Part 3 on Micah 6:8
Do Justice! This phrase is an active imperative. It does not simply say:
- Pray for justice.
- Hope for justice.
- Post a catchy meme on Facebook about something which disturbs you.
- Voice your opinions as often as possible, whether people like it or not.
- Vote for the correct political party.
“Do Justice.” Actively work so goodness may prevail in the world. This is part three of a series on Micah 6:8. We started with “walk humbly with your God.” Humility is being grounded. In Latin, humble and human comes from “humus.” Earth. Soil. So be grounded, self-aware, and curious rather than rigid. Then I preached on loving kindness, which is acting for the good of another person without any expectation that some reward is coming back to you. Kindness is a habit of doing the right thing for someone because they are God’s creation and need love.
You might wish I would stop with humility and kindness. Don’t get into justice because that invites controversy, and all kindness and humility disappear. Justice quickly becomes political, and our society is bitterly divided. But this is the challenge of the text, to hold together “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Let’s dig deeper into what Micah and the prophets meant by justice and what that means for our ethical vision as a congregation.
What do you think of when you hear the word justice? Justice can mean administrating the law. The Department of Justice oversees the legal system. Members of the Supreme Court are called “Justices.” When a criminal is convicted and sent to jail, we might say, “Justice has been done.”
We can also talk about justice as fairness. The symbol for justice is the Roman goddess Justicia, who is blindfolded so as not to be influenced by who the other person is. She holds scales in her hands to represent that justice weighs the evidence and decides on the merits. The hope is life world to be reasonably fair to everyone.
Justice is more than good laws. You can have an excellent legal system, and people can still go hungry or without medical care. Distributive justice requires that the basic needs of life should be met. Everyone has access to food, housing, and medical care. Social and economic justice affirms the common good. We have responsibilities to one another. In our reading from Luke, Jesus says, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, freedom for the captive, sight for the blind, to proclaim the Jubilee” the forgiveness of debts once in every generation. Does this mean that Jesus would care about health care policy, the minimum wage, or food stamps as policies leading to distributive justice?
One form of justice seldom talked about is restorative justice. This is the practice of trying to mend and heal what has been broken by injustice. For example, Mennonites have been at the forefront of encouraging mediation between people who commit crimes and their victims. The perpetrator works at restitution of some kind, and forgiveness may help both parties heal and move on. Restorative justice affirms that punishment alone is not complete justice. For example, I arrived in Northampton when the church administrator was going to trial on 50 felony counts of embezzlement. The church turned in evidence of her crime, but many also wrote the judge and asked for leniency in sentencing. We wanted her to make financial restitution but not go to prison. So, the judge made a plea bargain, and part of the deal was an apology to church members in the court. That is restorative justice.
Justice can mean what is legal, fair, distributive, or restorative. You know how much I love word studies, so here is the word Micah wrote. Mishpat, the Hebrew word for justice, can have multiple meanings. The word occurs over 400 times in the Hebrew Bible and is sometimes translated as the legal ordinances people are required to follow. The Ten Commandments are mishpat. The word can also refer to the quality of a person’s character. The righteous person is mishpat; God is Mishpat. I was surprised to find that the biblical book which uses the word justice most frequently is the Psalms. For example, Psalm 82:3 reads, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.” Mishpat can also mean a justly ordered society. When Micah and the prophets use Mishpat, they usually mean this. They hold the king, the leaders of the community, and the wealthy accountable to work for a well-ordered society. https://www.thejc.com/judaism/jewish-words/mishpat-1.8055
Old Testament professor Walter Bruggeman says that when God looks at a nation, they are measured not by the size of its buildings, its gross national product, or the size of its military, but by what life is like for the most vulnerable people. This is what the Bible means when it says to defend the widow and the orphan. They are the most socially vulnerable.
So when Micah says, “Do Justice,” what does that mean for us? Here are four ways I think the text calls us to be justice-character, generosity, beloved community, and action to order society for the common good.
First, justice is a character issue. When we act with honesty, integrity, fairness, inclusiveness, and accountability in our relations, we bend the arc towards justice by our example. We can’t have a just world unless we are committed to living justice in how we handle ourselves in work and community. Leviticus 25 says when you sell something to your neighbor, don’t cheat them. Justice is character.
Second, generosity is a form of justice. Scripture affirms giving alms or donations to help people in need is a spiritual duty to God. If we love God, we love God’s people. Jesus often says, share with your neighbor; if your neighbor is cold and has no coat, and you have two, give them one of yours. Therefore we provide 12% of pledges to causes that ease suffering and injustice. It’s why we raised money for Ukrainian refugees. As we look ahead to a winter of high fuel prices, we will work at the challenge of making sure people are freezing this winter. Generosity is a form of justice.
The third form of justice is what Dr. King called “The Beloved Community.” This means welcoming people without judgment, showing kindness, and living to strengthen our respect and solidarity with each other. It is vital to stretch our community to anyone living on the margins of society. We don’t just welcome one kind of people who are like us. We want to show hospitality to people of different races, LGBTQ people, workers from away, welcoming the stranger. Justice is done when we live together in respect because it restores all of us to community. We try to model forgiveness, reconciliation, and living at peace together.
We are likely in widespread agreement on these three ways of doing justice. Live with character and fairness towards others. Be generous. Live as Beloved Community by being inclusive and welcoming. These may be challenging but attainable. The hardest part of doing justice is working for the common good in society through social action for laws and policies that benefit the most vulnerable people. This often means deep disagreement, division, and frustration.
A church member recently reported a conversation while playing cards in a group. A woman said, “Well, I hear the new Congregationalist minister preaches politics,” as if this was a terrible act. Let’s unpack this for minute. What happens if a preacher stays quiet on all controversial political issues? Where does the framework for ethical and moral thinking come from if we are not reflecting on scripture and theology as we think about poverty, climate change, race relations, or marriage equality? It would mean ethical formation is left to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Most UCC clergy would consider it a dereliction of duty to not talk about these issues in sermons.
A major reason we must face into social action on political issues is that all our work to be generous, inclusive and have individual morality can be wiped out if we neglect justice in society. If we visit the sick, pray for their healing, deliver countless meals, but avoid the topic of health care policy, we are going to be overwhelmed quickly. It is vital we support the fuel fund this winter, but if social policy neglects the causes of poverty, we will be crushed by the need. When we live as an open and affirming LGBTQ church, we are doing justice, but what happens if marriage equality is overturned, and gay marriage is illegal again. That will create pain and suffering for people we love.
Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, once said, “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why they are hungry, they called me a Communist.” Jesus did not come to create a community that never made any waves over social injustice. And when Micah said do justice, he meant the fullest possible expression of mishpat, through following the law and commandments, being generous and taking responsibility for a well-ordered society.
But here is the essential thing Micah also says. While doing justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. This is where we are called to be different than a social activist. We are not to be one of the political parties at prayer, Democrat or Republican. When advocating for justice we must take care to not be inflammatory, check the overheated hyperbole and personal attacks.
If there is a kindness in God’s justice, then there should be a kindness in ours too. When we stand for justice, we must also have a humility to realize that no policy is perfect justice, no party is the exclusive right hand of God, and we often have a log in our own eye that blinds us to how we participate in injustice.
As I end this sermon, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of possibility. I hope it is a conversation starter that helps us evaluate our work and mission in the world, that all we do may embody justice, kindness and a humble walk with God.