My heart sunk into my stomach as I stared at the “C” on the half sheet of official paper in my hands. I knew it was reasonable, but it stung, as it was the very first time the third letter of the alphabet had appeared on my report card. I was in my second year of graduate studies in theology, in an Old Testament Prophets class taught by the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at the university I attended. The semester started off rough, as I had spent too many hours in wide-eyed, screen-addicted astonishment during and after the 9/11 attacks, which made the out-of-the-box thinking my professor was requiring of me more difficult.
His assignments required mental acrobatics to which I was not accustomed, such as, “Write a persuasive paper asserting that the Prophet Amos was promoting the abolition of ritual/ceremonial worship.” Perhaps that wouldn’t have been so difficult were I not a person of faith whose liturgical worship tradition is steeped in ceremony and ritual. But I’d recently come to experience such worship as profoundly life-giving and meaningful, so this and other similarly clever professorial requests on his part were not the sort of hoops I found easy to jump through. Perhaps that made him an especially good professor, but I didn’t see it that way at the time.
The only other thing I remember about that class is what I learned from my final paper, for which I chose to explore the meaning of the Hebrew word mišpāṭ, as found in one of my favorite Bible verses:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (The Prophet Micah 4:6).
I did a lot of research for that paper, and have often wished to re-visit it, but have failed to discover it anew in any paper memory-stack or old 3-inch floppy disc. The one thing that remains etched in my mind and heart from it is the idea of justice (mišpāṭ) as right relationship.
“Doing justice is relating with others and with creation in a way that honors and strengthens both the individual persons, the collective we and the ecosystem of inter-related life in which we live.”
Justice is often associated with law, rights, violations, judgements and reparations, and while these are all truly dimensions of justice, the centrality of relationship brought into focus for me a more meaningful and helpful understanding of what it means to “do justice,” as Micah exhorts. Not as much doing the right thing to or for someone in a transactional way, but being the right way with someone…or even with something. Doing justice is relating with others and with creation in a way that honors and strengthens both the individual persons, the collective we and the ecosystem of inter-related life in which we live. A person would thus be truly righteous in so far as he or she does justice in this way, bringing forth greater vitality, peace and flourishing as they go about their daily thinking, speaking, acting and relating.
I never finished my degree in theology. I was pursuing it after a personal, mystical experience with God that awakened my faith and increased my hunger for God and for transcendent meaning and wisdom, but more earthly, bodily pursuits laid claim on my mind, heart and time as I became a wife and mother. The idea of mišpāṭ, or justice, as right relationship has proved very helpful to me in these years of being immersed in the beauty, joys and struggles of family life.
I have six children now, ages three to sixteen, and we have homeschooled for over ten years. Even before my oldest learned his alphabet and math facts, he explored his world as an infant and toddler by using his senses, and then looking to me, his mother, to help him make sense of things. I helped him to arrive at names for the things he encountered. I smiled when something was delightful, frowned when something was upsetting, scowled when something was not right (unrighteous), lifted my eyebrows over big open eyes and a grin when something was wonderful and showed alarm when something was dangerous. All of these exchanges served his learning to do justice. He discovered the purpose of things, and how to use them rightly and safely.
“We need forgiveness and mercy and the assistance of grace from the God of right relationship, in whose beautiful, loving, triune image we are made.”
When he repeatedly struck our dining room tabletop with his fork, with great satisfaction and a sense of empowerment, he received stern messages about the purpose of forks, the loveliness of wood furniture and the damage done when he didn’t relate to these things rightly. When he stood on a child-sized rocking chair to reach for something, the pain of falling taught him about doing justice – relating rightly with things, according to their design and purpose. When he stubbed toes, he learned the value and purpose of shoes and the importance of doing the hard and undesirable work of putting them on if he didn’t want to get hurt. These lessons, when heeded, help my children to live more healthy and enjoyable lives.
As my children have grown, they have broadened their learning about right relationship by analyzing more deeply the properties, functions and relationships of things. Words are tools used to get images and ideas from one person’s mind to another, and good grammar and punctuation help a lot with the transmission of these ideas, which is a powerful thing!
We grow in wonder and awe as we learn increasingly about the mathematics and sciences that are hidden within the “music of the spheres” that “nature sings, and round me rings.” We ponder the interrelated ecosystems of life – on the earth and within and among human persons, who are both spiritual and bodily beings. We consider the non-material spiritual realities and beings that co-exist and interact with us. We behold the good and beautiful fruits of virtues and loving sacrifice in and among men, women and angels, past and present and also behold the bad and ugly fruits of vices and selfishness.
We connect the dots between choices and consequences and wrestle with the complexities, glories and poverties of human hearts and behaviors. Most importantly, here within our very own school of love – our family – we discover our own personal and communal need to walk humbly with our God if we are to do justice and to love kindness. Because we often fail. We use things wrongly and love people poorly. We need forgiveness and mercy and the assistance of grace from the God of right relationship, in whose beautiful, loving, triune image we are made.
And so I continue, with my family, friends and neighbors this humbling journey of making sense of what it is to do justice in my relationships with all created things, and most especially with the persons in my midst. These persons are the gifts that the divine composer and conductor – my Heavenly Father – gives me in order to help me increasingly do justice and live outside the box of my small-minded, hoop-jumping, self-serving tendencies – that I may live more truly, harmoniously, beautifully.
And to truly live is to truly love, which begets peace, joy and human flourishing. It’s not about hoops, it’s about hearts. It’s ALL about relationships. What grade would my spouse, kids, neighbors and co-workers give me in my way of being with them? And speaking of ritual, ceremonial worship and of the power of words, the following words were part of a traditional instruction once read to couples at every wedding:
“Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love,”and “Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
I’m thinking we could swap the word “sacrifice” above for “justice” or “doing justice.” I’m probably not even earning a C grade in this mišpāṭ dimension of my way of being with others, but that’s okay. It’s not a one-semester class; it’s the journey of a lifetime and “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” May we remain receptive to the ever-present grace we need to keep putting one foot in front of the other, starting anew, growing in true righteousness and, through our loving relationships, helping others do the same.
Valerie Niemeyer grew up in the Kansas City area and moved to Omaha, Nebraska with her parents the year she started college. Graduating from Creighton University with a degree in Spanish and Secondary Education, she chose to serve the local immigrant and refugee population in nonprofit and community health settings, while pursuing a master’s degree in Theology and falling in love with her best friend and hubby, Joe. They have six children, ages 3-16 and live on a third-of-an-acre lot in the city, where they attempt things like gardening, DIY repairs and improvements, and serving their parish and community in a variety of ways.