“He has told you, oh mortal, what is good: what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
What is good. The heart of my work is to equip you with the interpretive tools you need to live your faith in a complex world. Living our faith is always challenging. These last months, especially so. The pandemic wilderness has laid bare our deepest wounds as persons and as a society. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death we see a country rife with racism, bitter partisanship and violence; we have also seen an extraordinary capacity for what is good.
I know that most of us, either in social media or personal conversation, have witnessed a debate play out whether or not affirming Black Lives Matter is an offense to the fact all lives matter. I think I can be helpful to you in this. Biblically this is nonsense. If in their distress we cannot affirm unequivocally to black Americans that Black Lives Matter, period, there is little hope for a kind of justice where all lives matter, equally. This truth is embedded in the narratives of Scripture itself. A failure to do this deep work within our faith will result in shallow action and reaction, not systemic change. So, bear with me. This will take more words than a tweet, but it will be a quicker read than Plato’s Republic. I promise.
Justice. Racism as we know it is not addressed in scripture. Racism is a much later development of the colonialist empires of Christian Europe from the 15th century onward. Perhaps, the deeply rooted resentment between ancient Jews and Samaritans is close enough an example in kind. When one of Jesus’ fellow Jews asks what he needed to do to be in good stead with God, Jesus responds,“What do our scriptures say?” His answer is a good one. The heart of Torah is love of God and neighbor. There is little debate on that, then and now. That is the right answer. Anyone with sense, though, knows that neighbor love is the tricky bit, depending on who your neighbor is.
Seeking to get himself off that hook, our questioner pushes further: “Who then is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus tells him a story about the apparent victim of a robbery left to die on the side of a dangerous road — this was a common ruse for an ambush in that place. Two faithful Jews pass him by — the point being, that any one of us under those conditions might have done the same and be justified. The hero, of course, is a Samaritan. The hated Samaritan is the one with the courage and empathetic heart to help the man who turns out to be very real and suffering. Now, go and do likewise. End of parable. In context the parable is pushed even further, for by the end of the gospel itself, Jesus is the one laying brutalized on the side of a cross, suffocated beneath the knee of Roman justice.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most famous texts in our tradition. Out of familiarity, we often miss the bite of it. John Wesley did not. Here is Wesley’s note on the parable for his methodists: “Go and do thou in like manner—Let us go and do likewise, regarding every [person] as our neighbor who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry ... which would contract our hearts, into an insensibility for all the human race, but a small number whose sentiments and practice are so much our own, that our love to them is but self-love reflected.”
Our tendency, when left to our own devices, is to shrink our neighborhoods to the people most like ourselves. This is bigotry. Again, from Wesley, “And this commandment we have from ... both God and Christ; that he who [loves] God, love(s) ... Every one ... purely because he is the child and bears the image of God. Bigotry is properly the want of this pure and universal love. A bigot only loves those who embrace his opinions ... he loves them for that, and not for Christ’s sake.” So there you have it: All lives matter.
Each and every life is sacred. This is, of course, the very first affirmation in the Bible: God created all humanity in God’s image. “And God said that it was exceedingly good.” As dramatically affirmed in the Bible's opening credits (Genesis 1-11), equality of all in God’s sight is a fact never in jeopardy in Scripture. We are created to live freely without shame; we are to live in harmony as stewards of an astonishing diverse and fruitful world; we are forbidden from using that freedom to harm others. We are due equal treatment under this law. This is justice. However, the first eleven chapters of Genesis are also archetypical stories about how badly we get this wrong. As it has been said, the point of these stories isn’t that they happened once a long time ago, it is that they happen all the time.
Oh Mortal. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Covenant and Conversation: Genesis) has helped me see these texts as a sophisticated drama about the failure of human responsibility in God's all- lives-matter world. Adam and Eve fail the test of personal responsibility: neither take responsibility for what they’ve done. The result is the experience of shame. Cain, kills his brother, Abel. He fails the test of moral responsibility: “Am I my brother’s keeper.” The answer of course is yes you are.
Next, the story of Noah and the flood. It is commonly misread. The first experience of human identity is tribalism (Sacks). We love those who are related to us, of our kind, but we fear and ultimately are violent toward the stranger. The earth is a violent mess. We’ll start over, God says. With one faithful tribe. Noah is given grace enough to save his family and as many creatures of the earth as he can. But Noah fails the test of collective responsibility. He doesn’t help remake society when the flood is over. He unloads the Ark, thanks his God, and plants a vineyard for himself, apparently living out his latter days as a drunkard.
Finally, the last act in this drama of responsibility: humanity discovers the power of technology and common purpose (Genesis 11:1-9). All humanity gathers into one place and one language. We think the solution is to be one people of a single identity, uniform, the same. There will be no limit to what we can do. Come let us make a name for ourselves, and build a tower into the heavens, lest we be scattered over the earth. Sacks points out that the only other place in scripture that the formula “Come let us ... verb, or" occurs at the beginning of Exodus. Pharaoh sees that the people of Israel are numerous enough to be a threat, he says, “Come let us deal with them or they will become” This is a text about tribalism’s opposite: empire. Neither leads humanity to Justice, just the opposite. Here we fail the responsibility of mortal humility. Empires live with the idea of universal justice too. They bend all into this universal image, mistaking it for God’s image.
Now, thank you for sticking with me this far, because here is the reward for close reading: this is how racism begins. Christian Europeans imagined any one whose skin color or culture was different than their own was less than; they enslaved native peoples or killed them in order to tame the world to their common purpose. And until we take responsibility for our own actions, for the moral responsibility that comes with freedom, for the collective responsibility that comes with grace, in humble recognition of the beauty of God's diverse creation, we will continue to do the same. Sin lurks at our door, we must master it.
So then Justice, all lives matter, equally. This is not in dispute. However, it is not enough, not sufficient to make human life humane. And here the curtain rises on the grand narrative of the Bible. The whole of the rest, the entire scope and tenor of it, is the story of a God of Justice who teaches the world to love kindness in order to save it, one chosen people, one beloved person, one act of kindness at a time. God enters into our suffering and calls us to love.
Love Kindness. The defining characteristic of God in scripture is not justice, although God is just. God is above all things, in the Old Testament and New, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (in Hebrew: hesed; variously in Greek, but Christians commonly speak of this loving as agape).
Of course, in a just society ALL lives matter, but that is not enough as we have seen. To Justice, the Bible appends the call to love kindness. It is a great mystery, but our faith is witness to a God who steps into creation to suffer this loving with us, for us (Emmanuel). This loving isn't emotional, though it begins in empathy with the suffering. It is an action, an act of kindness toward the stranger or friend for no other reason than they are in need and loved by God and worthy of being loved (as are each and every one of us). From Abraham to Jesus, God loves the world toward justice. All lives matter, but when black lives cry out for justice, our hearts must be called to that other essential capacity which is loving kindness. Hearing another's cry, beholding another's need and acting selflessly to comfort them: this isn't justice, because it is in the moment not universal it is particular, preferential, it is honoring the blessed uniqueness and infinite value of the person before us.
The Bible understands that humans in power will always attempt to create a justice favorable to themselves; it is why we are commanded to this other thing, the thing which Jesus and Paul finally imagine is the only quality of life worth living. Jesus enfleshed this loving in our living. When the afflicted cry out, we are called to love: to say first to black Americans, Black Lives Matter, without qualification. It is this act alone that has the power to mend the world. If one cannot do that, we can never find our way to Justice. This is the wisdom of the Bible. This is where God walks. That is what is in the book our President held in his hand before St. John's Church.
Walking Humbly. In the 1960's, Stephen Carter was an 11 year old black boy who moved into a white neighborhood in Washington. When he and his brothers sat on their front porch after moving in, those white neighbors who walked by didn’t smile or give any sign of welcome or acknowledgement. Stephen became afraid that all the terrible stories he heard about blacks living among whites were true. Then a remarkable thing happened; well actually, one kind thing. Their white neighbor across the street, came home, noticed them, smiled and went inside. She came out some time later with a plate of cheese and jelly sandwiches and crossed the street to welcome them. That moment, he wrote changed his life. Her name was Sara Kestbaum. She was Jewish. She knew her scriptures. She knew what was good.
As an adult, writing decades later, Stephen Carter said, “Nothing in contemporary secular conversation calls us to give up anything truly valuable for anybody else … Only religion offers a sacred language of sacrifice-selflessness-awe that enables believers to treat their fellow citizens as fellow passengers. But even if religion is the engine of civility, it has too few serious practitioners, which is why those who are truly moved by it to love their fellow human beings are so special. I learned that truth in 1966, and, to this day, I can close my eyes and feel my tongue on the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life for ever.” (1)
What more has the Lord asked of you, O mortal, but to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with your God.
(1) Stephen Carter, Civility (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp 61-63, as cited in by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World (London: Shocken Books, 2005). Cited above, for the analysis of Genesis 1-11, Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2009), pp 49-63).
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess