20 August 2017

Justice, Kindness, Humility

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

“For the LORD has a controversy with God’s people…” (Micah 6:2). This is where we need to begin. Most of us are familiar with the inspirational words of Micah 6:8: “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Maybe you’ve memorized these words, have them inscribed on your heart. Perhaps they’re on a fridge magnet or bumper sticker.  Micah 6:8 is perfect for a Tweet.  It’s a poetic verse, beautiful, aspirational. But the text must not be taken out of context. And the larger context is that “the LORD has a controversy with God’s people.”

Micah places us in a courtroom. Israel is on trial.  God is the plaintiff bringing a charge against Israel.  God is also the prosecuting attorney.  “Rise,” Yahweh says, “plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice” (Mic. 6:1). Mountains, hills, the foundations of the earth are summoned to be witness.  “Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth” (Mic. 6:2). God is also the judge.  “For the LORD has a controversy with God’s people…”

Israel is asked to defend itself. What have they done? What’s the charge?  Boredom. They’ve become bored with God.  Their commitment to and interest in the work of God had become tiresome. God asks, God wants to know, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” (Mic. 6:3).  They’ve become weary of God.  Bored with God.

Boredom, of course, isn’t a sin; it’s not always a bad thing. We know there’s a connection between idle boredom and the ability to be creative.  When our lives, and the lives of our children, are overbooked with activity and overstimulation to avoid boredom, imagination and creativity often suffer. 

But boredom can also have a psycho-spiritual dimension; it can be a marker, a symptom that something is wrong in our relationship with God. The existentialist psychologist, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was “convinced that boredom is one of the greatest tortures. If I were to imagine Hell, it would be the place where you were continually bored.”[1] The main character in Albert Camus’ (1913-1960) novel The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, says he, “…had been bored, that's all, bored like most people. Hence he had made himself out of whole cloth a life full of complications and drama.”[2] A life full of complications and drama to avoid the void of boredom.  

There is also a connection between boredom and despair, despair of purpose, despair of meaning.  Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said, “Boredom is the root of all evil.”[3]  He even calls it “demonic boredom,” because it’s an expression of sin, and sin for Kierkegaard is related to despair, “the despairing refusal to be oneself;” despair is the defiant willing to be a self apart from God.[4] The refusal to be who we are is the source of evil in us and in the world, and so we fall.  And who we are, according to Scripture, is directly related to who God is and how we understand our covenantal relationship with God. To be weary of God, to be bored with who we essentially are is to be in despair, it is to be cut off, cast out of Eden; boredom can be a sign that we are alienated from ourselves, which is to be alienated from God. “In what have I wearied you?” God asks,  “Answer me!” (Mic. 6:3).

And so, God reminds them, I’m the one who “brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery” (Mic. 6:4). I’m the God of your exodus and liberation from oppression. Listen Israel, you were given effective, courageous leaders to guide and shepherd you into the land of promise. I’m the God who delivered you from enslavement to alien gods and idols.  I was faithful, loyal, steadfast.  Instead, Israel, you’ve became bored with me, and you fell (again).  Your leaders are corrupt, petty, small-minded. Forgetting their obligation to care and protect the members of society, your leaders led you astray.  Forgetting your covenantal obligation, you forgot the source and power of your identity. 

So, God extends a word of judgment upon the nation, upon the leaders and upon the people. God doesn’t leave them there.  God calls Israel back into relationship. God reminds them of the covenant. God reminds them—again—what true religion, true worship looks like. God reminds them how we are to approach the Living God.

Speaking as the mouthpiece for God, both Micah and God ask, “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” (Mic. 6:6).  Of course not!  Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, rivers of oil, or the offering of firstborn children to appease God? (Mic. 6:6).  Of course not!  That is false worship.

“God has told you, O mortal….”  The Hebrew is better.  “God has told you ’adam” (Mic. 6:8).  You, ’adam, the human one, God has told you what is good.  Only this is good.  This is the good work that you must do.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly.  This is what is required of us.  It’s not negotiable.  It doesn’t get any clearer.  This is the work that must never weary you.  We should never be bored with doing justice, never weary of loving kindness, never tired of walking humbly.  And if you are bored by justice, kindness, and humility, then you need to do a critical self-assessment, because something is seriously disturbed in the core of your being. 

Micah 6:8 is the legal, ethical, covenantal requirement of religion. And religion is always coupled with action. Faith and action.  We can’t say we believe in God and then refrain from the work and will of God.

From a biblical perspective, a human being is a being in relationship with God.  To live apart from this relationship, to not be grounded in God, is to lose one’s humanity.  Our humanness, our relationship with God requires listening and obeying.  Walter Brueggemann reminds us that humanness “means to hear and obey the elemental, world-defying, world-sustaining, world-ordering will of Yahweh for justice and holiness.”[5] Justice is one of the most beautiful, most important words in Hebrew, difficult to translate into English.  It is righteousness, right-living, right-relationship, steadfast love, wholeness.  Justice is not simply keeping the rules or getting even when someone’s broken the law or inflicted harm.  That is about retribution, which is a superficial, unbiblical, non-theological, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian understanding of justice.  Justice, says Brueggemann, “consists in the venturesome enactment of positive good.”[6]  The venturesome enactment of positive good.  It means doing good, working toward the good for others.  It requires protecting the good.  

Want to measure the level of goodness in your life?  Ask yourself: Am I doing justice?  Loving kindness?  Walking humbly with God?  You can’t pick out the ones you prefer. Sometimes Christians like to talk about being kind and humble, but ignore the call for justice.  I’ve had people say to me that Christians should not be engaged in social justice, we should focus on “spiritual” matters.  Such a view can’t be supported either biblically or theologically.  It’s often said by people with power and privilege.  Social justice is not optional.  It’s integral to faith.  And you won’t find the word “spiritual” anywhere in the Bible.

Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895) said, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” As God’s people, we’re being called these days to use our legs, to walk, to move, to act. Social justice, social well-being, social wholeness is where faith lives in the public square.  We can’t talk about God’s love and not have that love enacted in society. Cornel West reminds us that “justice is what love looks like in public."

Given the events of this last week, it’s clear that justice-love is having a tough time in the public square these days. There’s an enormous struggle underway for the moral center of the nation and the church.  Noted conservative Peter Wehner, a Republican who served in the administrations of President Reagan and both Presidents Bush, said last week, “We’re at a hinge moment in the public witness of American Christianity.”  As a self-identified evangelical, Wehner wonders how, wonders why evangelical leaders haven’t been more critical of the president. “Either by their public defense of Trump or their self-indicting silence,” he says, “certain prominent evangelicals — including Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed and James Dobson — are effectively blessing a leader who has acted in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with a Christian ethic.”[7]

Wehner wrote this before the evil witnessed in Charlottesville, before the comments made by the president last Tuesday, in New York.  We know that corporate leaders have resigned and distanced themselves from the president this week, so did the President’s Arts and Humanities Council.

With a strong, steady, clear voice the Church of Jesus Christ must say—again and again until there’s no doubt: racism is sin.  White supremacy is sin.  The KKK and neo-Nazi fascists are anti-Christ.  Racism is evil.  White supremacy is evil.  How difficult is it to say this?  All of it is antithetical to the Gospel.  It’s abhorrent.  An abomination.  Anathema.  Even non-Christians know that Jesus isn’t cool with this.  And, still, there are evangelical religious leaders who have failed to denounce what happened in Charlottesville or the president’s reluctance to condemn white supremacy, the KKK, or neo-Nazis.  Only one pastor in the president’s Evangelical Advisory Council, also known as his evangelical courtiers, has resigned. Wehner is correct, “We’re at a hinge moment in the public witness of American Christianity.”

Mark and I were in Charlottesville last Friday and Saturday. We just happened to be there, visiting friends.  We didn’t attend the interfaith worship service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, on Friday evening, which was surrounded by Tiki torch bearers on the way to the UVA lawn—although I wish I was in that sanctuary with those religious leaders, many of whom stood against the hate and violence of the KKK members and neo-Nazis the next day.  On Saturday, we did encounter two “regiments” of white supremacists making their way to McIntire Park, after the assembly at Emancipation Park was declared unlawful.  There were about 100 of them, angry, waving the Rebel flag.  Then I saw a flag with black swastika on a field of red.  I have never seen that before. I was disgusted. It was extremely disturbing. Something very destructive and evil has been unleashed in our society.

With last week’s rally, the events of the week, with Confederate statues coming down or being removed, including here in Baltimore, and yesterday’s march in Boston, we are being forced to confront issues that should have been faced long ago: the sin of slavery, America’s original sin; along with the sin of racism, the sin of white supremacy, and all the sin that has been and is being done because of white privilege.  Deborah McEachern, pastor at Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church, posted this question on her Facebook page this week, “Why does it take a fight between a bunch of white people to really get the country riled up about the injustice toward black and brown bodies that happens all around us all the time?”

The church is called to act. And, yes, the church is called to be political—not partisan. Jesus is neither Democrat nor Republican, and judges both parties.  We need to take our cue from Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) who said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.  It must be the guide and critic of the state, never its tool.”

Last week, a representative from a group known as Catonsville Indivisibles called me.  She asked if we would host a vigil, in response to events in Charlottesville, here on church grounds.  I had never heard of them so I looked them up online.  Their website is clear.  They are working to counter the Trump agenda.  And so, I said that it would not be appropriate for CPC to host this event, given their overtly partisan identification, even if I, and many others in the church, share their hopes.  They did invite me to speak at the event, if they could find a place elsewhere. I said I would pray about it and get back to her.  Later that night, I heard from a church member that someone from this organization, learning that I said no to hosting them, said that I was a Trump alt-right nut job and that the entire church is pro-Trump.  I thought that was really funny, and then I was mad. I called their rep the next morning to share my disappointment.  I don’t think I’ll be talking at their vigil.

The church walks a fine line.  Presbyterians are not afraid to bear witness to the gospel in the public square.  We engage society and people with power, lovingly, critically, prophetically, we hold them accountable.  And we speak out against sin and social injustice.  We work for the good:  we do justice, love kindness and mercy, walk with humility, not arrogance, with God.  The forces swirling all around us at the moment are intense, which means we need to be clear about who we are and whose we are and what God is calling us to do. This is no time to be cautious or silent—or, for the sake of all that is good, this is no time to be bored with the work of God! 

The Talmud (303) says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justice, now.  Love kindness, now, Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Image:  Religious leaders counterprotesting against hate, Charlottesville, VA, 12th August 2017.  Credit:  Sojourners, www.sojo.net.

[1] Erich Fromm, The Dogma of Christ (Henry Holt & Co, 1992), 150.
[2] Albert Camus, The Fall (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 37.
[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
[4] Kierkegaard, Either/Or; see also The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).
[5] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 460-461.
[6] Brueggemann, 461.
[7] Peter Wehner, “Evangelicals, Trump, and the Politics of Redemption,” Religious News Service, August 11, 2017.

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