From Zacchaeus to climate justice

Mind and Soul

September 21, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 19
Randy Haluza-DeLay |
(Photo by Enrique from Pixabay)

An encounter with Jesus is a call for transformation. Such is the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus noticed him watching from a tree and invited himself for dinner. Zacchaeus must have known Jesus often preached against those with wealth who took advantage of others—as was the reputation of tax collectors such as Zacchaeus—but accepted the hosting request. After dinner, Zacchaeus announced that everyone from whom he had taken too much would receive back four times the amount. That was on top of giving away half his existing wealth to the economically marginalized.


Zacchaeus not only returned what he had received, he gave back more. Apparently he recognized that the losses experienced by the people from whom he got his wealth set them back and they now needed additional resources to improve their lives. Zacchaeus now saw that his personal history required responsibility for reparations.

Zacchaeus is an analogy for climate justice.

“Historical responsibility” is the first principle of any notions of fairness, including climate justice. Whoever caused something is responsible. Canada is part of a block of industrialized, wealthy nations, primarily in the Global North, that are responsible for 92 percent of climate-changing carbon emissions historically.

On the table at international negotiations this year is something called “loss and damage.” After three decades of trying, the countries most vulnerable to rising seas, crop failures, floods, wrecked infrastructure, lost social cohesion, disappearing ways of life and other climate damages—countries often least able to cope with these climate-related losses—have convinced the powerful of the world that they deserve assistance in recovering from that which they did not cause.

Climate change has erased one-fifth of vulnerable countries’ wealth over the past two decades, according to a report by the coalition of countries known as the Vulnerable 20 Group. Canada has contributed more emissions than the continent of Africa and still emits more than its “fair share,” adding further injury to existing damage. Interestingly, Canada is on the committee working out details for a loss and damage fund. Let’s just say that the devil is in the details.

The details include how the loss and damage fund will have adequate resources to cover the effects of the changing climate. The form of funding is another detail; grants are better than loans, since the latter add to the debt crisis that already causes many countries to send money back to lenders in the Global North by reducing health, education and social programs. Perhaps the most important detail is ensuring that affected countries lead decision-making in the loss and damage program. Fund details are to be presented at the annual United Nations climate meeting in December.

Climate “reparations” is a more accurate term for “loss and damage.” Reparations refer to financial payment for past harms, like Zacchaeus demonstrated. Loss and damage funding is repayment to peoples marginalized by a global system that has created both economic subordination and the crisis of climate change.

Civil society organizations from South and North will be ramping up advocacy for an effective loss and damage program. These include For the Love of Creation (of which the Mennonite Central Committee is an actively engaged member) and the church-based justice network KAIROS, which will release a policy brief on loss and damage in early autumn.

I had a hand in creating that KAIROS document. You and I have a hand in advocating to our political leaders that we want to see justice done, in the spirit of Zacchaeus.

Randy Haluza-DeLay lives in Toronto and can be reached at

(Photo by Enrique from Pixabay)

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Great insight. My wife and I grew up with the story of Zacchaeus and this is a new application for us. In Galatians, the apostles ask Paul to remember the poor, which Paul says he does (priority).

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