I’ve said before that the reason it seems like the prophets are predicting the future is that we keep making the same mistakes. It should come as no surprise, then, that the time into which Micah was speaking is very much like our own. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, but an outsider, not a professional prophet. He prophesied mainly to King Hezekiah. The odd thing about that is that kings usually hear from the prophets when doom is on the horizon – there was still the threat of the Assyria – but Hezekiah had instituted some reforms that had Judah’s economy singing. Hezekiah moved the nation from a barter economy to a monetary system.
It’s important to begin by saying that this is not about the value of a particular system. The prophets spoke of injustice before Hezekiah’s reforms and after Hezekiah’s reforms. His reforms were probably good in the broad sense. Barter is a slow system. There are inefficiencies. They can make a family very vulnerable in times of scarcity. The whole reason for the protections for the poor written into the law was because they knew that it could happen. A monetary system is more efficient and allows for greater and faster economic expansion. It worked. Judah, as a nation, was wealthier than ever before. But efficiency also affects the speed with which people can be exploited.
When Israel arrived in the Promised Land, the land was divided and alloted to tribes and clans. When we read of the Jubilee, the return of the people to their ancestral land, this is the context. Even if people find themselves forced into debt, they were periodically returned to the land that had been given them. The system gets rebooted. But a mercantile system allowed people to transfer their ancestral property rights for cash. Those with money could buy out those who were struggling, which resulted in massive consolidation of land into large estates (2.2). All those without land were now destitute, essentially sharecroppers and day laborers.
Along with this material shift was a shift in attitude. Where God’s way, the law, was written to ensure the flourishing of the nation as a whole, the new way of the merchant was individualized. Every man for himself. The merchants then used their money to bribe the courts (3.11) to rule for self-interest rather than the common good. The priests and prophets, seeing the trajectory of the nation, aligned themselves with power and money all the while claiming that, “God is with us!” Micah came to tell them they were wrong.
Previous prophets cited infidelity as the problem. Specifically, Israel was criticized for religious syncretism, for worshiping other gods and worshiping in the wrong places. There was often an implicit and sometimes explicit connection made between that infidelity and the practice of injustice, but infidelity was the focus. But the Judeans worshiped Yahweh in the temple of Jerusalem. They rested on those facts as their guarantee of security. Micah makes clear that the test of faith is not in how or where you worship; it is in how you practice justice.
Being faithful to God means supporting one another. In the current age, we have put our faith in capitalism. Worse, hyper-capitalism. Where capitalism was supposed to be the most efficient means to see to the common good, we have now allowed the invisible hand of the marketplace to determine what is good. What the market can provide is what is virtuous. What it can’t is either evil or impossible.
But again, this isn’t about an ideology. We have all seen how the communitarian ethos of socialism, communism, and anarchism can be exploited to oppress.
Just as Micah did, we live in a time of great prosperity for our nation, but not for our nation’s people. The economic policies pursued for decades by the Republicans and finally handed to them on a platter by this corrupt administration are having precisely the effects we knew they would. Like Hezekiah’s reforms, the rich are getting richer while everyone else is mired in the gig economy – if they’re lucky! The official priests and prophets of the age have aligned themselves with the privileged and powerful to exploit the marginalized and weakened. But Micah also tells us of a just remnant that can rebuild what has been lost. The marginalized will be empowered and the afflicted will make a great nation.
Those who know what it is to be left out are the ones who can carry forward the call for justice. Israel was supposed to remember – through the story of the exodus, through the gift of the law, through sabbath – that they were once left out, exploited, and oppressed. But they forgot.
I believe that Church in the Cliff, along with many others, are Micah’s just remnant. The priests of our age – at least the ones with the microphones – align themselves with power and privilege, with money and might. They trade their souls for a seat at the table. They speak of our nation’s greatness while standing on the backs of the poor. Their hearts are hardened. But your heart is broken. You know what it is to be marginalized. You know what it’s like to be told that you don’t count, that your families don’t count, that your children don’t count. If we can remember that and turn our eyes ever outward, we can be a midwife to a new nation, a nation reborn in justice.