Address at St George’s Anglican Cathedral, Jerusalem
28 July 2001
No one can deny the power of the right words spoken at the right time and in the right place. Such is the power of the words I have chosen as my text from Micah 6:8: ‘He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’
A Roman Catholic friend of mine recounted some years ago that, when he was a student in a South American country in the late Sixties, a priest colleague had been arrested for protesting with students against the dictatorship then in power. The priest was released after a severe beating. The following morning he celebrated Mass and -- instead of a sermon -- he read a succession of passages from the prophets, culminating in this wonderful passage: ‘What does God require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ He was immediately re-arrested for sedition! Such was the enduring power of these words written more than two and a half thousand years earlier.
We gather today as brothers and sisters from different Christian communities to share our common faith and assist one another in our common mission to seek justice, and mercy and to walk with God. I bring you greetings from the Anglican Communion to which Bishop Riah and his diocese belong. I represent those many Anglicans in so many different parts of the world who want to say through me to the Church here: ‘We are aware of your sufferings and pain. We share in your desire to build a new future and we share in your dream that someday this your land so important to three great faiths will be a place where all people will feel they are welcome and can live safely.’
But in what way might a timeless reading like that from Micah speak to us here and now?
Yesterday we arrived and we visited Beit Jala, and spoke to several of the people about their pain. Today after prayers in the Holy Sepluchre, we went to Gaza, and we saw something of the devastation, and again we spoke to many people. In what way may such a passage speak to us, and somehow interpret to us what is going on in our lives.
Although Micah the prophet was speaking to a society very different from ours, we can all identify with its great message of justice, mercy, and humble obedience. Indeed, Micah’s great words have inspired and shaped so many people and nations. In England, Thomas Huxley, the great 19th century scientist, said they expressed the ‘perfect idea of religion’; in America, they are inscribed in the Library of Congress; and in Rome, they were set to music by the 16th century composer Palestrina.
Part of these words’ continuing power, it seems to me, lies in the strength of the verbs: we are told what to do, what to love, and how to walk. That is, they direct our actions, our affections, and our attitudes.
First, what to do. We must do justice. Micah was mostly concerned about the oppression of the poor by the rich. He rebuked the powerful for their mistreatment of others and told the religious who came to worship piled high with sacrifices that their sins mocked the Covenant God of Sinai. Justice, we see, is a practical virtue. It is not merely something we admire from afar in legal theory; it must be demonstrated in action; in the way we behave, in the way we live, in the space we give to strangers as well as to our friends.
However many times I have been here and notwithstanding so many Jewish, Muslim and Christian friends, it is not for me as a stranger to state with precision what justice might mean to this beloved land with all its problems. But this much I know, it involves entering another person’s world of pain and fear, and understanding it as much as you yourself would like to be understood. My colleague and friend Robin Eames, the Archbishop of Armagh, who is here with me, knows better than most the practical difficulties of doing justice when communities are estranged, traumatised and bitterly locked in disputes that go back hundreds of years. We as Christians can only put ourselves – ourselves, I say – under the power of Micah’s words and ask: ‘How may we seek justice for everyone?’ Bombings, shootings, killings and all such violence serve only to extend and deepen conflict. Striving together to do justice – the justice that brings peace and reconciliation – is a harder way, but the better way. At such times we must look for models, and it seems to me that we all have one in the towering figure of Nelson Mandela. He could so easily have returned from Robben Island, after twenty seven years in captivity with grudges and scores to settle, and terrible violence would have been the probable result. Instead, he forsook vengeance, and reconciled his country from the injustices of its past. The result is a land where different communities are travelling together on the same road, certainly not without difficulty, but equally certainly not without hope.
But as I am addressing Christian leaders I am bold to ask a particular question which arises from our common task to lead the people we believe God has given to us. It is: ‘What is the task of leadership in communities when people on both sides are convinced they are right and where room for manoeuvre seems so small?
Our response, surely, is that even when we find ourselves passionately committed to one side of the dispute, we must always side with justice, love and peace. We are mandated to find solutions which enable different peoples to live together in harmony; we are mandated to encourage political leaders to seek the pathway of dialogue; and we are mandated to challenge the often-assumed position that concessions and compromises are signs of political weakness.
So we are commanded first to do justice. And then we are told, secondly, to love mercy. I am well aware that it may be that the prophet was talking about ‘devotion’ or ‘kindness’ but I believe he was also trying to show that love – like justice – has a practical purpose. It results in action and, possibly, mercy is as close to the meaning as we can get in English. When we love mercy we find a place for the poor, the victimised, the child in distress and those marginalised in all our societies. Mercy implies that the strong have a particular obligation to the weak; and the powerful have a particular responsibility for the powerless. After all, mercy has its fullest meaning when someone is helpless and vulnerable.
How might that apply to these times so terribly disfigured by acts of hatred and images of bloodshed? It is important to remember that we are all told to ‘love mercy.’ There will always be times when our enemies come within striking distance and are helpless. At that very point, the Scriptures command us to love, and to love with compassion and mercy. To love with forgiveness and not to hate. To love when it is difficult to find reasons to love. And that is why on the one hand we can acknowledge the legitimate cause of a powerful partner, and yet urge caution in how that power is exercised. Such is the tough and wonderful way of the Covenant God whose love is defined for us in Jesus Christ.
So we are told first to love justice, second to love mercy, and third and finally to walk humbly with your God. There is in Micah’s words a call to walk together, to share a journey in sweet fellowship with our God.
Might it not be possible, one day, for Jewish believers, Muslim believers and Christian believers – in spite of deeply held differences – to walk humbly together in mutual tolerance and deeper respect towards a Jerusalem both full of peace and holy to all.
I am often distressed by anti-Jewish feelings just as much as I am distressed by anti-Palestinian feelings. As Christians, our journey compels us to deplore racism in any shape or form, and encourages us to engage with our society in a deep and meaningful way.
Our pilgrimage together as Jews, Muslims and Christians, resonates with that pilgrimage of men and women of faith to the Holy Land. And it is my hope next year to lead a pilgrimage in order to share in the story of that incomparable One known to Christians as Jesus the Christ. It is sad that recent conflict has led to cancelled pilgrimages. I heard at the Christian information Centre this morning that of 600 pilgrimages planned last November, only one tenth have taken place. So many have been cancelled. It means we have lost opportunities to join our brothers and sisters here and to say we are still walking with you. So I want to encourage many Christian pilgrims from around the world to come. Come to the Holy Land and support the Christians, Jews, and Muslims here who long and pray for peace.
Let me close with a story which I heard just a few weeks ago:
A Rabbi asked his disciples to define that moment we call dawn when the morning prayers may be said.
One disciple said: ‘It is dawn when you can tell a horse from a donkey.’ Another said: ‘It is dawn when you can tell an olive tree from a fig tree.’ And the rest all offered their best guesses.
At last the Rabbi said: ‘It is dawn when you can look a stranger in the face and see your sister or your brother.’
The dawn we all long for will come when we see not first and foremost
Israeli or Palestinian – or Christian, Jew, or Muslim – but brothers and
sisters living in peace and harmony. And oh, how we shall greet the dawn
that day…that day when Micah’s threefold command ‘to do justice, love mercy
and walk humbly with your God’ will finally be fulfilled.