Social Justice

Mysticism and Resistance: Micah – Jean Vanier

posted on 03/09/10 03:37 pm by Fr. Paul Hansen, C.Ss.R.  


To begin it might be welcomed if we situated ourselves. We are reflecting on Biblical Prophets whose inspiration and imagination are being lived out today. We are suggesting that God graces the people in moments that are difficult where faith is truly a struggle and there are more questions than answers. God always does a New Deed (Is. 43:18) it is our task to see it. In order to see the New Deed being down in our time of Exile, desert, dislocation and disconnect it is necessary to have desert eyes. Desert Eyes are only for those who have learned to live in the heart of exile and not run easily through addictions, escapes and superficiality. In a culture where low grade guilt and depression reign and where we are told that we are not enough, it is time that we recognize that we are blessed and that our first instinct should be one of radical Gratitude.

The Gospel of Mark and the story of Peter warming himself at the fires in the courtyard of the High Priest (Mk 14:66) deserve from us a pause if we wish to be disciples of Jesus in the North of the Americas. We warm ourselves and nourish ourselves at the fires of culture and its values while at the same time saying that we are of the life and call of Jesus. We cannot serve two masters. I am convinced that much of the disconnect, dislocation and aloneness is experienced because we struggle with the question: “Who do people say I am?” the question that Jesus asked his disciples so many years ago. And we struggle with life and its meaning as we begin a new millennium.

The prophet Micah and Jean Vanier are in conversation tonight. It is through their lives and message that we want to hear what God might be asking of us in these our times. Both have something to say that is worthy of reflection – to be taken to heart. And so we begin.

Micah was a prophet of the 8th century BC. He was a fearless champion of the cause of the oppressed and the underprivileged. He probably belonged to the peasant class. We have little by way of a biography except that which is found in the text of his prophecy. We do know that he came from Moresheth in the lowlands of S.W. Judah toward the Mediterranean.

The prophetic activity of Micah extended during the reign of 3 Kings in Judah – Jothan 742-735. Ahaz 735-715 and Hezekiah 715-687. Micah lived near Tekoa the home of Amos. Both Micah and Amos attacked the socio-economic abuses of their day.

It was a time when the wealthy capitalists were oppressing the peasant landholders. These prophets not only sounded the call for social justice but also cried against the deplorable religious conditions of their time. The priests and the temple prophets were as bad as the merchants and the judges. External worship or ritualism was flourishing and religious ethics were being thoroughly ignored.

The non-professional prophet Micah could not remain silent while the stench of social sin offended both God and men and women. He will always be remembered as the Prophet of Social Justice.

*Judah had reached the height of her power during the reign of Uzziah 783-42. When he contracted leprosy he was succeeded by his son Jotham. It was a period of building operations and military victories. The Assyrians were on the march. Syria fell in 732 and Samaria in 722. Judah felt very insecure.

Ahaz was a weak King and a servile vassal of Assyria. Hezekiah his son an energetic reformer who cut himself free of Assyria and carried out a purification of Judah’s worship. This reform was influenced by the prophet Micah according to Jeremiah 26:18ff.

The book in its present form is the work of a later compiler. It is divided in to Oracles of doom and oracles of promise.

The influence of Isaiah, Hosea and Amos is evident in this prophecy of Micah. Micah proclaims their truths but in his own way. He expresses God’s wrath concerning what is going on but he does not exclude God’s mercy. As far as Micah was concerned, liturgical ritual had meaning only when combined with moral integrity. Otherwise it was a sham.

STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK MICAH Chapters 1-3 Series of Threats.

Chapters 4-5 Promises. Chapters 6:1- 7:7 More Threats. Chapters 7:8-8:20 Promises.

The book in its present form was probably edited in the Babylonian Exile.

Condemnation of animal sacrifice at the cost of over looking the hunger and the sickness of the poor. – 3:2-37.

Micah had witnessed severe, even wantonly cruel suffering on the part of the poor. Their land had been violated in order that the Jerusalem government might build defenses in such outposts as Moresheth. (Today U.S. – Iraq)

Micah spoke against the social injustices and religious sham by which the administration of Jerusalem sought to distract the country from the dangers of war and the plight of the poor. (Ottawa – Washington today around security, freedom and the social net.)

Micah leveled his criticism against religious and civil leaders for tolerating these excesses and then gaining financially from it all.

No hope was left when the defenders of religion and morality were themselves corrupted by pleasure and greed.

*Sin for Isaiah turned out to be the sacrilegious act of polluting the temple (Is. 4-4) for Micah it was the callousness and stripping a person of his/her mantle and driving the “women of my people from their peasant homes.” (Micah 2:8-9)

Isaiah was a herald for a faith that demanded respect for the mysterious holiness of Yahweh. Micah was the prophet of divine justice for the inviolable rights of the poor.

*Micah 1:3-3:12 – The Principal sermons of Micah against social injustice are gathered here.

Jean Vanier has often been called the Prophet of Community. In an age of rugged individualism and the dismantling of the Common Good then the building of community can be a prophetic gesture. For we truly are made in the image and likeness of God and the Christian God is a Trinity of Persons, a community. We live then Incarnation when we mirror the Real Presence of our God in these times of exile and exclusion. Vanier proclaims a Gospel of Inclusion.

Jean Vanier was born in Geneva, Switzerland on Sept. 10th, 1928 to George Vanier the 19th Governor General of Canada and Pauline Archer.

His father was the Canadian Ambassador to France at the end of the Second World War. In January of 1945 Jean visited his dad and saw ex-inmates arriving from Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. “What human being can do to other human beings, how we can hurt and kill one another.”

*I am reminded of a comment of a friend: “We should have two empty seats at the United Nations – one for the Nation of the Dead and the other for the Nation of the Living Dead. They are called nations because they have similar characteristics.”

*I am reminded of my own experiences in Dachau and Auschwitz.

At the tender age of 13 Jean joined the Royal Naval College in England and later the Canadian Navy. He resigned in 1950.

Jean joined a small community L’Eau Vive (If you ever go to Rome this is the name of one of Rome’s best restaurants) directed by a French Dominican Pere Thomas Philippe – a community for students in a poor area near Paris. The community fostered prayer and the study of metaphysics. Vanier went on to direct L’Eau Vive for 6 years.

In 1962 Vanier received his doctorate at the L’Institut Catholique focusing on contemplation, friendship and justice in the thought of Aristotle. He then taught here in Toronto at St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto.

Pere Philippe became a chaplain for mentally handicapped men living in an institution Trosly-Breuil about one hour’s train ride from Paris. Vanier moved there, bought a small house that he called L’Arche – Noah’s Ark and in 1964 he welcomed Raphael and Philippe into his home.

L’Arche is a community formed by pairing one person with a disability, another without. However we must all recognize that we all have disabilities. It is a matter of perspective.

From this original community in France there are now about 103 communities throughout the world.

In 1968 in Marylake, Ontario a community called “Faith and Sharing” was founded following a retreat preached by Vanier. It is a community where folks gathered once a month for sharing around the Gospel and where everyone is welcomed. There are also the Faith and Sharing retreats.

In 1971 with Marie Helene Mathieu Vanier founded “Faith and Light” communities which meet together regularly: people with developmental disabilities, their parents and friends.

Everyone is unique and of sacred value Create little places where love is possible. Community is painful: I have been doing this for 38 years and community is a place of pain. Find gifts where others see tragedy. Vanier has developed a theology of the body. “faith through the body, faith through touch.” Learn to touch with tenderness. Our bodies are called to be instruments of Grace. To bring social activism and faith together is very complex. Lots of things begin this way but gradually they become exclusively spiritual and say goodbye to the poor, or it is all social activism and the faith disappears. Vanier has no time for church politics: “Lets get on with it and be with the poor.” This was also his message at World Youth Day here in Toronto.


Micah 4:3-7

“They shall beat their swords in ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another nor shall they train for war again. Every man shall sit under his own vine or under his own fig tree, undisturbed; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God, forever and ever. On that day, says the Lord, I will gather the lame and I will assemble the outcasts and those whom I have afflicted. I will make of the lame a remnant, and of those driven far off a strong nation. And the Lord shall be king over them on Mount Zion from now on forever.” Vanier: Wars are fought out of fear. Healing begins by naming our fear and addressing our less than worthy feelings with compassion and without judgment. It is to discover that the worse enemy is inside our own hearts not outside. Elitism is the sickness of us all. Our society tells us that we are nothing unless we have this, drive that, live here, smell just so and wear the latest fashion. Vanier’s clothes look like they came from the poor box. Clean mind you but very simple and ordinary. He wrote a book called – Human Being. We are not called Human Doing, or Human Having now are we! It is often the outsider, the marked one, and the outsider that truly is the insider in terms of the true sense of what it means to be human. Jesus came to change the whole order of things. And the heart of that Order like the Prophet Micah was the poor, the blind, the lame and the sick. And so these people would come rushing all those who were marginal would come rushing to him seeking strength, seeking compassion, seeking healing. Remember the story of the banquet – The king gets angry and he sends the servants into the highways and the byways – bring in the poor, the lame, the sick, the blind and of course they came rushing in. There is an inner pain in all of us. I’m not good. This creates a world of guilt and this guilt creates a world of fear. It is fear that makes us run away from pain. It’s fear that makes us run away from those that are poor, who are weak, who are sick. It’s fear that is that terrific impetus that pushes us up the ladder, making us seek power and privileges and prestige. It is fear that brings us to the point of loneliness.

Micah 5:1

“But you Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel: whose origin if from of old, form ancient times.” Vanier: Micah saw Bethlehem as the place from whence the saviour, the new leader would come. Notice the Immanuel passages in Isaiah where a “virgin” shall conceive and shall bare a son and shall call him Immanuel. Vanier has a deep faith in the person of Jesus. It is a personal relationship because faith is essentially faith and trust in a person. The important thing for Vanier is not whether one is a priest or a religious but whether one is a disciple.

Micah 6: 6-8

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow before God most high? Shall I come before God with holocausts, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my crime, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? You have been told, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” Vanier: This passage form Micah is the heart of his prophecy. It is also the heart of the message of Jesus and is for us our sense of discipleship. In fact I personally interpret the vowed religious life in this awareness. To do justice – One might say that justice relates to the head, to reason, to getting it right, to understanding what it is all about. Vanier asks us – How much is enough? The Ecological Footprint is a measure in land mass indicating the amount of land required to provide us with goods to feed our life style and to get rid of our waste. For us in the North of the Americas to continue our present life styles we would need three planet earths in order to continue our ways. Commodity consciousness: Ads on T.V. We are reminded that we are never enough. If only I had this or that I would be more – acceptable, loveable, less lonely, attractive etc. Vanier asks that we remember that the first attitude of the Christian is Gratitude or as the ancient Israelites would say: dayenou. “It would have been enough.” To love tenderly – On might say that this relates to the heart. Vanier suggests that if we listen to our heart and the heart of our brother or sister, we will see pain, brokenness, woundedness and struggle. Vanier suggests that the Lord is calling us into the world of pain and to discover that we are blessed. This means that God is present right there in our pain. God is calling us to be more and more open and thus to become freer and freer from fear. God is calling us to become men and women of compassion. It is ok to be myself, it is ok to be there where I am, because I know that God is living in my heart and I know that God is calling me to give life to others. God is calling us to look to our deepest desire for there is God. Vocation: When our deepest desire meets the world’s deepest need.

Joy comes from the unity of our being and it begins in the human heart.

To walk humbly – One might say that this relates to the feet. Abraham Heschel once said that when he was marching with Martin Luther King Jr. that he was “praying with his feet.” Vanier invites us to live with conviction the insights of our mind and the feelings of our heart. Micah: 6:14-15 “You shall sow, yet not reap, tread out the olive yet pour no oil, and the grapes, yet drink no wine. You shall eat, without being satisfied, food that will leave you empty; What you acquire you cannot save; what you do save, I will deliver up to the sword.” Vanier: Reading the works of Jean Vanier I am reminded of an evening years ago with a man that I met in Marriage Encounter in Montreal. He invited me to his home. He showed my luxury that I had never seen before in a private home. He said that he would give all of this to me if I could give him happiness. He doubted that I could so he would keep his wealth. We are drowning in a sea of things. Micah, Isaiah and Jesus remind us of the great banquet feasts. In fact Heaven is compared to a banquet feast. Micah: 7: 5-8 “Put no trust in a friend, have non confidence in a companion; guard the portals of your mouth, for the son dishonors his father, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law and a man’s enemies are those of his household. But for me, I will look to the Lord, I will put my trust in God my saviour; my God will hear me! Rejoice not over me, O my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will arise; though I sit in darkness, the Lord is my light.” Vanier: Jean Vanier is a person of great hope. He has hope for his life is centred in God. Vanier is truly a disciple of the master, Jesus. When asked once if he was a saint he quoted the famous lines of Dorothy Day: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Vanier knows only too well that one can only be about building community, entering the human heart both one’s own and that of the other, if one is deeply rooted in a life of presence to the mystery we call God. It is only in this mystery that we have our true home.


In these presentations we have looked at these times. We have said that they are times of exile, dislocation, disconnect and desert. However we have seen in the prophet Isaiah that there is a New Deed being done by our God. Tonight’s reflection has invited us to see in Jean Vanier and the L’Arche movement of communities the prophetic imagination of the prophet Micah. We have learned that we must develop desert eyes that we might be grateful. We are called to be not people of fear but of compassion and we are called to hear the four secrets that Vanier says Jesus has to tell us: 1. The first secret is about Jesus himself. It is something about his own body, his own being. He is the temple of God. He is where God resides. 2. The second secret that Jesus reveals to us is that my body, our bodies, that these bodies are the temple of God also. 3. The third secret of Jesus is that he’s hidden in a very special way in the poor, and in the broken and in the suffering. The mystery is that Jesus is hidden in the poorest and the weakest. But then also the mystery that he is hidden in the poverty of my own being, that he is hidden in my own poverty. The poor are at the heart of the church, the poor are the heart of humanity. 4. The fourth secret is that Jesus is around pain. Do not run away, walk towards your pain. There is a completely new vision. It’s discovering that pain can be couched in love. That pain can be enfolded in love. That pain and suffering can become a gift that I can give to God, to humanity.

Micah and Jean Vanier have seen and lived this prophetic imagination in their own lives. Micah and Vanier can look hopefully to the future because they know and embody the tradition.

Do we see and can we learn to touch!

Paul E. Hansen

  Toggle entire listing of Social Justice articles »

WebMail Login^ back to top