He [The Lord] has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
I served as a pastoral minister among Friends for most of my adult life. In preparation for a recent move, I sorted through twenty-three years of sermon files, notes, and manuscripts. This revealed a lot about me and the kind of messages I like to preach—and the kind of messages I avoid.
Over the years, I offered many seasonal sermons attempting to add new and creative twists to the familiar Christmas and Easter stories. I prepared many sermon series inspired by the books of the Bible. I preached on the Quaker SPICES more than once. I offered many sermons on popular themes such as love, hope, and grace. Most of these sermons came from the New Testament and few came from the Old Testament. And I found very few sermons about justice.
As I reflect on the above from Micah, in preparation for this Quaker Life issue dedicated to Quaker concerns for justice, I question why I did not preach about justice more often. Oh, many of my sermons highlighted the historical accomplishments of Quakers who were on the leading edge of great movements that challenged public policies and changed societies for good. With satisfaction, I spoke of Friends involvement in prison reform, the abolition of slaves, fair treatment of indigenous people, women’s right to vote, humane care for the mentally ill, and efforts to feed starving children following World Wars I and II. Yet, I found it challenging to preach about justice without risking offence or poking at controversies that challenge our communities.
For many of us, our passion for justice goes deep, informed by scripture and guided by an inner sense of moral righteousness. Additionally, during these polarizing times when opinions on issues of justice have become calcified, many Friends line up on opposite sides of heated political and national debates about what is just and right. It is easier to preach on popular themes and about historical accomplishments than it is to address contemporary issues that demand justice and call people of faith to action.
Unlike me, and perhaps other Friends, the prophets we read in the Hebrew scriptures did not avoid talking about justice. These prophets took seriously their call to serve as a mouthpiece for God. They had the prophetic courage to take on the hard issues of their day, hold kings accountable, and call people out on their sins against God and their fellow human beings. Justice is certainly a theme we find in the Book of Micah.
Micah begins his preaching ministry with a series of indictments against Israel and Judah. He condemns those who oppress, bribe, and steal from others. He denounces the leaders who fleece the poor for their personal enrichment. He speaks out against false prophets who tell lies and offer false hope. As though in a court of law, Micah lays out the LORD’s case against Israel and Judah for their many injustices. Yet, it in this context we find words of prophetic insight that may help us speak to the justice concerns of our time.
It is helpful for Micah to remind Israel and Judah that they have a point of reference for knowing what is good. This comes from their first-hand experience with God: “He has shown you…what is good.” Micah reminded the Hebrew nations of the ways God had been just and merciful to them, yet they turned away from what they knew to be good.
When it comes to matters of justice, Friends affirm we are guided by an inner witness to what is good and right. Certainly, we are informed by scripture and the gospel testimony, but we are also led by a deep awareness of Christ Jesus abiding within us, speaking to the conditions of the world. A dynamic life in Christ shows us what is good and just. Moreover, Friends affirm that the goodness of God is imprinted into the lives of every human being, for all are created in God’s image.
This was the first-hand experience of John Woolmen when he was instructed by his employer to write a bill of sale for a slave. In that moment his conscience was awakened to what was good. Despite being troubled by this conscience, Woolman wrote the bill of sale anyway—“[B]ut at the executing of it I was so afflicted in my mind, that I said before my master and the Friend that I believed slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion.” (Woolman's Journal, Phillips P. Moulton, ed., p. 33.)
In the light of God’s goodness, Micah asks this question, “What does the Lord require of you?” This is a probing and disturbing question, especially when we are confronted with troubling circumstances that call for a moral assessment and just response. While it may be tempting to defer to our political pundits and rely on their judgments, Micah’s questions call us to participate personally in God’s redemptive justice. What does the Lord require of you,
• when there is another school shooting?
• when an immigrant child is separated from his mother?
• when a family becomes homeless?
• when a pregnant teenager is shunned by her family?
• when a factory is polluting the earth?
• when a neighbor loses his jobs?
• when a black man is unfairly incarcerated?
• when police officers are targeted?
• when a mentally ill woman is denied medical treatment?
• when a friend becomes addicted to opioids?
• when workers are not allowed to act according to their religious beliefs?
We participate in God’s goodness, in justice, in the many ways we answer these and other questions. And how are we to respond? “Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.”
Do you welcome opportunities to speak with your family and friends about matters of justice? Or do you avoid them?
Who is your favorite “Quaker justice” hero or heroine? Why?
Who is your favorite Old Testament prophet? In what ways does this prophet inspire you?
Has your conscience been awakened to matters of injustice?
How does God’s goodness inform your understanding of justice?
What does the Lord require of you, when…? (complete the sentence and answer the question.)
In what ways are you being called to participate in God’s restorative justice?
What does it mean for you to act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God?