It is printed on the wall of the Library of Congress, a scripture verse many learned in Sunday school. Some describe it as the definition of real religion. “He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Those words are as valid today as they were 2,800 ago years ago when Micah wrote them.
Micah was a young contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos in the Eighth Century B.C. There was a particular kinship between Micah and Amos when we think about justice. Both were products of the countryside. Being from rural Mississippi, I like to remind people of that. Amos’s penetrating word, “Let justice run down like waters and righteousness as an ever flowing stream,” (Amos 5:24) is a parallel proclamation to Micah’s, “He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with you God.”
Most of us are wondering these days, when? When will “justice run down like waters, and righteousness as an overflowing stream?”
In April of l964, I moved from Gulfport, Mississippi to San Clemente, California, in large part because of the civil rights issue and the church’s unwillingness to be practically and prophetically involved. Mississippi was burning in all sorts of ways. Sixteen months after arriving in California, August, 1965, the Watts riots broke out. California was burning.
Fifty years later, Baltimore is burning.
After all these years of civil rights legislation, war on poverty, war on drugs, and the coming of age of at least two generations, fire breaks out in Baltimore. It is not surprising that the response we see is either cynicism (that’s just the way it is), or a feeling of helpless hopelessness (there’s nothing I/we can do). Have we made any progress? is a normal question to ask.
I urge us to say no to cynicism and get beyond hopelessness; at least to move to a point of thinking seriously. To head us in that direction, consider the fact that at the heart of the problem in Micah’s day was that Israel had grown tired of God and chosen to go her own way. Judges took bribes to render unfair judgments; priests were immoral; prophets would prophesy anything you wanted in exchange for a few shekels. Micah and the other prophets were scathing in their denunciation of people being seduced into turning away from God, worshipping and serving other gods. Those ancient Israelites were attracted to gods of sex, power and material things. Have the temptations changed? Are we moderns not obsessed with self, forever making gods in our own image? What is good for us? What provides us the most pleasure and security?
What is least challenging to our status quo?
We are where we are, in large part, because we have not heeded Micah’s proclamation of God’s call: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God
Justice: making sure that all persons are treated fairly and have the opportunity to share in God’s good gifts. Micah said, do justice. That means it is not enough to wish for justice or to complain because justice is lacking. God’s people must work for justice, for fairness and equality for all, particularly the weak and powerless who are exploited by others. Even the church, in black and white community, must examine itself in relation to this. Black preachers can speak with more integrity and influence in the black community about accountability and the breakdown of family structures than the white preacher. The white preacher can’t ignore his prophetic responsibility in dealing with the evil of racism because he/she is tired of two or three black preachers who make a career of moving into every “hot spot” to speak their word of condemnation.
Love mercy. When we talk about justice, we need to remember that God’s justice is always flavored with mercy. Justice without mercy is not God’s kind of justice, and mercy without justice is not God’s kind of mercy.
The Hebrew word for mercy is hesed, which is difficult to translate with a single English word. Most often rendered mercy, sometimes it is simply rendered kindness, and often a combination of two words, loving kindness.
Mercy, along with justice, is an action word, a matter of the will. It is not natural, because we are basically selfish persons. Mercy requires decision. It may be costly, often requiring giving up something for ourselves and doing something for the sake of others.
More often than not, our problem is not in not knowing what to do, but in doing it. I believe that’s the reason the prophet added, “walk humbly with God.” It is our willingness to walk daily with God that energizes us, enabling us to do justice and love mercy.
Mercy (hesed) was a special word to the Hebrews because it is one of the principal attributes used to describe God in the Old Testament. More often than not, justice and mercy were connected in the preaching of the prophets. In a word similar to Micah’s, the prophet Zechariah says, “Thus says he Lord of hosts: ‘Execute justice, show mercy and compassion. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.’” (7:8-9) So the three directions for “real religion” cannot be separated. Walking humbly with God – living all of life in relation to God – will result in doing justice and loving mercy.
With my background journey, with Mississippi, California, and now Baltimore burning, living in the city where Martin Luther King was killed, I’m convinced the fundamental problem is education and the breakdown of the family. Those two things are intimately connected. I believe that public education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. The zip code of where a child lives should not determine whether that child has an opportunity for a quality education. Whether a child can read when finishing the third grades marks what is going to happen to him/her the rest of life (including whether they will end up in prison). Whether a young woman finishes high school and goes to college often marks whether she will have children out of wedlock. The level of education for most incarcerated persons is less than high school.
I know that issues are more complex than these assertions, but I’m weary of excusing ourselves because the issue is so complex. Education is clearly a justice/mercy issue. That’s the reason why our church in Memphis has made a missional commitment to doing justice in relation to education.
Our congregation (Christ United Methodist Church) has been involved in education almost from the beginning of her life in 1955. As soon as buildings were available, the church started a school, kindergarten through sixth grade. I’m sure the motives were not altogether “justice for all.” Some folks were probably acting selfishly, making sure the children of the congregation had the opportunity for a “quality” education.
I served as Senior Minister of Christ Church from 1982 to 1994. Christ Methodist Day School had become one of many outstanding private schools in the city. During those years, I sought to lead the school in reaching out to the underserved of our city. We provided scholarships and tried to manage some common transportation. But nothing really worked in any significant way.
To be faithful as a congregation, to really do justice and love mercy, the congregation acted boldly in 2010 and opened Cornerstone Prep, a private, explicitly Christian school, with very focused attention to providing education for the underserved children of our city, locating it in the hood. We sent prospective teachers and administrators to cities across America where effective urban education was taking place, studied these schools, and developed our own “style” in response. From the beginning, with 33 kindergarten students, this little school has had positive record-breaking outcomes.
There was no question of need. In 2011, 950 of Tennessee’s 1750 public schools failed to make adequate yearly progress. In the concentrated educational reform efforts of our state, 85 of the worst “failing” schools were targeted for intervention by the state. Through the Department of Education, our governor established a non-geographical district of these “failing” schools, designated it The Achievement School District, and named a superintendent of that district, charging him to “reclaim” those schools for effective education. Sixty-nine of the 85 failing schools are in Memphis, a glaring sign of the condition of public education in our city.
Lester School is the primary elementary school serving the Binghamton neighborhood, where our congregation has been serving in different ways for 20 years. We located Cornerstone Prep there as another expression of our commitment. Lester is among the 69 failing schools in Memphis; in fact, it was the lowest performing school in the state.
One year after The Achievement School District was established, and three years after Cornerstone Prep was founded, we had the opportunity to do justice and love mercy in the Binghamton Community in a more expansive way. We were invited to take responsibility for the first three grades of Lester School.
To do so, Cornerstone Prep would have to “give up” being an explicitly Christian private school and become a charter school. This change in status would allow Cornerstone Prep to serve the larger public good in a manner currently not possible, enabling Cornerstone Prep to serve 325 students, rather than the 66 we served the previous year. After that year, we were given the entire school, kindergarten through 6th grade.
The big question was: would we be willing to surrender being an explicitly Christian school? We remembered that Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). As those seeking to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” we decided that Cornerstone Prep had to die in the sense of being a private Christian school, in order to serve a desperate community. In the core sense, we did not forsake our “Christian mission” of “doing justice and loving mercy,” of serving “the least of these.” We decided to pursue the mission in a different way. Some of what we had been able to do in Christian witness and teaching in the classroom, we now do “after school.” But more, we do it not in curriculum, but in the way we teach and how we express care and affirmation of the students. We do it through countless volunteers who mentor and read with students. We do it in an Art Garden for the students and the community, located across the street from the entrance to the school.
Cornerstone has had amazing results in proving that where a child lives does not determine learning potential. The educational measurements have exceeded national norms in every area, so our little school has gotten state and national attention. The establishment of this school was one expression of our church doing justice. It is our statement that if our church is going to provide quality education for our suburban constituency through Christ Methodist Day School, justice requires that we seek the same for the children in Binghamton and the whole city.
I dream of the day when God’s dream, expressed by Micah’s contemporary, Amos, will be realized in our city: justice and righteousness will be running throughout our city “like a mighty stream.” For now, it isn’t. But the flow has begun and is gaining velocity. Cornerstone will be responsible for all the grades of Lester School in the school year 2015-16, and will also assume responsibility for another of the failing schools in The Achievement School District. From a small but bold dream that began with 33 kindergarten children, after six years, we will be serving 1,400 students.
A bold teacher-training program, Memphis Teacher Residents, is increasing the pool of outstanding teachers. With the 2015 graduating class, 267 will have received their Masters Degree in Urban Teaching through this innovative program, having made the commitment to teach in our public schools for at least three years. Seventy-nine outstanding college graduates from across the nation are committed to be a part of the next cohort of this program. Our goal is to have at least 1,000 persons trained in this program that has been judged by national organizations to be exceptionally effective, teaching in our Memphis public schools.
Hundreds of volunteers are giving generous hours weekly to tutor and mentor. The stream is rising and flowing more strongly. One day, cities across the nation are going to say, “they did it in Memphis; we can do it here.” And in the city where he died, we will prove Dr. King right: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”