“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does YHWH require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” -Micah 6:8
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” -Amos 6:24
I don’t know a progressive Christian who doesn’t love these two verses. (Or one who passes up a chance to write them on a protest poster or quote them in a meeting of community organizers.)
I’m no different. These verses played a big role in my return to the Christian faith after my early-20s disillusionment. To discover that there was a social justice strain in Christianity, and that it could be found explicitly in the Bible – in the Hebrew Scriptures, no less! – was huge for me.
But I don’t want to just talk about them like they are the opening lines of some kind of Social Justice Handbook for Christian Activists©. Instead, to reflect on the role they play as favorites of mine, I want them to inspire gratitude in Christians, directed towards the Jewish prophetic tradition in which Jesus existed, and out of which our own faith tradition grew.
Here’s what I mean: we Christians didn’t invent religious social justice awareness. In fact, we haven’t even been the ones who perfected it, or practiced it in its “best” form. That distinction goes to the Jewish tradition, the progenitors of the prophetic critique and social justice-minded faith.
The words of the Jewish prophets, which we are so used to reading today that seem rather typical, were radically new at the time of their writing. No other religious system of the ancient world had used faith as a critique of power. In fact, religions had long been used as props to the governing elites, confirming them in their exercise of power and rule over the vast majority of people. But the prophets of ancient Israel were a new force. They disrupted the power structures by declaring that God was not merely a rubber stamp for the ruling elite, but instead, had great requirements and expectations, rooted in justice for the people and mercy for the oppressed.
Thomas Cahill highlights this in The Gifts of the Jews, speaking of the Law that the the prophets defended and called the kings of Israel and Judah back to:
“…in the prescriptions of Jewish law we cannot but note a presumption that all people. even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred. The constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions but of the powerless and their poverty; and there is even a frequent enjoinder to sympathy…The bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole of human history of law. However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.”
Thus, these words of the prophets have context. They aren’t just something lefty Christians can appropriate in making the case for our preferred political candidate or policy. Instead, we must remember: these are words about God, and God’s grand design for Creation. They are words that aren’t just about holding the correct political positions; they are words about the very nature of the Universe, about how things should be. They are, in short, holy, inspired words, not to be used and discarded, but internalized and held as holy. For they reveal to us the nature of God.
So yes, these words can inspire us to action, to become followers of Christ in deed, and not just word. They can provide the moral underpinnings of our convictions about the work we feel called to do in the world. But, when we invoke them, we should always do so with a sense of reverence, and an attitude of gratitude, for the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, who have birth to the notion of a socially-conscious faith, and who shared that notion that comes down to us today.