Imagine with me the story of Erica. Erica is seventeen and has been in and out of trouble for much of her life. She has been into drugs and has been suspended from school more times than she can count. She has a new boyfriend a week and has a reputation for promiscuity. Lately, her run-ins with the law have escalated, and she has spent some time in the detention center over in the next city. So, two questions come to mind as we meet someone like Erica. One, how did she get this way? And two, how do we make a difference in her life now?
The first question is one of perception, and there are at least a couple of ways to see her life and her situation. The first is that we can zoom in with a telephoto lens, even a microscope and assess what she has done wrong. We can take the individualist approach. After all, Erica is old enough to know better. She is almost a legal adult. She should be responsible for her actions and be held responsible for her mistakes. She made her bed; she has to lie in it. Erica gets what she deserves. When we ask the question how we cam make a difference in her life, the individualist approach, has a couple of methods. We can punish her, expecting her to learn from her punishments and change her ways. Or, we can medicate her, hoping that a medical imbalance somewhere can be remedied by the perfect pill. Not exactly perfect solutions.
But a second option is to take a different approach, what I would call the systemic view. Instead of the telephoto lens, what if we used a wide-angle? What else is happening in Erica’s life that might have an impact on her behavior? Does it matter that her parents have been verbally abusive of her and of each other since she was a child? Does it matter that funding for the school system has been cut, eliminating the position of the school counselor who started to steer her in the right direction? Does it matter that the youth minister at the church where she had started attended ridiculed her in front of some of the other youth, not realizing that she was standing around the corner? Does it matter that when the young men in her school did the exact same things, folks shrug and say, “boys will be boys” but when she does it, they call her a “tramp” and a “lost cause”? And of course, a part of the systemic view is to see that which she is responsible for – her decisions and her choices. But that is not the whole picture.
When we try to make a difference in her life, again, we can take the systemic approach, which brings us to our next “R” in the series. Last week, we began the conversation about what it takes in our world to make a difference, and we began with the first R: Relieve. It is our responsibility and calling as Christians to relieve the suffering of others. But our second R today begins to take a step back and ask bigger, more systemic questions about how we might relieve suffering. Can we presume that it is all about the individual and their failure, or are there more systemic acts at work here? And, is it our calling to simply relieve, as generation after generation suffer from the evils of our world. Like in the Dorothy Day quote in your bulletin: “Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? Where were the saints to try and change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?”
Isn’t it our responsibility to Reverse the systemic evils that cause dysfunction and sin in our world?
The Biblical answer to this is yes. Job asks questions like these, even though his friends tried to simplify his problems to suggest that they were his own fault. Paul asks questions like these, as he writes about the powers and principalities at work beyond our own struggles against flesh and blood. And Micah asks questions like these, aware of a similar dynamic at work in his homeland of Judah.
Micah grew up in the city of Moresheth. Scholars think that this was probably one of the defense cities of Jerusalem. There was a ring of cities built around the city in order to protect it. If an enemy army approached the capital of Jerusalem, the soldiers of Moresheth and others could go out and stop it, or at least slow it down. Worst case scenario, the real soldiers in the city could have time to prepare while the defense cities and all of their citizens were massacred. In other words, Micah grew up as an “expendable resource.” Meanwhile, the small farmers who farmed the area around the cities found themselves being run out of business by larger, more expansive farmers who had the power of government on their side. Again, their family business and livelihood were “expendable resources” en route to greater wealth. Finally, Micah saw that women and children were being thrown out of their homes, evicted because they could not pay rising cost, as the rich owners found new tenants. Again, these women and children were “expendable resources” to those who wanted to make more money. And all of the power structures were complicit in this dynamic. Courts were bribed by the highest bidder. Priests were only in it for the money. Government officials were bought and sold.
The book of Micah takes a stand to say clearly, “these are children of God and not expendable resources!” Throughout the book, Micah rails against the injustices of his community. God is not happy with this rampant injustice among God’s people.
Micah 6 tells the story of a courtroom scene on a cosmic scale. Imagine with me a scene from Perry Mason or Matlock, as we read this dramatic retelling of a trial.
The judges in vs. 1-2 are the “foundations of the earth,” the mountains and the hills. They sit in the seat of judgment, awaiting both sides to present their argument.
The plaintiff bringing an argument is none other than Yahweh himself. God is seated here in the witness stand, bringing a complaint against the people. The trial is like a marriage court, and what is at stake is the covenant between God and God’s people. What is at stake is the shalom of the covenant, the right relationship between God and God’s people and God’s creation. The contract has been breached and there is brokenness and despair. And it is the plaintiff Yahweh who says that the people have not held up their end of the bargain. Read verses 3-5. God is pleading on behalf of their history together. “Remember when I saved you from the Egyptians? Remember when I saved you from King Balak of Moab, and caused his prophet Balaam to bless you instead of curse you? Remember when I led you across the Jordan, from Shittim to Gilgal? I have help up my end of the bargain. Where are you?”
And so, in true Matlock fashion, the defendant, us, God’s people, recognizes that they have done wrong. So they stands up and make an impassioned guilt-laden speech to the courtroom and to Yahweh in vs. 6-7. “What can I do to make it better? How can I restore our covenant? What do I need to sacrifice to make it better? Burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil?” All of these would be easily recognizable as objects of sacrifice, ramped up to unbelievable quantities for effect. But then the drama grows. “Or what if I even gave my very firstborn, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?!?”
And finally, in verse eight, the wise judge clears his throat. As if to remind the defendant, God’s people that sacrifices for show are not going to make the difference, the judge reminds them what the covenant was about in the first place: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Remember what the covenant was about in the first place. I look at these in reverse order:
- One, as God’s people, we must walk humbly. Humbly describes here not just the person, but the walk…walk in a way that humbly, carefully, circumspectly examines our intentions. Socrates warned about the unexamined life. As does Micah. The emphasis is on the walk. We are to walk in right relationship with God, God’s people, and all of creation.
- As God’s people, we must love kindness. The Hebrew word is hesed and it implies love and loyalty and fidelity to relationship or covenant. We must enjoy a relationship of loving kindness with our Creator.
- As God’s people, we must do justice. We must live in a way that fights for equity for all of God’s people. There are no “expendable resources.”
Now, things get a little complicated when we talk about justice today. Carol Dempsey reminds us that not all justice is created alike. She names three kinds:
Commutative justice is justice between members of the community with one another. This is what we are often talking about when we use the word: Justice department, Justice system. Justice of the peace. Justice league! Seriously, when Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman are working to bring justice to the earth, they believe that they can bring commutative justice better than courts or judges.
Distributive justice is the equitable distribution of goods and services. It starts to get where Micah is preaching, and it is a good start. But distributive justice can happen without God. Now, I would argue that God calls us to at least that. But more. More than just making sure that everyone has a fair chance.
Dempsey says that God calls us to a third category, the category of what she calls social justice. This is the justice that gets at this idea of right relationship between God and humanity and all of creation. It affects the whole of the social order.
This is the justice the Micah pleaded for. This is the justice that seeks to relieve the suffering of God’s people. And this is the justice seeks to reverse the broken systems of our world and re-builds them as God intended. In the face of those who would treat God’s children like “expendable resources,” Micah called God’s people to examine their walk, examine how they were participating in the systems that cause suffering. God is at work, bringing this level of justice to our world. That’s what the covenant looks like. The question is, are we on God’s side, or will there come a day when God will plead to us from the plaintiff’s chair, asking us “do you not remember your covenant? Do you not remember what you were created to do?”
This is the justice that H. Richard Niebuhr wrote about. He speaks of the theology of “Christ transforming culture.” Writing as the Church was struggling how to respond to the aggression before the Second World War, he was dealing with how God was involved in the cultural and social and political realities of his times. His conclusion is that Christ is transforming culture. We as humans fall short of God’s call, but there is still hope. Hope that Christ is transforming our reality into something like looks more like the Kingdom. Culture is not static, he wrote, but always changing, and so we have an opportunity – and an expectation – to engage in the world in ways that transform it toward what God had in mind in the first place.
This is the justice that Martin Luther King preached about. Forty-eight years ago this week, Martin Luther King preached his famous mountaintop sermon. He had already shared his vision of hope. He had already shared his dream for a country in which racism was gone. And now, he seemed to know that he would not be able to see his dream realized. In his mountaintop sermon, he told the story of Moses, who had been on the journey with the Israelites from the beginning. God took Moses to the top of the mountain, and showed him the Promised Land, but told him he would not be able to go into the Land with the people. King seemed to know that he, like Moses, would only be able to glimpse the vision of justice and peace that he yearned for.
King understood. Micah understood. Paul understood. They understood that the covenant between God and the people of God requires justice. May we follow the example of those who have gone before and reverse the brokenness that surrounds us, watching Christ transform our culture in our midst. May we pause long enough on the top of the mountain to see where God is leading!