartial justice for everyone was normative, and the agency of wisdom played a central role in that normativity. This was then taken up into Israel’s legislation as a nation and in its wisdom tradition as well. The principle of impartial justice existed in Egypt, and it must have been part of Jethro’s Midianite wisdom and society.

Human nature being what it is, however, this is not to suggest that every case on the docket was judged equitably in ancient Israel. I am merely calling attention to the norm of impartial justice and its close relation to wisdom, which, incidentally, Jesus took to soaring heights in his wisdom-based Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10).

(For modern day possibilities if this principle is applied in practice, see Symphonic Justice.)

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by nateb2 & Big Grey Mare, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)