The Rev. James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, N.C., and an author of several books, including the new What Does the Lord Require?—Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, Walking Humbly (Westminster John Knox). This short book on the well-known verse Micah 6:8 includes a study guide. Dr. Howell answered questions by email from managing editor Sam Hodges.
Would you risk a guess as to where this verse ranks in popularity? Is it in the top five? Trending upward or downward?
Top five, I’d imagine, and probably trending upward, as there is a rise in the notion that religion is doing something, not merely thinking right thoughts.
Teachers of writing always stress the use of strong verbs. The verb “require” anchors both the sound and sense of this verse. What are one or two of the subtleties of that strong verb as it’s used in Micah 6:8?
The subtle nuances of the very strong (Hebrew) verb darash are just fascinating. “Require” misses the heart of it, I think, for we resort to notions of rules or grading, as in “the teacher requires you turn in a three-page paper by Friday.” The verb darash has undertones of affection, or the healthiest sort of dependency, as in “the child requires his mother’s love,” or “the flower requires rain and sunshine.” There is a mood of seeking in darash; lovers seek each other out, and a shepherd seeks his lost sheep—and in the Old Testament, both situations use darash. So when the Lord “requires” justice, kindness and mercy, it isn’t that the Lord “insists on” or “demands” these things. God seeks them, yearns for them, and frankly needs them from us as intimate partners in God’s adventure down here.
How do you define the Hebrew word mishpat and how does coming to understand the word shed light on this verse?
Mishpat justice isn’t fairness or rewarding good and punishing evil. Mishpat justice is insuring everyone has what they need; the just society is the one that lifts up the neediest. So the Lord isn’t insisting that the police and judges be fair; God is inviting us to be sharers, to build a deeper, richer kind of community.
You emphasize that there’s a difference between justice and charity. In the light of Micah 6:8, where should Christians, specifically the UMC, be putting more emphasis these days—justice or charity?
Clearly we should focus on justice more than charity, as we have for too long thought if we give money away or collect old coats we’re good. Yet justice in the UMC more often is about rights and political positioning than the more difficult building of a robust community where everyone matters and is engaged in building each other up, and together.
In our scientific, secular age, could this be a touchstone verse for those who value the sacrificial, service aspect of Christianity, but struggle to believe in, say, the virgin birth and resurrection? If so, is there anything wrong with that?
Since I also have published a book on the Creed, I am one who sees the mutual interaction and dependency of service and belief, an active Christian lifestyle and the highest theological dogma of the Church.
You note, in the chapter on humility, that humility is “tricky.” Elaborate on that briefly.
A genuinely holy humility is hard to come by. There is a kind of humbled smallness that is unhealthy: Maybe I feel I’m no good—but that isn’t divine humility. Then there is a self-indulgent, cultivated humility that isn’t much different from good manners—or even a smug, vain form of spiritual pride that struts about as humility.