Over the past eight months, we have been made aware just how social we are as human creatures. Because of the virus, many of the relationships we had taken for granted have been disrupted in some way. Simple tasks like shopping for groceries, going to work, fueling our vehicles, or getting together to enjoy a good meal with friends have an added layer of stress attached to them. We weigh whether it is worth the risk of being exposed to obtain what we thought we needed or wanted. In addition to our own personal dilemmas, we cannot help but hear the rhetoric of various voices pushing back at the cautions sent out by health experts or government officials, claiming that personal freedom is more important than community well-being.
Then there are those who have acted selflessly during the pandemic. All of us have heard of, been witness to, or participated in helping out those who have been left isolated or quarantined. Then there are still others who refuse to take the virus seriously, discounting it as a political scheme, a plot by China to disable America, or simply as another strain of the flu. Where do we turn, in the midst of so many voices, to orient ourselves? Who do we listen to when even our leaders send out conflicting messages? As Christians, what should our response be?
In today’s text, taken from the Book of Micah, we learn of the empty cry of leaders promising their people peace when there really is no peace. Micah has become an important figure for those of us that hold to a pacifist view of the world. Besides the plea for peace in chapter three of today’s passage, Micah is also the one who pines for the day when his people will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and their own fig tree” (Micah 4:3,4). At least that is what we understand Micah to be telling us.
But we may be misreading Micah, by looking at it through our own world and set of values. The Old Testament scholar Daniel Smith-Christopher, who is an expert on the exile of the Jewish nation, claims this to be the case. Smith-Christopher, himself a Quaker and pacifist, makes the case that using Micah as the basis for a universal pacifism is a failure to understand the real concerns of Micah. To understand the man Micah’s concern, it is necessary to understand his historical context. And while it is not possible to understand all the details, it is possible to piece together the larger events taking place at the time Micah wrote the words we read this morning.
Micah lived in the small farming community of Moresheth during the 8th century B.C.E, a time when Jerusalem was under the threat of siege from Sennacherib, the Assyrian ruler to the north. Assyria kept a watchful eye on Jerusalem, promising them protection from other forces such as Egypt if they paid the exorbitant tributes and taxes they demanded. King Hezekiah, the ruler of Jerusalem at the time, resisted the economic pressures placed on Jerusalem by the Assyrians. Hezekiah taxed and conscripted his own people in an effort to build his own military force, hoping to someday be able to show the Assyrians the door. It was the people in the surrounding areas of Jerusalem, such as Micah’s hometown of Moresheth, that felt the brunt of the economic pressures filtering down through this imbalance of power.
Moresheth was located only six miles from the city of Lachish, the center of Jerusalem’s military buildup. Lachish was intended to be a frontline fortress to fend off attackers from Egypt and Mesopatamia. Furthermore, the Philistine fortress of Gath was not far away as well. In other words, this quiet little farming town was smack dab in the middle of this border region that was under the constant threat of military action. All Micah and his people wanted to do was go about their farming.
Smith-Christopher suggests that Micah was not a prophet in the sense or tradition of Isaiah or the other major or minor prophets found in the Old Testament. Rather, Smith-Christopher believes the evidence points to Micah being an elder in his farming community who is pleading the central powers of Jerusalem to halt their military and economic oppression of towns like Moresheth. It was from towns like Moresheth that Hezekiah conscripted young boys and extracted the necessary resources needed to support his military buildup to defend against the impending takeover by the Assyrians. Micah pleads the powers to let his peoples’ young boys stay home and farm.
In other words, Micah is the leader of a populist movement not unlike those that have arisen in the United States. For example, during World War I, a group of tenant farmers in Oklahoma made up of white, African American, and American Indian farmers organized a march to protest the war. They claimed it was a “rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.” They planned to march from Oklahoma to Washington eating nothing but barbecued beef and roasted green corn they found along the way—hence the name, the Green Corn Rebellion. The rebellion was quickly halted by a posse. At least three men died as a result.
It was out of movements like this that folk songs such as “Down By the Riverside” gained popularity. The song derives lyrics from Micah 4, “Gonna lay down my my sword and shield, down by the riverside…ain’t gonna study war no more.” Most of us are familiar with anti-war songs from the Vietnam War era as well. Much of these songs grew out of the folk music scene which identify with the common man. You get the feeling that Micah would have joined in with these songs wholeheartedly.
Smith-Christopher’s point is a fine distinction. Micah was not advocating for a universal pacifism. His complaint was the deceit, abuse, and oppression the central powers were imposing on the common people.
This is the concern in the Gospel passage for this morning as well. Jesus warns his disciples of the deceptiveness of the religious leaders which are also the political leaders of Jesus’s world. They ask their people to do one thing but then turn around and fail to heed their own advice. I suppose it would be easy to draw comparisons to our current election and leaders: staging a scene on the steps of a church with a Bible held upside down; accusing each other of political corruption; making threats and promises that have little chance of being carried out; the list could go on and on. But in a way, that is too simple a comparison.
There is another comparison that hits closer to home and is more confusing to those that align ourselves with the Christian tradition. It is a cry for “Freedom!” It is a cry carried forth from all corners of the land, including from our religious leaders, and not only from those who are one the conservative right. In fact, it is a cry that transcends religious, political, and economic boundaries. It is an American cry for freedom, for independence.
In the midst of the current pandemic, there is an American notion that ordering people to take certain precautions violates one’s own personal rights and freedoms: the freedom to worship as we choose, when we choose; the freedom to bear arms; the freedom for people to govern themselves; the freedom to run a business; and again the list could go on and on. All of these are tangled up in an American idea of freedom which from the beginning has shaped and permeated American society. It is not a distinctly political agenda, but woven into the fabric of the American religious experience as well.
In a recent CBS 60 Minutes report, Laurie Segall sat down to interview members of several militia groups in Michigan. She asked them if they felt the United States was at the brink of a civil war. The unanimous response was “yes” and that we already were in a civil war. They cited Michigan’s governor’s mandates to wear masks and the closure of business as the basis of war. One of the leaders of the Michigan Militia told Segall that what Governor Whitmer did was to step on people’s liberty, and it was up to her to back down. In another clip, Segall shows the Boogala Boys at the state capital calling for the leaders to “repent of their sins.” The line between politics and religion are blurred when it comes to freedom.
Oddly enough, I have a feeling that the Michigan Militia and Boogala Boys would find inspiration in Micah. On the surface, it seems that these movements and Micah have similar concerns. I’m not sure that Micah would agree with them.
It’s concerning that even churches in our own denominations and conferences appeal to their religious freedom as the basis to continue to meet in the midst of the pandemic, even though government, denominational, and conference leaders have advised against it. Such appeals are rooted in passages which speak of our freedom in Christ, particularly such passages as Galatians 5:1 which states, “You, my brothers and sisters were called to be free!” Even Jesus’s own words found in John 8:38, “If the son has set you free, you will be free indeed,” appear to justify bringing an end of governmental control. But free from what and free to do what? Is it a freedom to do whatever we want?
Again, when we read such passages colored by our current world, we are prone to misread what the authors had in mind. Is freedom in Christ a real thing? If so, what is it? Is it the right to run my own life without the constraints of government or society upon my back? Is it the right to govern myself? Is it the freedom to look after my own interests first and foremost? Is it the right to not wear a mask even when so many people around me are at risk of dying? Is it the right to worship in a church even if I know that doing so may put my fellow congregants at risk? Is it the right to run my business as normal?
Freedom in Christ is freedom from the constraints of the law. The Old Testament law was not just a set of religious rules and orders; they were political and societal laws as well. They dictated how to get along with your neighbor, how to get along with your enemy, how to get along with the alien; they determined how much tax to pay and when. The Galatians passage tells us we have been set free from the dictates of such laws. But we want to stop there. The very next sentence tells us, “But do not use your freedom (from the law) to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
This kind of freedom seems to me to be in complete contrast to the kind of freedom that flies “Don’t tread on me” flags. One t-shirt I saw recently sported this motto with the added sentiment below it, “I love my freedom, America-1776.” It is unfortunate that in America, freedom in Christ, religious freedom, and personal freedom have become conflated into one single meaning: freedom to do what is best for me.
How then should we respond when to those around us who abuse and misuse the idea of freedom in Christ? The Psalmist reminds us that when our soul is disquieted or disturbed we can put our hope in the Light that gives Life to the whole world. We can depend that the spirit of Christ which is wrapped up in loving our neighbor as we love ourselves will bring us through uncertain and unstable times. In his poem, “Mending Fences,” Robert Frost tries to convince his neighbor that the stone fence they meet to mend each spring is useless since neither of them have any cows to keep in or keep out. All they have are apple and pine trees on their land. To this the neighbor replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Fences are an emblem of social distancing. Yet it is the task of meeting up each year to mend fences that brings the neighbors together. In our discussion, I would like for us to talk about ways that we have benefited from our new awareness of social distancing. How have we found new ways to love our neighbor? How have you mended fences together?
In conclusion, I would like to read the closing lines of Frost’s poem “Mending Fences”:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly. And I’d rather
He said it himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only or the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbor.”