BACKGROUND: Introduction to the Theme
What Does God Require of Us? (cf. Micah 6:6-8)
To mark its centenary, the Student Christian Movement of India (SCMI) was invited to prepare the resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (WPCU) 2013 and they involved the All India Catholic University Federation and the National Council of Churches in India. In the preparatory process while reflecting on the significance of the WPCU, it was decided that in a context of great injustice to Dalits in India and in the Church, the search for visible unity cannot be disassociated from the dismantling of casteism and the lifting up of contributions to unity by the poorest of the poor.
Despite outstanding progress in the twentieth century, the churches in India remain divided along the doctrinal divisions inherited from Europe and elsewhere. Christian disunity in India within churches and between them is further accentuated by the caste system. Casteism, like apartheid, racism and nationalism poses severe challenges for the unity of Christians in India and therefore, for the moral and ecclesial witness of the Church as the one body of Christ. As a church-dividing issue, casteism is consequently an acute doctrinal issue. It is in this context that this year’s WPCU invites us to explore the well known biblical text of Micah 6:6-8, focusing upon the question ‘what does God require of us’ as the main theme.
Micah was one of the twelve minor prophets of the Old Testament who prophesied from approximately 737-690 BC in Judah. He came from Moresheth, southwest of Jerusalem, and prophesied during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. He lived in the same political, economic, moral, and religious conditions as his contemporary Isaiah and with him witnessed the destruction of Samaria, and the invasion of the Southern Kingdom by the King of Assyria in the year 701 BC. His grief as he wept over the plight of his people informs the tone of his book, and he turns his anger upon the leaders (2:1-5) and priests who had betrayed his people.
The Book of Micah belongs to the literary tradition of Prophecy. At the heart of its message is the oracle of judgment. The book unfolds in three sections demonstrating a journey from judgment in general (ch.1-3), to the proclamation of salvation (ch. 4-5), to the word of judgment and the celebration of salvation (ch.6-7). In the first part, Micah harshly criticizes those in authority, both political and religious, for abusing their power and stealing from the poor: They “tear the skin off my people” (3:2), and “give judgment for a bribe” (3:11). In the second part of the book Micah exhorts the people to walk in pilgrimage “up to the mountain of the Lord... that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his path” (4:2). God’s judgment is revealed in the third part to be accompanied by a call to await in hope for salvation, with faith in God who “pardons iniquities and passes over transgression” (7:18). This hope focuses upon the Messiah, who will be “peace” (5:4), and who will come forth from Bethlehem (5:1) bringing salvation “to the ends of the earth” (5:4). Micah ultimately calls upon all nations of the world to walk in this pilgrimage, to share in the justice and peace which is their salvation.
Micah’s strong call to justice and peace is concentrated in chapters 6:1 – 7:7, part of which forms the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (WPCU). He sets justice and peace within the history of the relationship between God and humanity but insists that this history necessitates and demands a strong ethical reference. Like other prophets who lived in the period of the Israel monarchy, Micah reminds the people that God has saved them from slavery in Egypt and called them through the covenant to live in a society built on dignity, equality and justice. Thus, true faith in God is inseparable from personal holiness and the search for social justice. More than just worship, sacrifices and burnt offerings (6:7), God's salvation from slavery and daily humiliation rather demands that we should “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (cf. 6:8).
In many ways, the situation facing the people of God in the time of Micah can be compared to the situation of the Dalit community in India. Dalits also face oppression and injustice from those who wish to deny them their rights and dignity. Micah compared the greed of those who exploited the poor to those who “eat the flesh of my people, flay the skin off them, break their bones in pieces” (3:3). Micah’s rejection of rituals and sacrifices which were impoverished by a lack of concern for justice, speaks of God’s expectation that justice ought to be at the core 6 of our religion and rituals. His message is prophetic in a context where discrimination against the Dalits is legitimized on the basis of religion and notions of ritual purity and pollution. Faith gains or loses its meaning in relation to justice. In the contemporary Dalit situation Micah’s insistence on the moral element of our faith requires us to ask ourselves what God truly requires of us; mere sacrifices, or to walk with God in justice and peace.
The path of Christian discipleship involves walking the path of justice, mercy and humility. The metaphor of ‘walking’ has been chosen to link together the 8 days of prayer because, as an active, intentional and ongoing act, the metaphor of walking communicates the dynamism which characterizes Christian discipleship. Further, the theme of the tenth assembly of the WCC to be held in Busan, Korea, in 2013 - ‘God of life lead us to Justice and Peace’ resonates with the image of the Trinitarian God who accompanies humanity and walks into human history while inviting all people to walk in partnership.
What God requires of us today is to walk the path of justice, mercy and humility. This path of discipleship involves walking the narrow path of God’s reign and not the highway of today’s empires. Walking this path of righteousness involves the hardships of struggle, the isolation which accompanies protest and the risk associated with resisting “the powers and principalities” (Ep 6:12). This is especially so when those who speak out for justice are treated as trouble makers and disrupters of peace. In this context we need to understand that peace and unity are complete only if founded on justice.
One of the professions associated with certain Dalit communities in India is ‘sewing sandals’. As one of the means of survival for Dalit communities it symbolizes their experience of forging together a meaningful existence of resilience and hope in degrading and dehumanizing conditions. It is the hope of the daily reflections that the gifts of the Dalit experience of survival amidst struggle may become for us the sandals which we put on as we seek to walk the path of righteousness in our own contexts by doing what God requires of us. ‘Any semblance of a caste-based prejudice in relations between Christians,’ says the late Pope John Paul II1, ‘is a countersign to authentic human solidarity, a threat to genuine spirituality and a serious hindrance to the Church’s mission of evangelization’. May our God of justice, unity and peace enable us to be authentic signs of human solidarity by strengthening us to do what God requires of us.
- Papal address to Bishops of Madras-Mylapore, Madurai and Pondicherry-Cuddalore, 17 November 2003.