By Marc D. Israel
Last week, I watched in shock as federal troops used pepper spray and forcibly removed peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park. We didn’t know it at the time, but the reason for breaking up this demonstration was to allow President Trump to walk across the street from the White House for a photo op of him holding up a Bible in front of St. John’s Church.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked, since this act was consistent with his behavior throughout his presidency. But this incident was particularly disgraceful, even for him, because his actions were a complete perversion of the teachings of the book he was holding, especially in regard to the relationship between justice and peace.
One of the most popular chants we have heard this week is “No Justice, No Peace.” This formulation has been used in numerous demonstrations throughout the past 50 years. However, the close conceptual connection between peace and justice has been recognized since the time of that Bible, which the president held in his hand. In the original Hebrew, they share in common a relationship to the word rodef, usually translated as “pursuer” or, in its verb form, “to pursue.” There are only three nouns in the Hebrew Bible that follow rodef when it is used in this fashion — two synonyms for justice (tzedek and mishpat) and peace (shalom).
This is important because the word rodef indicates a stronger imperative to act than other words the Bible could have used, such as “do” or even “build.” Simultaneously, the use of the word rodef also recognizes that justice and peace are difficult to achieve – they are ideals that require our constant and consistent attention. Think about it: If we are in constant pursuit, we may never fully reach the goal, but we are at least guaranteed to always be on the right path.
If Trump had actually opened that Bible, he might have turned to Deuteronomy 16:20, which teaches “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof — justice, justice you shall pursue.”
Or maybe he would have read Psalms 34:15, which commands us to bakesh shalom v’radfeihu – seek peace and pursue it. And, most poignantly, perhaps he would have flipped to Isaiah 32:17 and seen the vision set forth by the prophet, who proclaims, “For the work of righteousness shall be peace; And the effect of righteousness, calm and security forever.”
In the Bible, peace and justice are intrinsically linked to one another, just as they are linked in the protest chant. But there is an important distinction, too. The chant “No Justice, No Peace” is often used as a threat — if you don’t give us justice, we won’t give you peace. Unfortunately, a small minority of protesters heard this message not just as a threat but as a mandate. But in the Bible’s formulation, the connection is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not demand that we disturb the peace until you grant us justice, but instead teaches us that until you create a just society, peace is not possible. Justice is a prerequisite to calm and security.
Finally, if Trump had only opened that Bible and turned to the book of Chronicles, he would have seen a genealogy that includes “Achituv begot Tzadok, Tzadok begot Shallum.” If we were to translate these names according to their meaning, the verse would say “Good-fellowship will produce Justice and Justice will produce Peace.”
Instead of making this about a show of military force against peaceful protesters, one can imagine a president who might have stood on the steps of St. John’s Church, arm in arm with its pastor and other religious leaders, holding that same Bible and delivering this message about justice and peace to the assembled crowd. Unfortunately, not this president.
Rabbi Marc Israel serves Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.