What’s the difference between justice and mercy? I’m no philosopher, so I’ll use a story to illustrate. Recently I met a man who has an engaging personality, a great sense of humor, and has finished bachelors and masters degrees. He gets by on monthly disability payments from the government. Even though he is employable, and even though he engaged in a job search for years, no employer would hire him because he is blind. Mercy provides the basics of food, clothing, shelter, and transportation for him through his disability payments. Justice would challenge the prejudice of potential employers who refuse to hire a competent individual.
While disability payments are best handled by governments, churches must love mercy too. In fact, most churches engage in acts of mercy, but far fewer do justice work. Many churches engage in benevolence and mercy and say that they are doing justice, but that misses part of the Micah 6:8 command.
A survey conducted for the Office of Deacon Task Force in 2011 “found that CRC members were much more likely to see their church doing well in acts of charity and benevolence than in addressing systemic justice issues (quotation from “Justice and Faith: Mobilizing Christian Reformed Church Congregations for Justice,” © 2013 Christian Reformed Church in North America).
Church leaders and members feel tempted to do the work of mercy and call it a day. Mercy helps the single mom with car repair, provides furniture and finds an apartment for the newly immigrated refugee family, and brings meals to the family whose mother is hospitalized after a bad car crash. Doing mercy well is costly and difficult as Robert Lupton describes so well in his book Toxic Charity.
Still, if loving mercy is complex, doing justice is even more complex. How do you challenge the prejudice of employers who refuse to hire people with disabilities? How to you rectify immigration laws that rip apart families? How does a congregation speak articulately about climate issues especially if half the congregation believes that climate change is one of the key issues of our time and the other half believes that global climate change is a hoax?
At a recent conference on justice and mercy sponsored by the Micah Network, Nicholas Wolterstorff told a story about his attendance at a 1975 conference in apartheid-era South Africa attended by leaders from various Reformed denominations. He recounted a dramatic late evening discussion between so-called “black and colored” South African church leaders and “white” South African church leaders. The white leaders refused to consider issues of the systemic injustice perpetrated by their nation with its laws requiring racial separation, and they defended themselves by arguing that they engaged in acts of benevolence to the people of color who suffered under this injustice. The sharp contrast helped Wolterstorff awaken to the difference between benevolence/mercy and justice. He offered three reasons why churches choose mercy over justice.
1. Many Christians believe that the New Testament no longer requires Christians to work for justice. They say that justice is called for frequently in Old Testament scriptures, but the New Testament calls for a higher law, the law of love. Yet, Wolterstorff countered that when Jesus said that the greatest commandments are to love God above all and love one’s neighbor as oneself, Jesus was not merely giving summations of the law, but he was citing quotations (from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19). As quotations, one must consider the broader context to understand their meaning. The context of the second great commandment, Leviticus 17 – 19, gives specifics about treating one’s neighbor justly as examples of loving one’s neighbor. Love always pays attention to what justice requires. Justice is a way of putting love into practice. To love one’s neighbor is to love treating one’s neighbor justly.
2. Mercy/benevolence is rarely controversial, but seeking justice is usually controversial. One confronts significant opposition especially when one seeks to undo justice in one’s own society.
3. When we engage in mercy/benevolence, we call the shots. We are at the center of attention, because we select who will be the object of our mercy and what form that mercy will take. But justice puts a claim on us because justice recognizes the God-given worth and dignity of the other person. Unlike mercy in which we can choose whom we will help and whom we will not, justice is not optional. We may never treat anyone unjustly, even when we treat others unjustly as a whole society.
As he concluded, Wolterstorff quoted from John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 9:6 (KJV), “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” Calvin wrote:
For in the image of God made he man. . . . Men are indeed unworthy of God’s care, if respect be had only to themselves, but since they bear the image of God engraven on them, He deems himself violated in their person. Thus, although they have nothing of their own by which they obtain the favor of God, he looks upon his own gifts in them, and is thereby excited to love and to care for them. This doctrine, however is to be carefully observed that no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself. Were this doctrine deeply fixed in our minds, we should be much more reluctant than we are to inflict injuries. . . . (John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, 9:6)
Calvin’s radical interpretation of this verse cuts deep. To injure another person is to injure God. Every injustice injures another human being. Therefore, though difficult, the church must love mercy and act justly. If we do one without the other, we fail to walk humbly with God.