A grim statistic haunts South Africa. The South Africa Medical Research Council reports that a woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours. In response, a development agency has a program called Channels of Hope, tackling gender inequality. Recently two young academics, one a Melbourne woman, have been evaluating the success of this program. They've found themselves wrestling with the argument that religious and secular spheres don't mix. This is not true to the lived experience of people they've interviewed.
The ... goal of ‘development’ has largely been based on a grand narrative of...progress (seen in) economic growth, liberal democracy, individual liberty and a secular public sphere - moulding ‘developing’ societies into the image of the West (they write)
But in our conversations with community leaders, religious figures, teachers, police and others throughout Southern Africa, personal and social transformation emerged as closely-intertwined realities. Religious and secular dynamics are inextricably entangled. This raises significant questions for scholars, policy makers and activists who want to support participatory, democratic development whilst continuing to exclude the spiritual dimensions of life and work from the mainstream agenda.
Conversely, religious leaders/actors have frequently failed to connect personal transformation with broader processes of social change.
Doing justice to ones neighbour, loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God...are spoken in the same breath, here in Micah chapter 6:8. We see religion and society unashamedly interconnected.
Over the last couple of Sundays George has told us that God's people in the late 8th century BCE were living comfortably. But their prosperity had not brought social harmony.
Rather, like when children are suddenly quiet, thinking no one's watching, and getting up to all kinds of mischief, so God's people, his delight and joy, thought they didn't need God now they were prosperous, and became haughty, we read in ch 2:3, taking the opportunity to play fast and loose in business and society.
We read about this in ch 2v1-2, and chapter 3, and again in ch 7:10-11. Here are a few of their schemes: marking prices up, false scales, lies, cheating people out of their family inheritance, bribing officials, violence, all creating a division between rich and poor.
So what had gone wrong?
Micah 6 tells us. In v1-2 God calls his people to a kind of imaginary trial. God has a dispute to settle with his people. There are three speakers in this court, with three questions.
God goes first, then a person representing God's people speaks, then Micah speaks. So in v3 God puts his case...with this question: 'O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you?' God lists what He's done on their behalf in verses 4-5: He rescued them from slavery in Egypt to freedom. They were refugees initially, but he gave them outstanding leaders. He helped them dodge the evil schemes of kings like Balak. They left Shittim, and crossed the River Jordan, which parted like the Red Sea, and then camped on the other side, at Gilgal. Was all he'd done so tiresome, so boring..now they lived in prosperity? Was God somehow at fault? Can you hear the bewilderment, the sadness and sorrow?
Then in v 6-7, the second speaker, a representative person, responds. He too has a question: 'With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself down before God on high?' What exactly do you want from us, God? Shall we honour you with expensive presents? Yearling calves would sell well...we'll sacrifice a few for you. Or, going up a notch - shall we follow what King David once did and offer extravagant gifts of thousands of rams, and ten thousand bursts of oil? Would that do? Or going up another notch - chillingly, sacrifice a first-born son to pay for our sins. This was in fact, not so bizarre...King Ahaz had recently come close to this, making his son pass through fire...to cleanse his guilt? Would this do it God? Pay for our sins with our most precious thing – our children? Would that be enough to please you, God?
I wonder if we do this kind of thing – not so awful, but we think in terms of good deeds, like sponsoring a child, doing the 40 hour famine, supporting the wilderness society, or research for the cure of Alzheimers. These are important and valuable things, and we all do them, we can't buy God's approval with them, we can't cleanse our own guilt, by doing them. Imagine if we could! It would become all about us and what we'd done for God. This puts us in the driving seat, so we can say, 'There God, see what I've done for you!'
How easily we misunderstand God.
So, Micah, the third speaker injects in verse 8, with the third question - 'He's told you, O person, what's good, and what does the Lord require of you? What does the Lord require of you? Not what will you do, to get his approval.
Micah reminds them that God has defined what 'good' is. Back when the nation was formed, God had given his people the 10 commandments – as a basis for worship and society.
Micah's drawing them back to their roots. Let me take you back there. (Read Deut 10:12-13). God's free choice to love, his favour, precedes their response. They respond to the relationship he's offered. God doesn't need presents! As creator, everything is His anyway. But He's chosen them, favoured them, for a relationship, with Himself first. That's the core of what we believe as Christians. 1) God has chosen us, for a relationship, with Himself first – Favour
But this primary relationship of worship, gives rise to how we treat one another – our social relationships – doing justice and loving mercy, with friends, in marriage, at work, with neighbours, with cultures other than our own, at the level of organisations, nations, and churches and footy clubs.
There was an interview with a young Swan's fan, the day before the grand final. She was decked out in red and white, and said she was getting to the game as soon as the gates opened in the morning, to be part of the atmosphere, 'Everyone's happy and excited. You meet nice people' she said, 'Even Hawthorn supporters! They can be really nice, they're just passionate for their team, like us!' She couldn't wait! What an amazing footy fan! She was approaching the grand final as a community event, something bigger than herself, which meant she saw her 'rivals' as co-appreciators of the game, even though their perspective on who should win was different to hers!
If we're responding to God's favour, to his kindness in our lives, of jobs, holidays, people we care about, a home and food...we'll see each other differently – not as competitors for God's favour, but co-responders to it, as fans of something bigger than ourselves – of society. We'll aim to act justly, to share, be truthful, respectful courteous, we'll aim to reduce poverty, gender inequality, racism, loneliness, even if we have different perspectives at times.
But did you notice that doing justice in society, isn't all. Its followed by - 'loving kindness', in verse 8. Now, loving kindness is far from a nice bland sentiment. It includes loyalty, and unbreakable, unending faithfulness. Deep down, the young Swan's fan, and her family were devoted to their team and to footy – they just loved it, it was in their family. Our doing justice will rely on something deeper – on faithful love, on devotion. This loyal devotion in the Bible, is none other than God's primary character trait. Its who he is – utterly, loyally loving. Its the family likeness. Its what God requires increasingly of us! So its the core of what we practice: 2) To have just social relationships, based on loyal love: Fan-ship or faithfulness
If God favours us and we respond with fan-ship towards each other, there's a third step. Verse 8 calls us to walk humbly with our God. Relationships with God and each other are great when all's going well. But they're sad and ugly when they fail. So often in reality, I take out my frustrations on those closest to me! If I'm allowed to be honest! I cannot consistently enjoy God's favour and sustain fan-ship. The task of being just (rather than tired and selfish) out of loyal love, is overwhelmingly daunting.
So Micah adds, 'Walk humbly with your God'. When we take matters into our own hands, when we delete God from life, when worship is gone, anyone's rules can apply. Even the AFL needs a tribunal, for the good of the players, the game's reputation, its future. All must humble themselves before it. So with human beings. God has given us this objective standard of worship and social relationships, to walk humbly by.
But did you notice that Micah calls them to walk humbly with God, like there's closeness. He calls God your God, like there's closeness. Surely, we've seen how sad and upset God is with them...that they've misunderstood him – that must bring distance, tension. Where is this closeness coming from?
If you have your Bibles open, skip with me to Micah 7:18. Read. God forgives. The Baptism service puts it like this - '...through the deep waters of death Jesus delivered us from our sins and was raised to new life in triumph'. There was a day in human history when Jesus, the Son of God, died on a Roman cross. He was resurrected to life, three days later. This central event delivers the justice of God, towards human sin, because Jesus faced the tribunal, was sentenced for our sin, and accepted the penalty. But simultaneously the cross Jesus suffered on, delivers the mercy of God in forgiveness, creating the closeness with God.
Walk humbly with your God. If we have received favour from God, if we have fan-ship with each other, yet we fail, we discover forgiveness, when we walk humbly, penitently, with our God. That's where the closeness comes from. 3) To the humble, God offers - Forgiveness. And we must do likewise to others – extending closeness to those around us. 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us'.
God's favour is ours, and we respond in worship of him, with fan-ship towards each other, and by walking humbly with God, we accept his forgiveness when we fail...worship's fruit is social.