Micah chapter 6, verse 1: “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.” That’s how it feels — today, this month, this past weekend as the president told us his plan to build more walls at Mexico’s border, as he ramped up efforts to deport undocumented residents, as he ordered discrimination against Muslims who aren’t U.S. citizens, including blocking refugees from entering the United States.
And so many of us, in response, pleading cases to the mountains, shouting at the hills, chanting at the sky, our voices absorbed into clouds. We write emails to government officials and make phone calls to representatives, we put up yard signs and display posters, we join vigils and protests — and all of it feels like roaring at the hills, slogans echoing away into the distance, words disappearing into the horizon.
Yet we hear the prophet Micah, who says to us: “Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.”
In 2004 I was at a retreat in Birmingham, Ala. — a time for prayer, reflection and worship. One afternoon a friend at the retreat who lives in Birmingham took us to a street corner downtown, where we stood with him, signs in our hands, protesting the U.S. war in Iraq. We stood with him for an hour — sometimes silently and sometimes in prayer, sometimes chatting and sometimes breaking out in a song. Afterward, my friend told me that he stands there every Saturday afternoon, most of the time by himself. “It’s part of my prayer life,” he said, “I tell God about the injustice going on, and I hope the people driving by overhear.”
Protest as pleading his case before the skyscrapers in downtown Birmingham, his words and sign as a prayer — a prayer to anyone who will listen: to God, to neighbors, to us.
The first verse of our passage from Micah calls us to cry out to the hills and mountains for justice, and in the last verse a voice echoes back, God’s voice, an answer. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good,” Micah says, “and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
The words of Micah remind me of a song by Sweet Honey In the Rock. It’s called, “We Are the Ones.” I heard it for the first time at a Black Lives Matter protest last summer. A woman sang it from the back of a pickup truck parked in front of the Durham police station, all of us occupying the streets, blocking traffic.
“We’ve been waiting,” she chanted, and the rest of us became her chorus, singing a refrain: “We are the ones, we are the ones.” There, with that song, I began to learn that not only are we waiting for God’s justice, not only to we gather to pray and protest, pleading to God and our neighbors for a different world, full of compassion and peace — but that, while we wait, we are the ones who God has called to act, to be peacemakers, as Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for justice (they are the same word in the original Greek).
This isn’t prayer as a way to let ourselves off the hook, as if we don’t have to do anything because God’s got it — but instead it’s prayer as opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the power of God to flow through our lives, to convert us into people of righteousness, people of justice, people of loving kindness, the gospel of Christ’s peace, making room for neighbors, some born here, others born elsewhere, but all of us sharing a community, living and working together, our lives as a sanctuary for God to recreate us, to make us anew, heaven breaking into earth, in our hearts, in our lives, in our households, in our neighborhoods, through our church.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says, “for they shall be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9). We are called to make peace, in our communities.
The challenge of living into this calling today, in this country, is that the government is trying to refuse us our neighbors. That’s what these executive orders are all about — the attempt to socially engineer our neighborhoods, to keep refugees from us, to deport undocumented residents, to cast suspicion on Muslims.
If we’re committed to peace, we are engaging in a long struggle against nationalism, a nationalism that seems to be fueling the president’s administration, their fear of foreigners, their fear of strangers, their fear that this will be the end of their nostalgic vision for a white, Christian America. They are afraid of demographics, afraid of the collapse of their white supremacy. According to the census bureau, by 2050 white people will not longer be the majority racial group in the U.S. By 2040, Muslims will make up the second-largest religious community in the U.S. In that same decade, Islam will become the largest religion in the world.
We — as a people, as a community, as a church — can be only who we are allowed to be by governments, by presidents who regulate our borders and economies. I’m here, because of U.S. immigration policies decades ago, because my grandparents somehow got my mom, as a child, from Costa Rica to Miami to Los Angeles, across border after border. And my dad, moving from Colombia to California, somehow managing to get a green card.
And this isn’t only about me. This is about all of us. Who we are, who we love, how we worship has everything to do with global migration patterns, with famines and wars, with refugees and deportations. No matter how welcoming we want to be, in our homes, in our church, and no matter how hospitable we think we are, the newly elected administration is deciding the borders of our identity, of your identity — of who we are and who we are not, of who we will let into our life and who we will refuse, of how we will let ourselves be transformed by someone else, by a people foreign to your story, alien to your family line, a stranger to your national identity.
As this new administration sets its course for the next four years, as we fight for peace, for ourselves and our neighbors and all the people who are being refused to live in our communities — as we live into God’s justice, God’s righteousness, we will have to turn again and again to the prophet Micah. “Hear,” it says, “Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.”
And in our prayers, in our protests, Micah reminds us that, as we wait for God’s redemption, that we already know what to do: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good,” Micah says, “and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
This call is not only about oppressed people, about people out there, held at airports, held in detention centers, refused entry into our communities — this is also about us, about you, because these policies make you who you are, by decided for you who will be your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers.
The challenge, then, is to construct our lives so that we no longer know who we are without our foreign neighbors, that you would be lost in this world without them, that our identity would be undone without them.
Isaac S. Villegas is the pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. This is an edited version of a sermon he preached Jan. 29.