With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To do justice and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
For many years, I have made a devotional practice of reading the Bible all the way through each year, beginning with Genesis on January 1 and finishing Revelation on December 31. It’s something I encourage everyone who is serious about growing in their faith to do. This year, one of my friends decided to try it for herself, but got bogged down in Numbers with its endless descriptions of proper sacrifices. “I don’t see how anyone reading this would want to be a Christian”, she told me.
That’s exactly the point I think Micah was making in the passage above. Beginning about the eighth century BC, the great prophets began to understand that God isn’t particularly interested in ritual sacrifices. Rather, God is interested in how we behave toward other people and toward God. Centuries later, Jesus would affirm that all that was written in the Law and the Prophets was based on the principle of love of God and love of neighbor. He took this principle even further by saying that love of God was demonstrated by how we treat other people. “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Paul would write to the Galatians that “the entire law is fulfilled in one command:love your neighbor as yourself“. James referred to the “royal law found in Scripture” as loving your neighbor as yourself, and expounds on that in behavioral terms.
Our behavior toward other people has two components, justice and mercy, and God is concerned with both. There’s a story about a village on the banks of a river that I think illustrates how these are related. One day, the villagers noticed a crying baby floating down the river. They quickly responded by jumping into the river and rescuing the baby…only to see more babies floating down the river! Soon rescuing babies became the full-time occupation of the villagers. Everyone worked frantically to save as many babies as they could. Finally, one person left the rescue site and started walking upstream. “Where are you going? Why aren’t you helping?” cried the other villagers. The response: “I’m going upstream to find out who is throwing those babies in and stop them.” In this story, mercy is jumping into the river to save the drowning babies and justice is stopping them from being thrown in the river in the first place. Mercy is reactive and justice is proactive, and each informs the other.
I don’t know many Christians who would deny that following Jesus means performing works of mercy. Even my most conservative church friends are actively involved in helping to meet the needs of others in many ways. But the “doing justice” part of the equation causes more controversy. One popular conservative commentator once advised his listeners to leave any church that was involved in social justice issues. But in my mind, those who perform works of mercy are like the villagers pulling babies out of the river. Those who pursue social justice are like the villager who went upstream to stop babies from being thrown into the river. Or to use a medical metaphor, mercy treats the symptoms while justice seeks to cure the disease. Both approaches are needed, and I think, prescribed by God.
I think the discomfort some feel about “social justice issues” comes not from disagreeing that the root cause of the problem ought to be addressed, but how that problem ought to be addressed. The arguments come from disagreements over the most effective treatment for the disease. None of my conservative friends think that poverty is a good thing and there ought to be more of it. They believe that “trickle-down” economics really works, and that government interference creates a culture of dependence, causing a vicious cycle. None of my liberal friends think that abortions are a good thing and there ought to be more of them. They believe that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is by comprehensive sex education, access to affordable and effective birth control methods, and a robust social safety net.
My husband and I have recently become involved in an interfaith effort to meet the immediate needs of Central American asylum seekers who have been released by ICE and have permission to be in the country pending their asylum hearings. Our part has only been a small one, one of the most basic acts of mercy: helping to cook and serve a hot meal to hungry, weary people. Other volunteers collect and sort clothing donations; provide overnight shelter; serve as translators; help them contact friends and relatives who will be able to house them for a longer period of time; and help them arrange transportation to destinations all over the country. But I feel much like the villagers pulling an endless number of babies out of the river. The needs are overwhelming, and there appears to be no end in sight. Something needs to be done to address the root of the problem: what is causing so many people to become so desperate as to feel their only hope is to flee their homes and strike out for an unknown country? And what ought to be done, or can be done, about it? That’s where the “do justice” command comes in, and that’s where people of faith can have very different ideas about solutions. I don’t know what the solution to such overwhelming human need is, but I can tell you what it’s not: It’s not building a wall to keep people from seeing that there are babies floating down the river.
Both doing justice and loving mercy are an integral part of “loving thy neighbor as thyself“. But it’s the “walk humbly with God” can’t be neglected. Being humble means realizing that I neither have all the answers nor the resources to fix everything that is wrong with the world. So I try to listen to God for guidance, through prayer and Bible study. I also try to listen to other people, because sometimes I hear God speaking to me through human words. Walking with God means that I keep on going, even when I don’t feel like it or don’t think I’m making much progress. My faith tells me that God is taking the little bit that I can do, and the little bit that you can do, and many other little bits of good from many other people, and using these to ever so slowly bend the arc of the moral universe. One day, there will be mercy and justice for all.
And that’s good news to me.