The ancient Jewish prophet Micah is considered one of a dozen “minor prophets” in the canonized Hebrew Scriptures, and yet he is also one of the most fervent champions of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed in human history. And he is responsible for one of the most eloquent calls for humility and mercy ever recorded.
A contemporary of the prophets Isaiah and Hosea, Micah lived in a region dominated by agriculture and well outside the centers of political power in his nation. This helped him identify with the lowly and the less fortunate of ancient Jewish society.
Woe to those who devise iniquity,
And work out evil on their beds!
At morning light they practice it,
Because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and take them by violence,
Also houses, and seize them.
So they oppress a man and his house,
A man and his inheritance.
The devoted prophet of Yahweh denounces the political and economic powers-that-be for exploiting and oppressing the poor and under-privileged, and warns of impending divine judgment on the nation for their wickedness.
In what we know as the sixth chapter of Micah’s prophetic writings, he includes a review of God’s expectations for His people.
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?
It has become one of the most iconic biblical passages in history. When Jimmy Carter took the oath of office to become the 39th President of the United States, the Bible upon which he took his oath was open to this passage.
In this passage, Micah lays out the simple, yet profound virtues that God models for, and expects from, His people:
- Do what is just
- Love mercy
- Walk humbly before God
Just as these virtues would have, if practiced, saved the people of ancient Israel and Judah much trouble, these same virtues can save us from much difficulty today.
And, lest there be no mistake, all three virtues are essential. Remove one and the entire enterprise fails.
You can’t do what is right — you can’t “do justly” or exercise justice — apart from mercy and humility.
While today’s “woke” social justice movement can be credited with drawing important attention to the plight of the persecuted and less privileged, the most vocal elements of this movement have often failed in exhibiting either humility or mercy.
The truth is that humility and mercy are in short supply in either major political party today and are virtually non-existent in much of what passes for political discussion or debate in wide swaths of American society and culture, especially on social media.
Humility is the recognition that we don’t have all the answers and that we, as mortal human beings, fall short of any consistent, meaningful, and objective standard of true justice.
No human being is perfect. All of us have made poor choices. All of us have made mistakes. All of us — to use a religious term — have sinned.
Sure, some people sin more than others. Some people make more mistakes than others. Some people seem to have a habit of poor choices. But, to use a sports analogy, whether you miss the shot wide or whether you’re super close…. if you missed the shot, you missed the shot.
The New Testament book of James — also written with oppressed people in mind — reminds us that it only takes one offense for us to fall short of God’s perfect law of righteousness. And this compromises our ability to judge others fairly — even those who are further off the mark than we are.
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
It is the reality of our failings and our limitations, Micah and James would both tell us, that we should be humble — humble before God and humble before one another.
Yes, we should pursue justice.
Yes, we should stand for what is right.
But we should do so with humility.
And if we are truly humble, then that will lead to that other virtue both James and Micah endorse: Mercy.
Mercy is choosing to show compassion or forgiveness toward someone deserving of neither. It is a choice to decline retribution, revenge, or punishment — even though (humanly speaking) one would consider himself or herself entitled to seek one or all of those things.
The American culture of 2020 couldn’t be characterized as one of mercy. Cancel culture? Check. Anger and vitriol? Yep. Name-calling? Plenty. Acrimony and Unrest? Oh yeah.
Mercy? Not so much.
And yet…there are few things we need more.
Mercy and forgiveness of course have their detractors. There are many in our society today who condemn the tendency to show mercy and forgiveness as aiding and abetting oppression and evil.
However, the historical record indicates that mercy can be quite a potent weapon against oppression and evil.
On May 15, 1972, a 21-year old loner from Milwaukee approached a 52-year old southern politician campaigning for the American presidency. The place was a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland. The presidential candidate was the notorious segregationist George Wallace, governor of Alabama, competing for the Democratic presidential nomination. And the young man was Arthur Bremer.
As Wallace worked his way through the crowd, Bremer thrust a snub-nosed revolver to within 18 inches of his target and fired five shots. Wallace crumpled to the ground in the midst of chaos. He would survive the shooting, but would never walk again.
The attempted assassination on Wallace came just over a decade after the brutal assassination of President John F. Kennedy and only a few years after the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Many believed that such political assassinations, along with recent unrest in American cities, put American politics in a precarious point in history. And one of those individuals was a woman who, in a remarkable act of mercy, would temporarily suspend her presidential campaign to visit Governor Wallace at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland.
That woman was Shirley Chisholm.
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968, Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress. Four years later, she made history again by becoming the first African American woman to launch a bid for the nomination of one of America’s major political parties.
She was competing for the Democratic Party nomination — the same as Alabama Governor George Wallace.
Chisholm, a former educator, was an outspoken and charismatic champion for civil rights. She was the polar opposite of Wallace, who was the national embodiment of racism, segregation, and white supremacy.
It was Wallace who had once declared: “Segregation Now. Segregation Forever.”
Chisholm’s decision to visit Wallace confused the country and angered many of her own supporters, and yet she believed it was the right thing to do.
When Chisholm entered Wallace’s hospital room, the astonished governor apparently asked, “Shirley Chisholm! What are you doing here?” He then asked, “What are your people going to say?”
Congresswoman Chisholm replied, “I know what they are going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.”
According to Chisholm, the two held hands and prayed —and the arch segregationist wept.
Wallace’s daughter said that the congresswoman’s visit touched her father’s soul in a profound way. And it would help lead to what many consider among the most incredible transformations in American political history.
George Wallace would ultimately renounce his racist past and seek the forgiveness of the African American community for his hatred and belligerence.
When confronted with oppression and injustice, it is tempting — even natural — to resort to anger and to seek vengeance. But the truly noble figures of our history — people like Shirley Chisholm and like James and Micah — understood a better way. A more noble path.
They understood, as James wrote in the first century A.D., that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
We need more mercy today.