Pentecost Reflection—Micah: A Spirituality of Social Justice
What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Micah was a social justice prophet. He was a poor family and lived in the 8th century BC. Micah was disgusted by the way the powerful mistreated the powerless. The Jerome Biblical Commentary says ‘he was a fearless champion of the cause of the oppressed.’
Micah attacked the social, economic and religious leaders of his time in the toughest language possible. He said that the landowners were cheats, the merchants were greedy, the priests were hypocrites and the prophets were false. He said those in charge ‘eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from them, and break their bones. They chop them in pieces like flesh in a kettle.’(3/2-3)
Micah calls us to social justice spirituality. We are called to act just, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God. Not justice alone. Not love alone. Not walking humbly with God alone. None stand alone. Justice, love and spirituality are to be intertwined in our lives. In order to act justly, we must love tenderly and walk humbly with God. In order to love tenderly we must act justly and walk humbly with our God. And in order to walk humbly with God we must act justly and love tenderly.
Micah told the people of his day and ours that action for justice is required. Not justice talk, but just action.
Social justice insists that true spirituality cannot be found on its own but must be sought in the effort to act justly and love tenderly. Only then is true spirituality even possible. As one theologian says, ‘one knows that his or her life is positively united with God in the exact measure that one responds to the needs of other people.’1 It does little good to be religious or spiritual if we do not act justly. As Gutierrez says, ‘when justice does not exist, God is not known; God is absent.’2
Because we are individual and social beings, our actions for justice must be both personal and political. What we do, how we live, what we consume are all personal justice issues. Our working lives are what we spend the bulk of our time on and so we are called to choose work that builds a more just world. If our job does not build justice and love, then we are called to transform it to make it an opportunity for justice and love. If our work is ultimately in opposition to justice and love, then we must find other work. Likewise, our family lives must reflect the values of Micah. But despite the challenges of incorporating the values of justice and love into our personal lives, there is more.
Justice challenges us to confront our unjust structures and institutions. We are to proclaim the truth like Micah and denounce injustice. That is prophetic social justice. Unfortunately we start from a peculiarly uncomfortable global social justice position. We Westerners sit comfortably at the very top of the world economic mountain. Over three billion of our sisters and brothers live beneath us on $2 per day. They are subjected to needless economic, political, religious and military injustices, many of which directly support our position atop the mountain. Because of this we have a responsibility to help transform the unjust structures and institutions that create or contribute to their suffering. We must support those who are suffer or working for justice globally. We must join with others in social justice movements that are working to challenge these global practices of injustice. We must also help create new simpler ways of living that are not built on the foundations of injustice.
Justice is built on the essential human dignity of each person in this world, a cornerstone of Catholic social thought. Because of this shared human dignity we are not called to give some measure of charity to our brothers and sisters out of our excess but we are called to an essential re-ordering and returning. As Walter Brueggemann says, ‘Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom and to return it to them.’3 With billions living in sub-human poverty, sorting out what belongs to whom and returning it to them is real justice. It is also a real challenge for us atop the mountain.
Justice calls us to turn our worldview upside down and look at its fairness from the perspective of those billions who live at the base of the mountain. Looked at from the bottom of the mountain, who would not question the inequality? Looked at from the bottom, we must see the racism, the militarism, and the excessive materialism of those perched comfortably at the top. A preferential option for the poor insists that, like Micah, we vigorously challenge these current social, economic, military and religious arrangements.
Since we live at the top of the mountain, we are not naturally in a position to know what the perspective is from the bottom. Therefore, we must continually re-educate ourselves about justice and injustice. The mainstream media is certainly not going to spend much time trying to educate us about injustice. Their job is to push us to want beer and cars and be slimmer. The mainstream consensus from the top of the mountain is that ‘we are doing all we can,’ ‘things are much better than they used to be,’ and ‘don’t worry about it – somebody else is working on this right now.’ True re-education is our job. Seeking out the voices of the poor and listening to them is up to us.
Acting justly leads to conflict with the forces that are comfortable with the way things are now. Taking the side of the poor, denouncing injustices, calling for a re-ordering of the world’s resources, demanding a much, much better world will result in disagreement, anger and reprisal.
In addition to acting justly, Micah insists we love tenderly. In my experience, this is tougher for social justice folks. We can get so caught up in acting for justice and calling for social justice that we can become demanding, self righteous and harsh. So Micah says that with justice comes the command to love tenderly. How many of us temper our actions for justice with tender love?
Those who think love or charity is in opposition to justice are flat wrong. If all we are about is politics or trying to change structures, we run the real risk of becoming love-less manipulators. If all we think about is individual charity or love, then we leave unjust institutions and structures in place that constantly de-humanise, oppress and wound our brothers and sisters. We need both in our societies and in our lives.
This call to love tenderly is personal but not only personal. We all know we must love our neighbour but social justice pushes us to constantly expand our notion of neighbour. Our brothers and sisters are critical because no one walks the path of social justice alone and stays on it. Only with community is a life journey of justice and love possible. True love and true justice are profoundly prophetic, profoundly counter cultural, even profoundly revolutionary. Those are not forces any of us can confront alone. We need a supportive community. I am willing to bet that Micah was part of a community that supported him, challenged him and comforted him. And it probably drove him crazy sometimes as well, like all our communities do. This is real life. But I remember Dan Berrigan being asked who were his heroes. His response? ‘I don’t believe in heroes. I believe in community.’
Walk Humbly with your God
Micah reminds us that in addition to acting justly and loving tenderly, we are also required ‘to walk humbly with your God.’ That is a key to social justice spirituality.
This is not a spirituality in competition with a life of action for justice. A spirituality that is devoted only to trying to develop a personal relationship with God which ignores or de-emphasises the demand to create a more just world with our neighbours is not a real spirituality. A spirituality that does not insist that we act justly and lovingly towards the poor and oppressed in our world is an incomplete spirituality. But likewise, a life that tries only to be concerned about justice and love without an interior life is incomplete. No one can accuse Micah of a personal private spirituality detached from the concerns of the poor and the oppressed. Advocating for justice for the poor was his daily bread.
Social justice advocates often identify with the prophets in their uncompromising denunciation of the status quo. But the prophets also have a desert side to them, a prolonged reflective period. The prophets are constantly creating quiet time to listen to God.
To walk humbly with God is spirituality. So how might social justice advocates interpret and apply Micah’s instruction to ‘walk humbly with your God?’ Think about each word.
Walking is not the usual way we are taught to think of developing a social justice spirituality. But I like it. Not running, not rushing, just walking. The Buddhist social justice activist and contemplative Thich Nhat Hanh writes frequently about ‘mindful walking.’ He describes his approach to walking meditation, ‘we walk slowly. Alone or with friends, if possible in some beautiful place. Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking – walking not in order to arrive, just for walking.’4 This suggests we approach the Spirit in the way we would walk with a friend – taking our time, enjoying the walk.
We must create the time to take that walk. Action without contemplation is a recipe for burnout.
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was one of the great social justice advocates of the last century. Friends were struck by her constant faithfulness to justice, but also by her deep commitment to meditation, spiritual reading and prayer. Dorothy blended a life of activism with a rich interior life. One friend recalls, ‘I think her spirituality is the key…. If she had totally lost herself in the Worker, it wouldn’t have been Dorothy Day at all. She obviously resisted being overwhelmed by the work and took her time to be private and to read and pray. This was a woman of silences as well of intense activity and you felt it when you were with her.’5
Micah’s call to us to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with our God must be interwoven into our lives. Justice. Love. Spirituality. Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly. None are separate for those who believe in a social justice spirituality. None stands alone. All are essential.
Bill Quigley, a married family man, is a professor of law at Loyola University on New Orleans, a social justice lawyer and the editor of Blueprint for Social Justice, a social justice quarterly. This edited article is taken from the September 2004 edition.
1 Roger Haig S.J. An Alternative Vision: An Interpretation of Liberation Theology, Paulist Press, 1985.
2 Gustavo Guiterrez, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, New York, 1973.
3 Walter Brueggmann, Sharon Parks, Thomas E. Groome, To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly: An Agenda for Ministers, WIPF and Stock, 1997.
4 Thich Nhat Hanh, Essential Writings, Orbis Books, New York, 2001
5 Rosalie Riegle, Dorothy Day – Portraits by Those who Knew Her, Orbis Books, New York, 2003