Justice, Mercy, Humility. Three Pillars of Education.
He has shown you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly, and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:8; NIV)
Some years ago the concept of considering assessment with respect to justice, mercy and humility was presented to me in a document written by Bev Norsworthy. Since then the idea has brewed somewhat until recently when a discussion with a colleague raised the matter again. That sent me thinking a bit more deeply on the implications behind Micah’s words, and the risk of taking verses out of context straight into a current day application.
The prophet Micah lived in the eighth century BC, a contemporary of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Jonah. His prophecies were mainly directed against the leaders of both Jerusalem and Samaria. Those who were at the time leading both Judah and the northern tribes of Israel were charged with corruption and misleading their people. The powerful and wealthy were robbing the poor but there was no redress against such injustices. It was as if the whole of Israel had sold its soul. Micah’s call was for them to return to the commands of their God, because they in fact knew what God required of them. There was no excuse for their lack of obedience and outright rebellion.
What possible connection can such a scene have with education in the twenty-first century? A good starting point would be to consider what Jesus Himself said about such issues, remembering that He said He had come to fulfil the Law. That Law required justice, mercy and humility in all relationships, both public and private. Indeed Jesus spoke harshly to those who were hypocritical in their dealings with others. A succinct summary of His teaching is the “Golden Rule’ of treating others as one would want to be treated.
As Christian educators we do well to keep focussed on the teaching of Jesus. How does His teaching really translate into our classrooms, our policies, our pedagogy? We may well ask whether the policies and practices required of us by educational authorities line up with Jesus’ teaching. Are justice, mercy and humility evident in the national curriculum, in teacher salary structures, in school policies, in classroom management systems, in behaviour policies? Should we even be asking that question?
This verse in Micah has captivated my attention, and the more I ponder on it, the more richly it speaks to me, and the more I want to say, “Yes, we should be asking that question.” It was especially relevant for me in the preparation of a teaching unit on assessment and evaluation for a class of trainee teachers. Very useful discussions have emerged on ways to ensure that assessments are just, that mercy is exercised in appropriate situations, and that both teachers and learners approach their work with a sense of humility and service. It is not difficult to extrapolate the concepts to education in general, and even to life itself.
It is worth remembering, that the word ‘education’ comes from the Latin verb ‘educere’ meaning ‘to lead out’. God lead His people out of slavery in Egypt into Canaan, and through the prophets He was calling His people again, out of the darkness of corruption and evil, and into the light of true obedience and worship of the one true God. He still calls us to come out of darkness and into the light of full salvation in Christ. Relationship with the Living God is outworked daily in all we do, and this includes the teaching and learning we call ‘education’.
To explore the subject in any depth may well lead to a whole book, so this brief sketch will do no more than propose thoughts and hopefully raise questions for further investigation and study. There is no attempt to find verses to justify what is said, but rather general biblical principles are presented in the hope that readers will search the scriptures for themselves.
Justice. What does it mean? Is it the paying of penalties or reparations for crimes committed? Maybe society’s legal system shows us this face of justice more often that any other. But what is the biblical concept of justice? It is clearly something God expects us to do. There are Old Testament passages which speak of fair weights and honest scales, of treating people with respect and dignity, of setting reasonable boundaries, both literal and metaphorical, and holding people accountable to these boundaries. Furthermore we are to realise that God Himself models those expectations for us. What we often forget in this regard is the universal law of consequences. Deuteronomy chapter 28 is the best illustration of this law of reaping and sowing.
With respect to education we could ask whether it is just to withhold from children the body of knowledge common to literate society. Some great Christian scholars have declared their belief that excellent education is to be presented in an integrated framework of truth, deeply grounded in Creator God and the creation. Such an education allows for the development of a rich understanding of the associations between all disciplines and roots all learning in an eternal framework of truth.
Whether education takes place in a school setting or at home, these aspects of God’s justice must be in evidence for rich, holistic learning to take place. Teaching methods, learning activities, assessment tasks, behavioural expectations and relationships all need to demonstrate justice as God defines it. Fairness, respect, setting high standards, following through on consequences, both positive and negative, is vital to ensure that learning is enhanced and relationships nurtured.
The outworking of the law of consequences inevitably involves mercy. Without mercy, justice easily becomes legalism. It must be remembered that the teaching & learning relationship is just that – a relationship between the learner and the teacher, and between each of them and God. It’s a kind of three-strand cord. With God’s grace we can find ways to hold people accountable and still exercise mercy. Without consistency and the demand for accountability we can actually do harm. Some might say we sin against the learner and maybe cause them to sin. Jesus had very strong words to say to those who cause children to sin.
This, then, is where humility plays its part. The apostle James cautions us to realise the enormous responsibility and wonderful privilege it is to be a teacher. That might mean in a school. It might mean at home or at church, or in some other environment. But we do well to remember that much (accountability) is required of those to whom much (responsibility) is given. So we approach the task of teaching with an understanding of the genuinely awesome joy and privilege it offers. We will never be truly fruitful teachers unless we learn to humbly rely on the LORD for His strength, His wisdom, and His grace. This does not preclude our own responsibility to learn the necessary knowledge and skills and to develop the appropriate attitudes to fulfil our calling. But it does mean that we don’t have to try to carry out this role of teaching on our own. Humbly submitting to the sovereignty of God will bring the grace to submit to authorities, to treat colleagues and families and learners with respect and to acknowledge that we are but instruments in the Master’s hands. Very valuable and important instruments, but instruments, none the less.
Justice, mercy and humility – three pillars of education, built on the foundation of Christ and His Word.