We live in a state of constant crisis. Every day we seem to hear about some new threat which potentially could unravel our lives and our world. Over the past few years, it’s become clear that our society need crisis. It craves it. For our society has learned that it can mobilize the politics of panic as a way of molding and shaping us into particular kinds of people. And if you look around, if you watch the news and hear about all the occurrences of gun violence, hatred and hostility happening everywhere, then you know that most of us have internalized our society’s longing for crisis. Now we are addicted to it too.
Crisis is the new normal in our post 9/11 world. President Obama referenced this in his inaugural address almost 7 years ago: “That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened by the consequences of greed and irresponsibility by some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shudder. Our healthcare is too costly, our schools fail too many and each day brings new evidence that the way we use energy strengthens our adversaries and threatens our planet. These are the indicators of crisis.”
And anyone who has paid even just a little bit of attention to the political circus surrounding us knows that crisis is on everyone’s mind. The main question asked during this weeks Republican debate was what kind of leader will you be in time of crisis.
Their responses were telling – from carpet bombing people to oblivion, to bringing back the warrior class – it is clear that crisis and violence are intricately interconnected. So that it doesn’t appear that I’m taking sides. President Obama made the same connection during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace prize a few years ago. In this speech, Obama said he was: mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago — “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive, nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince terrorist leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason… So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving peace…I understand why war is not popular. But I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.”
These discussions of crisis and violence reminded me again this week of the importance of Christmas. For Christmas teaches us that there is an alternative to the stale old way of kings and presidents, of war and terror, and the politics of panic. This alternative is the politics of the Messiah which maintains that there is a new world among us ushering in God’s justice and God’s nonviolent peace.
Our text from the prophet Micah has become one of my favorites. It reminds us that true liberation and freedom are only possible when we refuse violence, coercion and fragmentation and instead find other ways of relating. One the reasons the prophet Micah offers our world so much life is because he was unwilling to believe that fear, panic, and hostility should ever dictate our response. He refused to believe that these were the natural climate for human beings. So he made it his mission to unravel it and offer the world an alternative option.
We don’t know much about the prophet Micah, other than the fact that he seemed to be a rural farmer who was furious at the depredations of folk of the big city, calling them thieves (2:2), false preachers, more interested in lighter problems while injustice is rampant, (2:11), greedy for wealth, who “hate good and love evil, both tearing and eating the flesh of the poor, breaking their bones in pieces, chopping them up like meat for the kettle.”
We do know that Micah lived in a time when the political landscape of the Middle East was constantly in flux. When the Assyrian nation was rapidly expanding and become more aggressive in their military campaigns. Almost annually, they would embark upon campaigns in Israel, Judah, and Philistine to collect tribute. First, Assyria absorbed Damascus into the Assyrian empire and then after a three year siege the Assyrians captured Northern Israel. This led to a large increase in refugees to Judah, which only increased people’s fears, anxieties and panic. Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before Assyria would set its sights on Judah. The nation was on high alert and the leaders of Judah began spending all their time and resources trying to shore up their defenses against the inevitable attack. It was a time of constant crisis in the land of Judah.
I’m convinced that our text from Micah actually presents two differing perspectives on the appropriate response to an Assyrian invasion and oppression of Israel. If you pay careful attention to the shift in the pronouns in our text, its clear that we have been given two antithetical visions, two contrasting philosophies of leadership.
The first philosophy is found at the beginning and the end of our text. It is the traditional, defensive posture of responding to violence with a greater and escalating display of violence. “Now assemble yourselves in troops, O daughter of troops! A siege is laid against us; With a scepter the judge of Israel is to be struck upon the cheek. Should Assyria invade our land and tread upon our citadels, We would then raise seven shepherds and eight human leaders. They would shepherd the land of Assyria with the sword, The land of Nimrod with the bare blade.”
In this section, Micah uses the pronoun “we” to present the rhetoric being presented by Judah’s leadership. Their aim is to muster as “many leaders as possible” in order to respond to Assyrian violence in like kind, namely “with sword and bare blade.” Some things never change! The only way the kings of this world know is combating the force and violence of this world with even greater force and violence.
However sliced within the status quo response pronounced by Judah’s leadership, Micah inserts an alternative way. What I deem – the politics of the Messiah. If you listen carefully, you can hear the prophet switching the pronouns to you and he. This translation comes from the biblical scholar Randall Pannell. I love it because it clarifies why the Messiah coming from Bethlehem is so important: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too small to be among the brigades of Judah; from you one will go forth for ME in order to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are out of earlier times, out of days of old. Therefore, he will concede to them until which time she who is laboring gives birth; and the remainder of his brothers return in deference to the sons of Israel. Then he will stand and shepherd by the might of YHWH. By the power of the name of YHWH his God; And they will settle down at that time because he will be great until the ends of the earth. He will be one of peace. He would rescue from Assyria should it invade our land, and tread upon our territory.”
Two competing narratives with two contrasting leadership styles. Why is Bethlehem so important? It’s not because it is small and humble like usually stated. It’s important because it was deemed too insignificant to be part of Judah’s military muster. It was a small town which was a non-participant in Judah’s militaristic policy, one able to exist outside the propaganda and panoptic presence of the war machine. Bethlehem was a place where alternatives could be nurtured, where peace could blossom, where something else could come to be.
Furthermore, Bethlehem and Ephrathah are important because both cities are associated not with David himself, but with Jesse, David’s father (See 1 Sam. 16:1, 18; 1 Sam 17:12). Through mentioning these cities, Micah portrays the Messiah figure as one belonging to the pre-royal age, to the time before the warrior king: “His goings forth are out of earlier times, out of days of old.” Through mentioning these two cities, Micah lets us know that this way is something radically other than the way of kings, war, and panic.
And lastly notice the vastly different styles of shepherding used by these different leaders. The leaders which Judah calls on shepherd with sword and the bare blade but the leader that YHWH raises up will shepherd by the might of YHWH, by the power of the name of his God. And his response to the Assyrian menace is not overtly violent in nature and is not one of militaristic resistance. Micah describes his response with the Hebrew word “natsal.” A word meaning to rescue or liberate. As one Hebrew scholar put it, it is a word connoting salvation without violence, a salvation that is beneficial for all.
Micah is clear – the way of the Messiah is radically different than the way of the kings. And we must chose which path on which we will tread. We can follow in the ways of the kings where the expectations are always to fight evil with evil, war with war, hatred with even more hatred. Or we can follow in the way of the Messiah who disrupts this vision of leadership by instead being the one of peace. The one who is bringing about a kingdom of justice, sharing, economic equality and relationality with God and each other rather than a kingdom of political and military dominance.
How are we to walk on the path of the Messiah? To not give in to the politics of panic and stubbornly insist that there is another way. What might it mean to choose this Christmas to believe in the miraculous birth of the new way of Jesus and Micah – the way of peace, justice and humble love?
The prophet Micah offers us a few first steps for this journey. First, he reminds us that patience is one of our most important tools if we want disrupt the politics of panic. We all know that violence and the sources of violence are too multiplicitous to reduce to any one cause. But it is nevertheless true to say that violence is at least the result of a lack of confidence in history as God’s story, which is another way to say that we are not in control of how it unfolds. In other words, violence is in large part a product of impatience. Violence is enabled by the failure to understand our lives—that is, our future and the riskiness of that future’s unexpectedness—as the gracious gift which has been given to us. And because violence is always the failure to understand our lives as God’s gracious gift, violence is also the attempt to create and maintain control over God’s story. That is what Micah understood. It is not our responsibility nor the king’s responsibility to make history come out “right.” Whatever “right” might mean. Our task is to prepare for the un-anticipatedness of God’s advent among us. And patience allows us to step outside the pace of crisis, thereby enabling the in-breaking of newfound possibilities.
Secondly, Micah also reminds us of the importance of communities like ours. The Messiah is tied to Bethlehem because it was able to partially exist outside the military establishment. We too are called to be a Bethlehem. To be a place trying to exist outside the machinations of war and violence which plague our society. Instead, we are called to be a space which nurtures, molds, and shapes alternative visions for our society. A space which allows for a new advent of Christ, in this time and in this place, so that he can again come among us and usher our world into new ways of justice and peace.
And lastly, I can’t not speak of Micah’s vision of the politics of the Messiah without briefly mentioning his vision of a world where swords are beaten into plowshares. Where nation refuses to take up sword against nation and no one trains for war anymore. I’m sure we are all aware that in just a few weeks, people will be legally allowed to openly carry guns pretty much anywhere in Texas. It is maddening and beyond frightening that the presence of people carrying guns will become the accepted normal in a climate where fear is rampant and the default response to frightening or unsettling situations is violence and the threat of violence. As it is sometimes said: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target.
The prophet Micah understood quite well that weapons have power. They instill fear and their presence alone incites violence. Rowan Williams once reminded us: “People use guns. But in a sense guns use people, too. When we have the technology for violence easily to hand, our choices are skewed and we are more vulnerable to being manipulated into violent action.”
That is why, in the new world which the newborn child of Christmas brings into being, weapons are not left to even hang on the wall, suggesting all the time that the right thing to do might after all be to use them. They are decommissioned, knocked out of shape, put to work for something totally different. They become tools of creation, which tend to the wellbeing of all the earth.
I’ve found myself thinking a lot lately about TAFFY. For those not familiar with TAFFY, or Toys are for fun y’all. The project was one started by the Dallas Peace center years ago, and it hosted events where children could exchange their toy guns and other violent toys for nonviolent ones. Instead they would receive toys and games which teach cooperation, which encourage people to work together to solve problems. Maybe it is time for our church to consider resurrecting TAFFY or doing something similar as a way of disrupting our societies addiction to guns and violence.
All I know is that weapons and panic are intricately interconnected. They need each other. And the more you have one, the more you have the other. That is why we must work to overturn the culture of fear and panic plaguing our society. We must undue our society’s fear and all the pressure to release our anxieties and tensions at the expense of others, if we want the politics of the Messiah to become a more vivid reality among us, so that peace on earth can be something more than an empty hope.
The good news which Micah teaches us this morning is that our atmosphere of fear and hostility isn’t the natural climate for human beings. And each year at Christmas we are reminded of this when we celebrate the birth of an entirely new world. A world that is bursting and breaking into our midst through Jesus, “the one of peace!”
Christmas presents us with a choice. There are two paths from which we must chose. We can choose to believe the stale old way of kings and Presidents, war and terror. Or we can choose to believe in the miraculous birth of the new way of Jesus, the one of Mary and Micah; the way of peace, justice and humble love.