“Act Justly, Love Tenderly: Lifelong Lessons in Conscience and Calling."
By John Neafsey. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2016. 160 pages. Paperback: $22; Kindle: $9.99; Nook: $10.49.
Like the prophets themselves, John Neafsey’s latest book, “Act Justly, Love Tenderly," is both uncomfortable and comforting. The uncomfortable part asks us to reflect seriously on who we are and what that means for our vocation as Christians; the comforting part is the assurance that we are never expected to pursue that vocation alone. As Neafsey says in the last line of the book, “We can concentrate…on putting one foot in front of the other, and remember that God is walking with us every step of the way.”
The author has chosen for reflection a passage from the Old Testament prophet, Micah. Though the epigraph at the beginning of the book quotes Micah 6: 6-8, verse 8 is the actual focus of what follows: “This is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.” As simple as this passage sounds, the author goes on to state that appearances can be deceiving. “According to Rabbi David Wolpe,” he notes, “Micah’s ‘only this’ may be the most understated ‘only’ on record.”
The book, in fact, begins with an examination of precisely what “only this” may mean for serious Christians. To do this, he refers to the experiences of two people (among others) who took up Micah’s challenge in very concrete ways. The first is Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th Century, who lost most of his family during the Holocaust; the second is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who, not surprisingly, was a good friend of Heschel’s. Each of these men, in extraordinary and heroic ways lived out the “only this” of Micah’s exhortation.
The author is quick to point out, however, that not everyone is called to large deeds; most of us, in fact, will be asked to be just, loving and humble in relatively small ways. What those ways may be vary from individual to individual because, as Neafsey points out, “Callings come to people as they are, wherever they are, in whatever circumstances they find themselves.” Indeed, he says that the first step to living out Micah’s words is to actively seek personal authenticity, the “who” we are and have been, in the words of the prophet, from our “mother’s womb."
"The link with vocation,” he says, “is that we are called, first of all, to be ourselves.”
The balance of the book explores in more detail the “triple summons” to justice, love and humility. Part two delves into precisely what the prophets meant when they talked about justice. “We love justice not by devoting ourselves to an abstract principle or idea of justice,” the author says, “but by acting justly – by doing justice.”
In part three, Neafsey talks about the true nature of love: “…love is not only a feeling. It is also a choice we make or action we take, regardless of the feeling of the moment.” By way of illustration, he speaks of two life circumstances that are very familiar to us – parenthood and the care of our elders. Here, Neafsey turns to his own personal and powerful experiences, told in a way that will resonate strongly with most readers.
He closes the book with a superb explanation of humility and, given the values often espoused by our culture, it may be the most important part of the whole piece. He provides a sound explanation of just what it means to be genuinely humble, pointing out that this virtue is the linchpin that both love and justice hang on. “All of us…are called to become ever more humble, decent and loving persons,” he concludes, “while we have the chance.”
John Neafsey is both an author and a licensed clinical psychologist. He has served as a senior lecturer in the department of theology at Loyola University in Chicago and is a member of the staff at the Heartland Alliance Kovler Center, a treatment program for survivors of torture, also in Chicago.
Prior to becoming a staff psychologist at Kovler, he worked for many years as a volunteer therapist there and was also involved with its graduate training program. Currently, he conducts intake evaluations with new clients and supervises clinical psychology trainees who work with torture survivors. He also maintains a private practice in Chicago.
Neafsey earned his master’s degree in pastoral studies from Loyola and his doctorate in clinical psychology form Rutger’s University. A member of the Collegeville Institute Seminary on Vocation across the Lifespan, he is the author of two other books, “A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience” and “Crucified People: The Suffering of the Tortured in Today’s World.” Both books were recipients of Catholic Press Association Book Awards.
Neafsey lives in Chicago with his wife and two children and is a member of St. Gertrude Parish there.