My friend Carol Childress gave me another analogy. Showing mercy is like being a doctor in private practice who treats individuals who are sick. But justice is like being a public health worker who tries to learn and overcome the conditions that cause disease. Justice is about improving sanitation and diet and exercise—the things that make for health and well-being. Justice involves understanding epidemics and administering inoculations, eradicating mosquitoes and identifying toxins in the environment. Mercy helps the sick—justice creates conditions for wellness.
A few decades ago, many Christians—especially my fellow Evangelical and charismatic Christians—were suspicious about helping the poor, addressing civil rights issues, working for peace or caring for the environment. That was the social gospel, we said with a grimace, and we held to the personal gospel. Those were liberal concerns, we said with furrowed brow, but we were conservative.
Of course, those were also biblical concerns, but somehow we managed to miss that fact for way too long.
Thankfully, our young and emerging generations have gotten out of those old boxes. They’ve stopped avoiding or explaining away all the Bible passages that deal with social injustice, and they’re embracing a widening range of social issues as being integral to their faith in Jesus Christ—who came proclaiming good news to the poor (Luke 4:18).
What Paul captured in one powerful word (love; Romans 13:8-9), and what Jesus summed up in two great commandments (“love God” and “love your neighbor”; Matthew 22:34-40), the prophet Micah summed up as three essential requirements (6:8): to do justice, to love mercy (or kindness) and to walk humbly with God.
Now I think it’s safe to say that all Christians and churches agree with walking humbly with God. And more and more Christians and churches agree that we should be deeply committed to showing mercy or kindness to those in need, those my friend Tony Campolo calls the last, the least and the lost. But many of us are just beginning to grapple with what it means to do justice.
My friend Jim Wallis has a powerful way of distinguishing mercy and justice. Imagine you’re standing by the Niagra River, just above the falls. As you enjoy the beautiful scene, you see what looks like a hand waving in the rapids. You realize it’s a person who is being pulled toward the falls. You find a long stick and you extend it to the person and pull him to shore in just the nick of time. A crowd gathers and various ones help the victim—this one provides a blanket, that one calls 911 on a cell phone, another provides emotional comfort with a caring hug. Just as the ambulance takes the survivor away, you look upstream and notice another hand waving frantically from the water.
Soon you organize the crowd to help the second victim in the same way. Then you look upstream and see two more, no, five more … no, at least a dozen hands of people waving for help as they are pulled toward certain death. Do you keep pulling people out of the river? Of course, but sooner or later, you’ve got to pull the crowd on shore together and say, “Listen, we need to send a group of people upstream to find out who’s pushing people into the river.”
Pulling people out of the river is mercy or kindness. But stopping people from pushing others into the river is justice.
My friend Carol Childress gave me another analogy. Showing mercy is like being a doctor in private practice who treats individuals who are sick. But justice is like being a public health worker who tries to learn and overcome the conditions that cause disease. Justice is about improving sanitation and diet and exercise—the things that make for health and well-being. Justice involves understanding epidemics and administering inoculations, eradicating mosquitoes and identifying toxins in the environment. Mercy helps the sick: justice creates conditions for wellness.
If we only focus on mercy, we can unwittingly aid and abet those who practice injustice. For example, consider the horrible practice—increasingly common in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee—known as “mountaintop removal.” Mountaintop removal releases toxins into streams and the air, causing asthma, cancer and other environmental illnesses to nearby residents. It relies on explosive and machines rather than miners, reducing employment. The coal is quickly extracted and once it’s gone, so are the trees and streams and wildlife—all that remains are flat, stony, treeless mesas; valleys filled with rubble; catchment ponds that reek with toxins—and dead creeks and rivers.
Let’s say we try to help the victims. First, we raise money for free clinics to help those made sick by mountaintop removal. Then we agree to pay higher taxes to keep food on the table for former miners whose jobs were eliminated because of the practice. Then we develop after-school programs since both parents have to drive several hours to find work now that the coal is so quickly gone. We may even bus the kids to summer camps in another state so they can experience the kinds of green trees and cool streams that once surrounded their homes. But in so doing, do you see what we’ve done? We’ve cleaned up the mess so that those who make a fast profit by plundering mountains can move over to the next county and make more fast cash by doing it all again.
We must show mercy. But sooner or later we need to wake up and see that seeking justice is also an essential part of God’s equation. This is good work for lawyers, journalists, neighbors, and activists of all sorts. It’s God’s work, as Jesus said: seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice—and if you do, things will work out fine (Matthew 6:33). Walk humbly with God. Care with mercy and kindness. And don’t forget justice.
This article first appeared in Neue Quarterly Vol. 1.