Reflections on Justice from Hurricane Sandy

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It has been a little over a month since Hurricane Sandy swept up the Atlantic leaving large-scale damage in its wake. Looking back on its aftermath and subsequent relief efforts, can we yet say that justice has been served? With flood insurance and FEMA claims still pending, the subpoena of Con Edison and other regional utilities for investigation, and hundreds of people in the Rockaways, Staten Island and parts of New Jersey still displaced, the full restoration of life seems a long way off for many. But while it is still in progress, we as Christians can survey the range of work that was done and learn valuable lessons about the full breadth of justice in God’s kingdom.

First, justice is not solely reactive after something wrong has taken place, but involves preemptive action. The immense efforts of governors, mayors and other civic officials to ready their areas for the storm should be commended as preventative measures that reduced the amount of damaged property and loss of life. Many residents also participated by heeding their leaders’ evacuation orders, closing businesses, opening their homes to those needing a place to ride out the storm and being prepared to serve after it passed. In reflecting on all of these actions and God’s model for preventative justice, one is reminded of his instructions to the Israelites on the night of Passover in Exodus 12. While there are deep theological implications about the Lamb of God and the sacrifice of Passover, the passage also highlights the call to care for each other as neighbors in times of tragedy and to be ready to act. As a New Yorker in the city when the storm hit, I saw dozens of community members acting with exactly this heart of service and resolve.

Marines from the 8th Engineering Support Battalion, N.C. removed rubble in New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Marines from the 8th Engineering Support Battalion, N.C. removed rubble in New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Second, justice in God’s kingdom involves working toward calmness and clarity amidst fear and confusion. In the case of Sandy, it has been reported that there were over 20 million tweets regarding the storm between Oct. 27 and Nov. 1, and on the day it made landfall in the Northeast, uploads of 10 storm-related photos per second. One might not immediately associate Twitter feeds and Instagram posts with the concept of justice, but keeping tabs on what is happening, alerting others and enabling collective reflection through real-time sharing set in motion the kind of compassionate and informed response that followed. God has assured us he is not a God of confusion, and clarity in time of crisis facilitated by the evolution of information sharing is something that Christians should praise and promote.

Much has been written about the immediate relief efforts in the days after Sandy: immense altruism was displayed at all levels. In the longer aftermath it must also be remembered that the full restoration to flourishing goes beyond meeting immediate physical needs and also addresses non-tangible needs for grief sharing, trauma counseling and affirmation to suffering neighborhoods and communities that they are not forgotten. A third principal of justice requires prompt action to care for victims holistically in the wake of tragedy. Looking at the scores of people that are still scarred by Sandy both physically and emotionally, interpersonal and organizational compassion still has a large role to play in the recovery.

Finally, full justice in God’s kingdom goes beyond charity. It involves large-scale restoration to address systemic issues in a broken world. In the wake of Sandy, national conversations about infrastructure investment, climate change, insurance reform, temporary mortgage relief and vulnerable socioeconomic populations are not only appropriate, but desperately necessary to protect people and resources in our society from future calamity. These discussions enable the wide variety of players that make up our society to participate in its progress.

Not everything post-Sandy has been perfect: mistakes, inefficiencies and uncharitable mongering have been seen at many levels of relief. But amidst a plethora of examples of the good work that has been and is continuing to be done, Christians should reflect on how magnificent and extensive God’s conception of justice really is. Preemptive, active, holistic and systemic, it is multi-faceted and multi-pronged, reaching deeply into so many different areas of our hearts and communities, involving individuals, communities, institutions and government. Like His love, we should view His justice and the work He calls us to in equally broad and breathtaking terms. In Paul’s words, let us pray that we, “being deeply rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” – no matter what storms may come.

—Joanna Stephens is an architectural designer in New York City. She was a fellow in the 2011 Gotham Fellowship, an intensive program integrating faith and public life hosted by The Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church.