In the first week of its existence, the new administration of President Donald Trump has probably received more media coverage, scrutiny, analysis, and commentary than most Presidents receive in a month. At one level, this arises from the understandable novelty of newness: people are naturally curious about the policies any new administration will pursue, and the media tend to feed this curiosity as it senses an opportunity for increased circulation and improved ratings. However, in the case of President Trump, this intense coverage is also the product of his own conduct over the long course of the last presidential election cycle, and both the expectations and the fears which his campaign promises have raised in many parts of American society and the wider global community.
Naturally, this media scrutiny has embraced a variety of reactions, from ecstatic support to angry condemnation. And this variety of response from within the media has been likewise reflected in the response of wider society. One the one hand, we have seen the extraordinary images of the millions of people around the world gathering to protest, not just the inauguration of President Trump, but the policy position which he represents. On the other hand, we have also witnessed some less salubrious responses: from the rather banal claims that Melania Trump’s inauguration outfit “copied” that worn by Jackie Kennedy to the inauguration of her husband, John F Kennedy; to the outright nasty, in which one satirist targeted Barron Trump, President Trump’s 10-year-old son.
Clearly, President Trump, through his conduct, through his pronouncements, and through the perceptions of himself which he generates, is a controversial and divisive figure. And these dynamics have only been exacerbated by the extraordinary flurry of executive orders he has issued in the last week, and the media scrutiny which those orders have attracted. Beyond Trump’s own effect, for many people we are now in a period, not just of anxiety or confusion, but one in which the rules have all changed, in which the world itself has changed and things which were once familiar are no longer recognisable. This changed world order ranges from international relations – and, in particular, the relationship between China and the United States – to such things as climate change, and the ban placed by the new administration on government scientific departments releasing information about the environment to the media. And social justice issues are similarly affected, most notably in the ban on immigration into the United States from certain Muslim-majority nations; a ban which apparently also impacts upon people from those countries already living and working in America under that nation’s green card program.
For a lot of people, therefore, President Trump’s election and his subsequent policy initiatives have radically altered the scheme of things. Indeed, for many it appears as though the world has moved into a different dimension altogether. People no longer understand where they stand in this new and strange reality.
The prophet Micah, from whom we heard today, is one of the four great prophets of the 8th century BC – the other three being Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah (that is to say, the prophet scholars refer to as First Isaiah, the pre-Exilic Isaiah). Indeed, some scholars think Micah was a contemporary of First Isaiah. And one of the interesting things about Micah is that although he prophesied in Jerusalem, he was from a rural background, having been born and raised in a village not far from the frontier separating Judah from the city-states of the Philistines. And so he would have been aware of what it was to live in an environment of insecurity and anxiety, one in which the reality of enemy incursions and raids was a constant reality. And he would have been aware, too, of the debilitating effect this could have on people over times, as well as the suffering which constant warfare inflicted in the powerless and the poor.
Moreover, this was a period in which the kingdom of Judah was being pressed between the imperial ambitions of two much mightier powers: the empire of the Assyrians to the north, and the Egyptian kingdom to the south. Indeed, during the course of Micah’s prophetic ministry, the northern kingdom of Israel was annihilated by the expanding Assyrian empire; and the Assyrians even briefly, though unsuccessfully, besieged Jerusalem itself. In other words, this is a period of insecurity, of instability, in which the Hebrew people are caught in the vice of competing military powers.
But it is also a time of internal instability characterised by corruption. Micah was a trader by background; and much of his prophetic ministry is concerned with condemning economic corruption. As a trader, he saw the corruption in the market place that tampered with the scales and fixed the weights used to measure agricultural produce, so that farmers and others dependent on the land were extorted out of a fair recompense for their work. He witnessed middle-men and wealthy merchants reap huge profits at the expense of the poor. Ultimately, he witnessed the kings and landed aristocracy become the supreme beneficiaries of a corrupt economic system that displaced the burden of social and economic upkeep on those least able to bear its weight.
As someone from a commercial background, Micah saw this corruption in operation and understood its devastating effect. Judah was a nation under threat externally from aggressive neighbours, and internally from economic corruption. Micah’s response was to declare that the people of Judah needed to recognise, not just what was happening beyond their borders, but what was happening within their own society. And they needed to do that because it was a matter of their soul, a question of who they were. Were they a people who lived in covenant with God, and whose external life reflected that internal reality; or were they just another opportunistic, idolatrous people seeking their own short-term advantage at the expense of justice and mercy and compassion? And if the latter, then what did this say about the people; and what did it do to the character of the people over time – how did it change and corrupt and cripple them as a people and a community?
And in today’s reading we have the famous passage in which Micah challenges the people, and says, in effect: “With what shall we come before the LORD? Shall we come forward with these extravagant offerings, with these masses of slaughtered animals, with these rivers of sacrificial oil? Shall we make a great show of our wealth and prosperity. And shall we manipulate the liturgical process for the sake of political ambition and self-righteous display? Is that what we think God wants from us?” Now, some people have – mistakenly, in my view – interpreted this passage as an anti-liturgical, anti-worship, anti-clerical statement, one in which Micah is condemning sacrifice and liturgical ritual. But that, in my view, is a misreading of the text; because the worship and sacrifice which the Temple in Jerusalem hosted was central to the people’s covenantal relationship with God; it was a visible expression, an outward form of that relationship which was an articulation by the people of their commitment to covenant. So I don’t think Micah was proposing the abolition of sacrifice or worship at the Temple. But what he was drawing attention to was the corruption of that worship; because when we go back to the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures that deal with sacrifice, we discover – perhaps to our surprise – that the sacrifices which are prescribed for the Temple rituals are actually rather modest. But what has happened is that over time, this process of worship and ritual sacrifice has been distorted into a display for the powerful and the ambitious. It has become corrupted by the prerogatives of the state, instead of being a vehicle through which the life of the state is informed.
And so Micah is challenging this corruption of what is meant to be a central expression of the people’s relationship with God. But this challenge is issued in a context in which the poor, the landless, the dispossessed are being exploited through a corrupt economic system. Micah makes this link between the corruption of the worship life of the people, and the corruption that is impoverishing all but the wealthy few. And he is saying quite clearly that this ostentatious display of wealth through extravagant sacrifice cannot continue – and are certainly blasphemous – while the widow, the orphan, the foreigner who lives among us, do so in fear and insecurity and penury.
What, then, has this condemnation to do with our own context? There are some obvious parallels. The issues about economic corruption to which Micah drew attention, and how this corruption infects every aspect of the people’s life – including their relationship with God – can be easily articulated. We have in the life of the universal church this thing called “prosperity theology”, which proceeds from the assumption that material wealth and success are signs of God’s blessing, and, therefore, of the purity of your moral character. Poverty and failure by contrast, are seen as indicators that you are being punished by God for a – probably – hidden moral shortcoming, one which you have tried to conceal but which God has brought out into the light. It is a theology that does not merely demonise the poor – contrary to St Francis of Assisi, who taught that the poor should be sanctified – it is a claim about the nature of poverty itself that justifies the criminalisation of the poor. And we hear this criminalisation in the language of our politicians, when they talk about so-called “lifters” and “leaners” – the “leaners”, of course, being the “parasites” and “bludgers” on welfare, who are sucking the life-blood out of our economy and society.
On the other hand, Micah’s attention to corruption draws our own attention to what is going on in the world. I don’t know if you’ve seen it in the news or not, but President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Department of Labor in the United States, is CEO of a chain of fast food stores which, while it pays him millions in annual remuneration, pays its ordinary employees such low wages it is estimated they also require close to $250 million a year in Federal welfare support just to survive. These are the kinds of inequalities and distortions to which Micah drew attention: the criminalisation of the poor that regards poverty as a sign of moral corruption, whilst at the same time the system is rigged against the poor and the powerless by the privileged and the powerful.
So those are some of the obvious connections. But there is a perhaps less obvious connection, one that applies to those of us who are concerned, not just about President Trump and his policies or economic and ecological issues generally, but justice particularly. And that connection revolves around the question: how do we respond? In this age of uncertainty and conflict, how do we respond; indeed, how can we respond, when the issues seem so big, and any individual response so pointless?
Well, it’s right there: in Micah, in today’s passage. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly.
That is what each and every one of us needs to do. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. That’s the revolution. That’s the resistance. That’s the counter culture. In a world that assigns moral worth to wealth, that measures human value by achievement, that makes an idolatry of material possession, and makes concern for others a moral failing, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly are radically subversive acts.
But does this mean we should not get out onto the streets and protest? Does this mean we should not engage in acts of peaceful civil disobedience? Does this mean we should not do things like write to our local MP or to the papers on issues that concern us? Of course not. What it means is that all these things have to begin in the prescription which Micah sets out today. Because if all these things do not come out of justice and kindness and humility, then they are simply part of the chaos and the confusion and the conflict they are supposedly reacting against. And while we might fret about the “results” at the individual level, at the collective level the difference will be profound; because justice and kindness and humility ultimately address issues of our collective soul, of who we are as a people: whether we are a people who live in covenant, or a people who live in idolatry.
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. That’s where the resistance begins; because that is the revolution, not of our own politics or ambition, but of the politics of God, which proceeds from love for us all.
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