"But What Is Justice?"
Stop me if you’ve heard this one (actually, don’t stop me, I’m supposed to talk for a few more minutes—but you get the idea):
· A charismatic leader rises to prominence by channeling the anger and frustration of ordinary people and decrying the elites ruling from the nation’s capital.
· They blame those elites for the challenges they’ve been facing, and they know that wealth and status of those elites is built on their backs
It’s a familiar story
· Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave or under a rock for the past decade, we hear that story every time we turn on the news.
· It turns out it’s also an old story
In fact, it’s a story we come into in today’s passage from the prophet Micah
But seeing that requires us to approach this passage differently than we might have before
· I grew up with an understanding of this passage that I’m sure will be familiar to others
· It goes like this:
o God doesn’t require formality, and complex practices, or bureaucratic institutions
o God just desires us, and wants to have a “relationship” with us
· And that’s fine, and probably not wrong
· But I can’t read the Bible without feeling the force of the social and political realities behind it
o And these add some important layers and textures that I think bring out the full weight of this passage
So we need to take a minute to spell out what those are
Micah writes at the end of the 8th century BCE.
It’s a tumultuous time, and his text expresses seething anger with the religious and political elites Jerusalem, and represents the ordinary people for whom they supposedly acted and spoke
Micah lived in the southern Jewish kingdom of Judah, which was under intense pressure from the regional superpower of his time, Assyria
o The Assyrians had already conquered the northern Jewish kingdom, so those in the south lived under the constant threat of invasion and destruction
So the nation of Judah was confronted with a crisis that gripped all the lesser powers of the ancient Near East at that time: How to respond to the threat of Assyria?
Among the Jewish leaders, there was sharp disagreement between what we might call the accommodationists and the hawks
o The accommodationists argued that there was no choice but to pay the heavy taxes and tribute that were already levied by Assyria, in the hope that this would ultimately spare Judah and its capital in Jerusalem
o The hawks argued that they should refuse to pay tribute, rise up militarily, and throw off the Assyrian yoke
o They viewed the ongoing subjugation to Assyria as not only a humiliation, but an abomination as well
o They saw accommodation as a lack of faith in, and loyalty to, God
§ Just as God raised up David to defeat the mighty Goliath, so their thinking went, so too God would empower Judah to throw off the yoke of Assyrian imperialism
This debate cut deep, and it’s reflected in the different biblical accounts of the interactions between Assyria and Judah (comp. 2 Kings 18:13-16 [A] and 2 Kings 118:17-19:37 [B]).
So where does Micah stand in all of this?
· He stands with the ordinary people who live the actual consequences of conflict between Judah and Assyria
He comes from a place called Moresheth, southwest of the capital Jerusalem
· It’s a contested border region, and his text references towns (Gath, Adullam, and Lacish) that had long been subject to warfare between multiple competing groups (Philistines, Egyptians, Babylonians)
So Micah knows what everyone sitting in this room knows: when the political and religious elites of a nation beat the drums of war, they are not the ones who suffer the consequences
· Micah has seen firsthand the material devastation that comes with living in a contested war zone
· He also sees the lasting economic effects of a “war economy” built on the backs of everyday people
Because of all this, Micah is just not there for the hawks’ warmongering
· And this is the context for his messages denouncing Jerusalem and the formalities of formal Temple worship
· He consistently denounces Jerusalem and the elites that would endanger and impoverish their people by undertaking war against the Assyrians
So when he calls for the people to “plead their case before the mountains” to let the “hills” hear their voice, the “mountains” and the “hills” refer to Jerusalem (remembering that the city sits on a mountain ridge) and its leadership (political and religious).
· When he speaks as the voice of the LORD, demanding answers to what God has “done” to them, how God has “wearied” them, and recounts God’s deliverance of them, he is giving voice to what he contends is divine opposition to the militarism of the hawks in Jerusalem
Yet so much what he says remains familiar to us
· Our own society is full of prophets who decry the policies of religious and political elites in the name of “the people”
· We know only too well that the elites continue to enjoy their largesse at the expense of the masses
Like Micah, then, so many in our society decry the policies and practices of the “elite,” demanding a new way forward
· This is not new to us
But what I find so powerful in Micah’s message, is the alternative he proposes to the elitism he challenges
· And I found it powerful because that is not so familiar to us
Micah calls us to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”
· When we understand the context of Micah’s message, these admonitions gain a new force, expressing a social and political depth that exceeds the saccharine understanding of the passage I grew up with
The first (and probably most obvious) dimension of this call is that these things are a kind of “package deal” for Micah
· It is impossible to “do justice” without loving “kindness,” and it is only by doing these that we can be said to “walk humbly” with God
In so many ways, then, heeding Micah’s call comes down to understanding what “justice” is. There are few more contested words when it comes to our own social experience.
So what does it require?
· Quite simply, the call to “do justice” is to value what God values
o In the prophetic tradition, to “do” justice requires working for the equality of all, particularly the powerless
§ Micah shows us this elsewhere in the book through negative illustrations of the failure to “do justice”: the powerful oppress the powerless (2:1-2, 8-9; 3:1-3, 9-10), laborers are exploited (3:10), the courts are corrupt (3:11), etc.
But what does this look like? Where can we find an image of “doing justice” and “loving kindness” and “humbly walking with God”?
· I think we find a powerful vision of this in that section of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount we heard during today’s scripture reading, the so-called “Beatitudes”
Thinking about “doing justice” brings us to this passage that has been both familiar and confounding to audiences from the first time it was proclaimed
· It brings us to another passage with the words of another popular religious leader speaking for the mass or ordinary people living under foreign occupation and the constant threat of violence (that would be Jesus).
Readers and hearers have puzzled over what it can possibly mean to describe the groups Jesus identifies as “blessed,” or “fortunate,” or “lucky” (all possible translations of the tricky Greek word at the start of each verse).
Here’s one thing I think is certain: in this description, we come across one of the many times Jesus insists that the “Kingdom of Heaven” has come “near”
· And this “nearness” is marked by a reversal of our ordinary ways of doing things and relating to one another
The beatitudes are, like Micah’s, a statement of what God requires, indeed, what God desires of us
· When we imagine a “divine” social order, this is what it looks like
And I am convinced that this gives us a reference point for what any community that would gather in God’s name is called to pursue
· To “do justice,” to “love kindness,” to “walk humbly with God,” is to try to enact this social vision
o It is to be a community where those who mourn can truly be comforted
o It is to be a community that fights to overcome the inequalities, the real “poverties,” that grind us down and render us “poor in spirit”
o It is to be a community that values peace and humility, rather than violence or force
o It is to be a community that truly seeks “righteousness” and demonstrates it to others
o It is to be a community that embodies mercy and acceptance
o It is to be a community that seeks have a pure heart and to enact peace
o It is to be a community that is willing to suffer the consequences of living out a “justice” that cuts against the grain of so much we encounter in the world around us
So where does that leave us?
As I said earlier, the sentiment we encounter in Micah is familiar to us
But what strikes me about these passages is that, while the sentiment is familiar, while a demand for “justice” is so familiar it might border on being trite, the nature of that justice is largely foreign to us
We do indeed encounter calls for “justice” all around us, and some of them are profound, and real, and rightfully lay a claim on us
· But too often they are not a vision of equality, of reversing the injustices, the perversions of justice, we see all around
· Often, they just displace and reenact those injustices, ensuring that society does not change
They enact the phenomenon of what the theologian and ethicist Miguel De La Torre describes as “hating downward”
· Too often, groups and individuals take the pain and trauma they experience at the hands of others, and pass it off to those even more vulnerable than themselves in the name of “justice”
We see this with contemporary Christian nationalism, an overwhelmingly White and masculine phenomenon, wherein millions of White Americans seeking justice for (among other things) decades of economic and social displacement at the hands of the capitalist elites of this country, displace that pain and anger on queer folk, on immigrants, on non-Christians, and on and on.
But we see this pattern in other places as well.
We see this when the president of the Springfield, MA NCAA says in an interview that trans and gender nonconforming individuals don’t deserve legal protections because they haven’t enough discrimination to warrant it.
We see this when activists attack trans women, in particular, in the name of “women’s” rights
We see this when prominent public figures who are notable for their work toward racial justice nonetheless rehash long-time anti-Semitic slurs
Sadly, we could keep adding to this list
· But what it illustrates is that far too often, calls for “justice” enact nothing of the kind
· Instead, they just represent a kind of “shell game” that shifts injustice around, aiming it at new and different groups in an effort to try to bring ourselves some measure of peace
· It represents a “bully” logic, where we can dispel our own pain only by inflicting on someone else
What strikes me, what moves me, about Micah’s call for justice, about the vision of lived justice in the world Jesus imagines for us, is how different from this the vision of “justice” undertaken in the name of all those people who suffer at the hands of powerful elites can be
· To “do justice,” to “love kindness,” to “walk humbly with God”, requires that we seek to break the cycles of violence and pain around us, seeking reconciliation, renewal, reparation, and equality [I was out of “R” words!] to truly change the world in which we find ourselves.