He has shown all you people what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, TNIV)
Let me say right off the bat: I believe Christians ought to seek social justice. We follow a Savior who opened his ministry with these words and then spoke these words near the end of that ministry. So whatever Glenn Beck might think, I’m glad that I attend a church where what we call ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice are valued. I’m an evangelical Christian who is fully convinced that the whole mission of the church requires acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.
And yet, I find myself nodding a little less vigorously every additional time I hear Micah 6:8 cited by someone of like heart and mind.
It’s not that I don’t regard those words as inspired and authoritative, or that I fail to realize how they motivate many Christians and Jews to take up the work of setting the world to rights.
It’s more that the words have become so familiar that I now hear them with mental detachment: my heart (I hope) is still moved by the injunction, but my mind is busy wondering just when in the history of the Church this one verse in one of the books of the “minor prophets” became so prevalent as a proof-text, a T-shirt slogan, an element of liturgical prayer (as it was in our worship last Sunday), or the inspiration for groups like this global coalition of Christians seeking to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015.
It’s essentially a question about rhetoric and biblical studies, both of which are beyond my ken, so I’d very much welcome the insights of actual biblical scholars. But a few semi-sophisticated Google searches seem to indicate that the Micah 6:8 fad is of a recent vintage, and that earlier Christians, when they focused on that one verse at all, didn’t necessarily stress the “act justly” part of it.
The beginning (of the church) is a very good place to start, so… First, while Micah and most of the other minor prophets are heard from in the Gospels or other texts of the New Testament (Hosea eight times), Micah 6:8 is not quoted there.
Second, nor does it seem to have been that popular in the Early Church. The Catholic website New Advent has a rather impressive archive of works from the Patristic era: hundreds of letters, sermons, apologies, treatises, histories, devotional works, and other documents from the Church Fathers. Searching that entire archive, I found three references to Micah 6:8.
- In a letter to his sister (Letter 41), Ambrose described a sermon he preached to the Emperor Theodosius, in which he quoted Micah 6:8 as the last of six biblical passages offered in support of the point that Jesus “is ready to teach when He rebukes.”
Preaching on Hebrews 6:13-16, John Chrysostom offers a fragment of the verse as an example of sacrifice in the Old Testament. Answering the question from the first half of the verse, he makes no mention of justice or mercy; “‘what does the Lord require of you but’ to hearken to him?”
- And finally, in chapter 5 of Book X of City of God, Augustine quotes Micah 6:6-8 in their entirety, describing the “sacrifices” involved in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly as being required “not for their own sakes” but on account of what they symbolize. (Augustine’s stated goal for the chapter is that the Bible “explodes” any idea that “the things offered to God are needed by Him for some uses of His own.” Rather, any earthly sacrifice required by God “is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice.”)
And that’s it. Micah 6:8 goes unquoted in numerous works from Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Irenaeus, Jerome, Justin Martyr, Origen, or Tertullian, in the decrees of the ecumenical councils, and in The Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas (plus all sorts of Gnostic apocrypha).
Likewise, the greatest single work of medieval theology, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, quotes Micah 6:8 not once in its five volumes, at least as the work is annotated at New Advent. (This is obviously an imperfect system — I’ve also tried searching for “do justice” / “act justly” strings, without finding anything to add to the results.)
It seems a bit more popular once we get to the aftershocks of the Protestant Reformations as they rippled out into the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but the verse is used differently than social justice evangelicals would be accustomed to. A search of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library produced a handful of intriguing allusions that — setting aside John Wesley’s diary entry for July 12, 1740, which implies that he was preaching on that text but is almost entirely about an ox getting loose and wreaking havoc — point to Micah 6:8 being read very differently than we tend to do today.
Jonathan Edwards quotes the verse several times in his 1746 Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. In Part I, it appears in support of the argument that compassion or mercy is a “very great and essential thing in true religion, insomuch that good men are in Scripture denominated from hence; and a merciful man and a good man are equivalent terms in Scripture”; though again, the Micah verse is but one of several proof-texts, and garners less comment from Edwards than, say, Hosea 6:6, which he notes is quoted twice by Jesus.
When Micah 6:8 shows up again in the third part of Religious Affections, it undergirds Edwards’ argument that “evangelical humiliation” is “a great and most essential thing in true religion.” Then in the concluding section of that part, “walking humbly” is emphasized again in a discourse on “Christian practice.”
Likewise, for this 1889 sermon, Charles H. Spurgeon chose the “walk humbly” clause as his text, starting with the contention that “Walk humbly with thy God” is the “essence of the law, the spiritual side of it; its ten commandments are an enlargement of this verse.” Spurgeon clearly views justice and mercy as incomplete without humility, and strongly implies that humility is the greatest of these, since “if we did attain to the ideal that is set before us, and every act was right towards man, and more, every act was delightfully saturated with a love to our neighbour as strong as our love to ourselves, even then there would come in this precept, ‘Walk humbly with thy God.'” And Spurgeon’s contemporary, the Reformed missionary Andrew Murray, added a glancing reference to Micah 6:8 in chapter 17 of his The New Life, once again to stress humility, since “One of the most dangerous enemies against which the young Christian must watch, is pride or self-exaltation.”
Strikingly (given the way the verse is used most often today), these three leading figures of evangelical Protestantism employ this text and yet say almost nothing about justice. Spurgeon is the only one of the three even to mention the concept, and he (a) believes that doing justice is incomplete without walking humbly (he does not seem to consider that the reverse might also be true) and (b) translates the words as “do righteously” as often as “do justly.” Murray, two chapters earlier in The New Life, only uses the term “righteousness.” He concludes from Micah
that the fruit of the salvation of God is seen chiefly in three things. The new life must be characterized, in my relation to God and His will, by righteousness and doing right; in my relation to my neighbour, by love and beneficence; in relation to myself, by humility and lowliness. For the present, we meditate on righteousness.
Murray describes personal righteousness and right relationship “to God and His will,” not just treatment of others, as part of the requirement given to humanity.
One important exception from earlier in Protestant history: in 1660 the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson, in an exposition of the Beatitudes, drew a clear connection between — quoting this verse — doing justice and loving mercy. He warned that one can do charity unjustly and so make a “sacrifice of sacrilege.”
So it’s not that all Christians rejected the notion that justice was the concern of Christ-followers, but unlike Watson, it’s not clear that Micah 6:8 was a significant source (of inspiration or of rhetorical power). For example, in Harvard University Press’ six-volume set of collected letters from the Christian abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, that verse is not quoted or cited once. (Garrison does invoke the Book of Micah several times, most frequently Micah 4:4: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.”) Even a document as seminal to social justice evangelicals as the 1973 Chicago Declaration does not directly quote the text, except to affirm “that God requires justice.” (Note the slogan under the title of the website to which the preceding link takes you…) Nor, as far as I can tell, does Ron Sider quote it in his landmark Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
I’m less familiar with Catholic social teaching, but it’s worth noting that Micah 6:8 does not appear in three of its founding documents: the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891), Quadragesimo Anno (1931), or Mater et Magistra (1961). Instead, the popes appealed (for ideas and rhetoric) to natural law, theological tradition, and the Gospels.
So just when did Micah 6:8 become the proof-text for Christians committed to social justice? Two possible sources that I don’t have time to research: Martin Luther King, Jr., who certainly is famous for drawing rhetorical power from another of the lesser known prophets; or his occasional co-laborer, the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who did so much to recover the prophetic tradition even for evangelical Protestants. Others?
And for those of us who believe that God requires us to do justice: do we tend to overlook righteousness, mercy, and/or humility, just as Edwards, Spurgeon, and others from an earlier time might have neglected the requirement to do justice?