Micah 6:6-8 “What does the LORD require?” March 4, 2014
Living a global existence, as we all are forced to do these days, like it or not, I often find myself overwhelmed by the images of second-hand suffering. Is there really more misery out there than in times past? It does seem so at times, doesn’t it? The sophisticated technologies of news gathering have given us a God-like perspective on the mischief humanity is up too. We see close-up the realities of war and terrorism. We are presented with scenes of the unimaginable suffering caused by natural calamities—famine, flood, and earthquake. The media have thrown a window wide open upon the whole sad spectacle of human misery, offering us endless graphic images that clamor for an empathetic response.
And for those who have planted within them a longing for goodness, who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” to use the words of Jesus, this overload of second-hand suffering doesn’t make a Christ-like response any easier. Quite the opposite. It was much simpler to respond to the distress of our neighbors when we saw it in a more limited way. The people down the hill suffered poverty, and we were able to help with their electric bill. The widow next door suffered desolation and loneliness, and we were able visit her. The homeless man in the street needed a hot meal, and we were able to provide it. Of course we can still do all those things. Nothing is stopping us. Only now there are so many more neighbors and they are so much more distant from us and they are so much more desperate, literally dying of their want. We are able to look despair and desperation in the eyes of a mother and child half a world away. I, for one, sometimes feel like I am drowning in a sea of pity.
Scientists who study such things tell us that human beings are equipped with “mirror neurons” that enable us to feel for and with others. Empathy is hard-wired into our brains. But apparently we are not equally endowed with these sensors, however. Some people seem to be physically more sensitive to the joys and sufferings of others, and therefore more likely to feel the tug of compassion toward a moral response.
That tug, however, is by no means irresistible. Empathetic people—like ourselves, dare I say?–are not always willing or able to act concretely upon their moral feelings. They may indeed feel the suffering of others more vividly, but empathetic people are also more likely to comfort themselves with the idea that when they have felt something they have done something. They have a tendency to mistake their humane feelings for actions, their empathy for a concrete response. Empathy is a moral indulgence, not a moral imperative. There is a crucial difference between feeling empathy for that homeless woman begging at the traffic stop and actually giving her a dollar before the light changes. And if we don’t have exactly the right change—if, say, we only have a five–it is so much easier just to feel sorry and then drive on and let someone else take care of her. After all, we did feel pity, and that’s something isn’t it? You can’t help everyone. There are too many beggars at our door. The whole world seems to have its hand out.
And there it is again–the problem of moral fatigue. The overload of second-hand suffering that leaves us frustrated and discouraged. We may feel responsible to do something, but also feel helpless to do anything that makes a difference. The needs are so distant and so enormous. The problems are so beyond our means, so impossible to comprehend, let alone solve, that we feel helpless, and helplessness leads to exhaustion. We shut the paper. We turn off the television.
We close the eyes of our attention. We try to shut out the words and images that disturb our peace of mind, but the questions do not go away, because it is the Holy Spirit that has put them there–How much individual responsibility do I have as a follower of Jesus to care for a hurting world? What are the limits of my responsibility? When I see or hear about of people half a world away and my eyes water from the smoke of a distant fire, I know I should do something. But what exactly?
Let me give you an example. My wife and I first heard about this one at the Greek Orthodox Church we attend. For the last few Sundays we have been asked to pray for thirteen Syrian nuns and three orphanage workers, who have been abducted from their monastery in Maaloula. Even as fighting raged in the area, the nuns refused to leave the orphans in their care. Then on December 2 of last year a group of armed rebels linked to al-Qaida and part of the three-year-old revolt seeking overthrow the Assad government in Syria, abducted them at gunpoint and took them to unknown destination, where they still remain. The oldest of the nuns is nearly ninety. The youngest of the orphanage workers—who are themselves orphans—is in her mid-teens.
In a video released shortly after the abduction the nuns denied that they had been kidnapped, saying that they were in good health and being sheltered at location distant from the fighting. But that was almost three months ago now, and nobody any longer believes that they are being held for their safety.
Certainly not the Patriarch of Antioch. After the abduction of the nuns, Patriarch John issued a powerfully worded statement which reads in part: “Our appeal to the international community: Although we are grateful for all the feelings of solidarity, we no longer need denunciation, condemnation, or ‘feelings of concern’ about the assault on human dignity that is occurring, because all this is engraved in the conscience of all of us. Today, however, we need concrete actions, not words. We do not want voices of condemnation from decision makers, whether regional or international, but efforts, pressure and action leading to the release of those whose only fault was their clinging to their monastery and refusing to leave it.”
The statement has undertones of bitter irony. There is little that the United States and the nations of Western Europe can do to stop “the assault on human dignity” that is taking place in Syria, except raise “voices of condemnation.” We are not going to intervene there. That seems pretty clear. There are some very good reasons why we can’t. The lessons of Iraq are still too fresh in all our minds for us need to rehash them. So what sort of “concrete actions” can be forthcoming? The Orthodox Churches in America has been asked to remember the nuns and orphans of Maaloula in their prayers, together with the other bishops and clergy who had been abducted during the fighting. But apart from our prayers and our unwanted “feelings of concern,” what do we have to offer?
Well, nothing. That’s just the point. As individuals and as a nation we are helpless to effect any change in the situation in Syria—or in so many other corners of world where people are suffering. We can watch these humanitarian tragedies play themselves out in the media, but apart from lighting a candle before an icon of the Mother of God and sending a check to UNICEF, we can do nothing. We see these assaults on human dignity and feel for those who suffer them—“all this is engraved in the conscience of all of us”—but we are helpless to effect any real or lasting difference.
But that realization does nothing to the emptiness in our hearts that only personal righteousness can fill. Call it a hunger for righteousness or integrity or whatever you like. The Holy Spirit puts it into our hearts. According to the evangelist John’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death, the Lord, knowing “that all was now finished,” said “I am thirsty.” He thirsted for the Kingdom of love and justice. It was an infinite thirst, but in our finite way we share in it. And the question remains-What does it take to quench our thirst? “You always pay in blood or money,” my mother used to say. How much does integrity cost?
The Old Testament prophet Micah is struggling with this same question when he asks: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” How much sacrifice does it take to restore a person to righteousness?
The prophet lived in a world where blood sacrifice was considered necessary to satisfy God’s demand for justice. Sin was thought of as an unpaid obligation, and real compensation was thought necessary to discharge that debt. Sometimes olive oil would be enough to mollify the LORD’s anger, but more often sin demanded the spilling of blood. Blood was the only thing that could effectively restore a person to righteousness in her or his own eyes and in the eyes of God. Of course, by rights it was the sinner’s own blood that should be spilled, but the blood of an innocent animal sacrificed in worship could provide a ritual substitute.
Still our restoration to righteousness is clearly beyond our means. An ocean of blood could not buy it. “Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,” the prophet asks in obvious frustration. “Shall I give by firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Outside of Israel, human sacrifice was not unheard of, even the sacrifice of firstborn children. The God of Abraham rejected the sacrifice of human blood (see Genesis 22:1-19). Even the utmost imaginable sacrifice is not enough.
That is why God did what he had forbidden us to do. He sacrificed his Son to pay our debt in blood—that the way that Christian theology has often interpreted the Cross. Jesus’ innocent death was a way—the only way—to satisfy for God’s own demand for justice and restore us to personal righteousness. All other sacrifices had proved ultimately futile. So much blood had been spilled and the world remained unreconciled to its Creator. So a better sacrifice was required, and Jesus Christ came to die in order to restore us to integrity, a restoration we embrace by faith alone.
And having been made righteous by faith, depending on Christ alone, we are freed to pursue goodness for its own sake. Not only freed. We are now constrained by God’s unmerited grace to follow Jesus in the kind of life he led. Christ lived and died among us in order that we might share his life, which is the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit impels and empowers our striving for goodness.
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?” the prophet Micah asks. And then he provides an answer: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Goodness requires more of us than feelings. Empathy for others is not a bad thing—it just isn’t a particularly good thing. It is a start, but not an end. Our response to human need has to go beyond mere sentiment. To be good we have to embody goodness, make it concrete and solid in our words and actions. God’s love was made incarnate in Jesus Christ, and our love must also be incarnated, made real and tangible. The LORD requires that we “do justice.” That means living out the idea that all human beings deserve food, shelter, safety, and dignified work as a matter of right, not as a charitable gift. It is active justice.
The prophet links active justice with active kindness. Active kindness means addressing the enormous body of human suffering, which often threatens to overwhelm us, one instance at a time. Active kindness is discrete. It is done in the manner of Jesus. He helped and healed those he encountered, individually, and at the same time he offered ordinary friendship to all. It was his business. And to do justice and to love kindness is our business, beloved; our daily duty and not the result of sentimental feelings in which we occasionally indulge ourselves.
If I were shipped off to a desert island with only a half dozen books, I would take along Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I never grow tired of it. At one point in the story, Alice is invited to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts. It is a very confusing game indeed and made all the more frustrating because the mallets are live flamingos and the balls are hedgehogs. Everything is alive and has a mind of its own. And the situation is made all the more trying by the presence of the Duchess, monstrously ugly, always too close by, and with the annoying habit of finding a moral in everything that happens. But Alice, who is a polite and well-brought-up child, is always trying to make the best of things. . . .
“’The game’s going on rather better now,’ Alice said, by way of keeping up the conversation a little. ’Tis so,’ said the Duchess: ‘and the moral of that is—‘Oh, ‘tis love, ‘tis love, that makes the world go round!’ ’Somebody said,’ Alice whispered, ‘that it’s done by everybody minding their own business!’ ’Ah, well! It means much the same thing,’ said the Duchess. . . .”
That’s funny, of course, because on the surface love doesn’t seem at all the same thing as minding one’s own business. But the two things have more in common than we might think. In fact, love is very much the same thing as minding our own business.
There is an ancient story of how once St. Anthony of Egypt was fretting about divine providence—how God would take care of things—and a voice came to him that said, “Anthony. Attend to yourself; for those are the judgments of God, and it is not for you to know them.” Attend to yourself, mind your own business, do your duty, “walk humbly with your God”—there are many ways of putting it, but they all mean roughly the same thing. Establish your moral code and then live by it.
Each of us has within ourselves the makings of a moral code. We have the raw material, “engraved in the conscience of all of us.” What we need to do is define what we know is good, and then commit ourselves to living out our code on a daily basis. Those who respond effectively to the misery in the world and are not overwhelmed by it are those who have a code they live by. Their code is what helps them to deal justly with other people and act with kindness toward people with whom they have nothing in common. Their personal code of conduct is open to refinement, but always remains the heart of their identity. It allows them to set goals toward which they can press, and it sets limits on what they can reasonably expect of themselves. It defines what their business is—and is not. And while we need to establish a code and then live by it, vigorously and without reservation, we need to remember that everybody’s code is going to be different.
An eighty-four year old nun was recently sentenced to three years in prison for taking part in a breaking-in at the nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The incident took place in 2012. Megan Rice, a sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, together with two other conspirators, was convicted of defacing a bunker which holds the nation’s primary supply of the high-grade uranium used construct build bombs is kept. The break-in exposed serious flaws in security at the facility, but the three accomplices clearly regarded the break-in as a miracle.
Sister Rice asked the court to sentence her to life in prison. “Please have no leniency with me,” she said in her closing statement. “To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me.” After sentencing, the judge said that he was concerned that the three defendants showed no remorse for their actions and he wanted the relatively harsh sentence to serve as a deterrent for others contemplation the same sort of action. Whether the sentence is the just punishment of a criminal or the martyrdom of a saint I leave to you to decide.
But this much is clear–here is woman who has a code that lies at the heart of her identity. And living out her code vigorously and without reservation is giving meaning and joy to her existence. Whether her sacrifice will have real or lasting significance, no one knows but God. He alone decides whether our actions are good nor not. But Sister Rice has certainly made a stab at goodness. And all that endures of our lives, beloved, is the good we do—or try to do. That comes from God and goes back to him. Everything else perishes utterly with us. Thank goodness!