By Hank Hopping, Dean of Students at McCallie
From the Book of the Old Testament prophet Micah: What does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
The prophet Micah lived at about the same time in history as his much more famous prophet buddy Isaiah, but today Isaiah gets all the love and is much more frequently quoted. The Book of Micah, by contrast, is a little ol’ book in the OT, the 33rd of 39 Books, and only 7 chapters long. Micah is most well-known among Biblical scholars for a couple of prophesies, one connected to the fate of Judah and one to the birth of Jesus. But don’t underestimate the power of Micah’s words.
The passage above (Micah 6:8) comes from a portion of the book where Micah’s been discussing the struggles of his people to behave in selfless and obedient ways rather than selfishly and rebelliously. He lays out a litany of justifiable criticisms, and then follows them with a pretty simple statement about what it really is that God requires of us.
In simpler terms (if it’s even possible to simplify Micah’s words any further), I believe that the justice and mercy (and even humility) that we’re called to embrace are about the measured and thoughtful use of power.
We all have power of some sort or another in of our lives – and we all live under the power of others as well. By our very presence here, we have some degree of power in our world. Some of us have more power than others because of our age or experience, or even just our physical size. Perhaps it’s our sharp wit or intellectual strengths, or our economic advantage, or just the random happenings of chance.
When we ignore justice, mercy, and humility in the wielding of that power, we throw our weight around just because we can, without much consideration about whether or not we should. When we filter our choices through justice, mercy, and humility, we use our power to strengthen those around us, to heal more than to hurt, to do what we are called to do.
Two brief anecdotes (and then the video clip) to illustrate: the first comes with a quick shout out to the 14 or so freshmen who read Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels for their summer reading. My congratulations to you (along with the similarly small number of Ender’s Shadow guys) for not merely defaulting to the two shortest books on the list.
You may remember from Killer Angels a Union Army Officer named Joshua Chamberlain. He actually sat out the first year of the Civil War, living and working on the quiet, isolated campus of Bowdoin College, where he was a professor of modern languages. Upon his decision to seek a commission, he told the Governor of Maine: “I have always been interested in military matters, and what I do not know in that line, I know how to learn” (from Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man, by Edward G. Longacre). He was given command of the newly formed 20th Maine, a poorly regarded unit comprised of extra men left over from other new regiments. Chamberlain is perhaps most famous for leading a bayonet charge at Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg. Arguably, his actions and those of the men under his command on July 2nd, 1863, saved the Union Army, turned the tide of the battle, and marked a turning point in the war itself. Chamberlain was (to quote Michael Shaara):
one of the most remarkable soldiers in American history. Wounded six times. Cited for bravery in action four times. Promoted to Brigadier General by special order of Ulysses Grant for heroism at Petersburg. Breveted Major General for heroism at Five Forks. He is the officer chosen by Grant from all other Northern officers to have the honor of receiving the Southern surrender at Appomattox, where he startles the world by calling his troops to attention to salute the defeated South. He is given first place in the last Grand Review in Washington. For his day at Little Round Top he is to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. (354-5, The Killer Angels)
Chamberlain possessed considerable power, and he wielded it with considerable care.
On a more personal note, I witnessed a scene in a local Target superstore a while back that left an absolutely indelible impression on me about the use of power, and about how we are called to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.
I was wandering through the store in search of whatever it was I was there for when I happened upon this scene: a customer was harassing and haranguing an employee. It became immediately apparent that the employee probably was intellectually diminished in some way, though it certainly didn’t affect his ability to do his job stocking shelves and cleaning aisles. It was also apparent that the customer had asked him where something was located, and the employee didn’t know. The customer, however, wouldn’t let it go; they followed this man down an aisle and around a corner.
As he tried to retreat in embarrassment, they berated him with comments like, “I can’t believe you can’t find a simple item on the shelf. You do work here don’t you? This is ridiculous that I can’t get better service than this.” Suddenly another customer came around the aisle and confronted the first one, telling them to leave the employee alone. As the employee continued his retreat, obviously horrified, the first customer turned on their accuser, saying, “This is none of your business. Leave me alone.” The second customer quietly but firmly replied: “I think it is my business. You need to leave that man alone.” The first threatened to go get the store manager. The calm reply: “That would be fine. I’ll come with you.” By this time, the employee vanished, the bully reconsidered, and the scene fizzled with the two customers parting ways.
That encounter, for me, reveals both sides of the power coin. You can use it to do good or ill, to tear down or build up, to demean or defend.
To mix the metaphor but extend the idea, let’s consider the third leg of the stool: humility. For me humility is difficult to fully grasp and challenging to fully attain. It’s been characterized as the most unattainable of the virtues because even when we do attain it, we’re proud of ourselves for being humble. Perhaps that’s true, but I’d suggest that in addition to the humble attitude part, humility is also about our willingness to look at the world through the eyes of another, someone unlike us, someone whose experiences don’t readily align with our own. Now the video. It’s a short clip; it’s about perspective; so pay close attention.
The first time I saw that video I thought my head might explode. The possibility that some other vision, so radically different from my own yet so equally sensible, could possibly exist was just about more than I could wrap my mind around.
As we get out there gentlemen, in the world of school and the world beyond school, as we work, and play, and think, and compete, and serve, let’s keep an open mind. And let’s take good care of the folks around us. Thank you.