Mercy Here, Justice There
Mercy Here, Justice There
I’m reading the Psalms as part of my journey in trusting the Word again. I appreciate the Psalms for their emotional and situational multiplicity — there’s a psalm for every feeling.
I enjoy the way David writes intimately about his relationship with God, even saying things like “answer me,” or “the Lord hears me when I cry.” I want to have a similar assurance and hope in my life —
But I can’t help but notice how he uses justice and mercy. I can’t help but reflect on how honestly human it is, for him to pray:
“Arise, O LORD, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgement…”
Then follow up with:
“The LORD judges the peoples,’ judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.”
There are multiple examples of this in the Psalms and other places in the Bible. What I hear in my head is a prayer that sounds a lot like this:
“Dear Lord, Point your justice (over) there, and your mercy here (towards me).”
With this kind of set up, it makes it easy to believe that we are always the good guys, and they — whoever they are — are always equal and opposite. It’s like the classic story of heroes and villians made simple: the protagonist is us, and the antagonist is anyone who is not us.
Reading the Psalms, I am convinced that David could pray his way out of anything…He is the epitome of a prayer warrior, since he actually literally fights and literally wins literal battles. He always know that the glory of his victory belongs to God. As I read, it seems pretty clear that God is on his side (and even when God punishes him, it’s still an act of God being on his side).
Mercy and Justice
There’s a part of me that wants to understand this through Plato’s forms, understanding that justice and mercy have levels of depth we cannot humanly experience. We can even tend to think simplistically about these terms, calling justice a “rational response,” something that equalizes a wrong or an imbalance. And we can see mercy as absolution, or lesser punishment in place of what we deserve.
It can get even simpler than that: justice is getting what we deserve and mercy is not getting what we deserve.
I would hate to oversimplify biblical text for my obviously progressive Christian agenda. But there’s more to the story. I am reading a combination of texts that have made me critical of the mentality for “mercy here and justice there.”
Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed talks about “the oppressed” being our own example in our struggle for liberation. The oppressed cannot become the oppressor when a new system is designed. The oppressed have a responsibility to not only be at the forefront of their own liberation, but the liberation of their oppressors (since true humanity cannot be found in a system that negates the humanity of one group in being subject to another).
This book has been perhaps the most frustrating read ever. It’s taken me most of the summer to digest it and read the chapters and I’m barely halfway through it (and it’s less than 200 pages!). It has heightened my sense of responsibility in so many ways, challenging me to see the complexity of the justice/mercy paradigm.
A former professor at my college, Eric Severson wrote a compelling book called Scandalous Obligation. It asks the question “When am I responsible?” Is humanity individual and are we just going through life in our individual streams, only interacting when we intersect…or is humanity this complex web? Do my actions have an effect on those around me and if so, should I care?
Since my education revolves around social justice, I found myself agreeing with a lot of Severson’s points and being a lot more critical of individualism than I was before.
In my journey of learning to be kinder to myself, I’m reading Brené Brown. I read Daring Greatly and now I am devouring The Gifts of Imperfection. In a section about compassion, she mentioned a book called The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness by Pema Chödrön. Brown talks about Chödrön’s understanding of compassion as a daring practice that requires vulnerability and courage. Brown also says it’s also not our first response:
“The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, meaning “to suffer with.” I don’t believe that compassion is our default response. I think our first response to pain — ours or someone else’s — is to self-protect. We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame. Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgment or by immediately going into fix-it mode.” (pp.15-16, The Gifts of Imperfection)
I had an “ah-ha” moment when I read that. Then she hits me with this:
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” (p.16, The Gifts of Imperfection)
Who are our enemies?
There’s this back and forth in the psalms where David is fleeing from the hands of Saul (the first king of Israel). It’s almost like watching a reality TV show called The Real King of Israel or something. Saul is clearly cast as the villain since David is anointed to be the next king. What makes David special you ask? Nothing, really. God chose him, that’s all. (Again, oversimplification.)
The villains in the Old Testament were people who had the misfortune of being born outside of God’s chosen people the Israelites. In their desperate search for meaning in their lives, they worshiped idols and false gods. They did what was right in their own eyes. Sometimes they needed more land — whether by necessity or greed — so they tried to invade other parts. Sometimes they invaded Israel and Judah…sometimes they lost, but sometimes they won.
But are they really the villains? The Israelites fell into the same patterns. They were just people meant to be an example for those around them. Even in the law they were given to keep, those who “sojourned among them,” the foreigners, the slaves were meant to be treated well. So much of that would have been unusual for the people in their region. It would have been merciful.
They didn’t always get it right. (Just read the book of Judges, for example.)
We don’t always get it right, either.
But I think the definition of a villain is simple — it’s someone we withhold compassion from.
The Gap Between Here and There
I have a horrible sense of direction and I am an expert at getting lost. I am also an expert at finding every excuse not to go to some place I’ve never been because of the fear of getting lost. For whatever reason though, I find myself in wonder when I return to a place where I used to feel lost. I remember what it was like to feel lost there and a part of me finds it humorous as I recall my frustration.
The wider the gap between here — the place that I call home and there — the unknown place that holds my potential to be lost, the deeper the fear and my need for preparation. I ask all of the “what-ifs” until I decide I would rather not. Here has always been infinitely much more comfortable than there.
I resonate with the book of Jonah in a way I’m not sure many Christians are comfortable admitting. We relish in the idea of “going to Nineveh” if we can take great pictures for Instagram, if all our friends are there, if we can still sleep in a bed…Nineveh has to have a degree of comfort for us. I am sure Jonah would hate reading Paulo Freire, I’m sure Eric Severson’s book would make him cringe. I’m also pretty sure, that while he lies under the shade of the plant God grew for him, he would not be thinking about the Assyrians out in the sun.
He was so sure that the Ninevites deserved justice. He didn’t want to go into the city of people who oppressed and slaughtered his people. There was no innocence to be found among them. In his bitterness and resentment, he tried fleeing for the other direction.
People talk about Jonah in terms of him choosing not to follow God’s will, but I think it’s much more complex than that. He wasn’t suffering from performance anxiety. He probably carried the weight of hurt and trauma associated with the cruel practices of the Ninevites in war. Who knows? Maybe he saw his friends slaughtered left and right and couldn’t fathom that God could want him anywhere near there with those people.
There’s nothing wrong with Jonah’s logic in my opinion — I probably would’ve done the same thing. I probably would’ve been praying, “Dear God, give them what they deserve. Right the wrongs done to my people. Send your justice there.”
Jonah’s Anger and God’s Compassion
Yes, Jonah’s anger was a righteous anger. Anger that was sustained by the desire to see God’s justice. When God has mercy on the Ninevites and spears them, he prays to God:
O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die.
God’s response is absolutely radical. He sees Jonah’s discomfort in the heat and covers him. He repeatedly asks, “Do you do well to be angry?”
“Should I not pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than 120, 000 person who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (v.11)
And it ends.
And you never know if Jonah’s anger subsides. You never know if the repentance of the Ninevites sticks. God’s unanswered question is the last statement. God does not call the Ninevites innocent or affirm their wrongdoing but he says that they “do not know their right hand from their left.”
They were murders.
They lived off the spoils of those they slaughtered.
But they were lost.
They were the perfect villains, except God did not withhold compassion from them.
Lord Have Mercy
I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree during the summer when Sandra Bland died. I remember my earliest questions, and my earliest frustrations with Cone’s book and the world around me. Lynching was a practice of mob justice — a practice that took the lives of nearly 5,000 black men and women during the height of mob rule. But it did much more than that. It created a fear within communities of color that diminished the humanity they were allowed to express. The potentiality found in their expressions of human freedom were in constant threat of being squashed if it was found as a threat to white prosperity.
African American expressions of faith are filled with examples of prayers and songs for deliverance. In our music, we say “look at my humanity” — see my pain, my frustration, my joy, my sorrow, my beauty.
My heart was wrecked that summer and beyond. I was beginning to realize and acknowledge multiple generations of ‘Ninevite-like” oppressors existed — this was only one example.
I began to pray like David, demanding “justice” there. But the more I learn, the harder it got to point to exactly where there was.
I Still Don’t Get Justice
In Missouri, I explored the stories of so many different people within St. Louis county. I got an incredibly nuanced perspective of the narratives at play. I heard the views from the right…views from the left — views from the (caught-in-the-)middle.
When we as humans try to practice justice, we seem to get it wrong a lot. We seem to have a hard time finding equality, a hard time not flipping the script between oppressor and oppressed. We seem to rely on the simplicity of seeing our full humanity expressed when God shows mercy, while desiring for Him to withhold compassion from the other in the same ways we do.
It’s quite complicated and I still don’t fully get it. But when I think about the compassion Brené Brown talks about it’s not hard to see how Jesus comes in.
It’s also hard not to see Jesus as the one who provides cover and comfort for the suffering and sees reason to have mercy on Ninevites.
Christian social justice should be able to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and attend to the needs of the widow and the fatherless. But it should also be able to say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In other words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not their right from their left.”
Or in others words, “Father, make right the wrongs of all men and show mercy everywhere.”
Jesus went to the cross in an ultimate act of compassion, the ultimate one who “suffers with.” He is the ultimate display of mercy everywhere, filling the gaps between here and there. Revealing to us that no matter how much blood is on our hands, including his own — mercy is lavished upon us undeservedly, always.
Jesus knew something these other books I’m reading are reminiscent of — when one human falls, we all fall. But no one human can lift the entire human race up to it’s rightful place. No one nation could do it either. We were always responsible for one another from the beginning of time.
Jesus was strong enough to pick us all up, to uphold and display true humanity as the ultimate representative. He was also the ultimate oppressed, suffering more than any of us (while suffering with us) — he gave us an example of what it looks like to take on the responsibility for the very people who sought to destroy him. He pointed his finger first to himself, then back at us ultimately praying, “Justice here, mercy there.”
Compassion is Daring
I think compassion can be found in realizing that justice and mercy are intertwined, in the same way here and there are no longer dichotomous. It’s finding that you cannot have one without the other, and God’s ultimate desire is for justice and mercy everywhere.
I still have tons of reading to do. Tons of trust to find in the Word and ultimately the message of Christ. I have tons of practicing of compassion to do. I have a lot of responsibility to claim and agonize over — there’s agony in the truth and the dare that comes along with it.
Truth and Dare
The truth is God cares for all people, even the ones who hurt you or operate in ways that continue systems of oppression —
and His word dares us to show compassion, in the intertwined work of justice and mercy.
If you’re like me, you’re sitting somewhere in your “here” place, trying to get out of going “there.” Relax, you’re human and you can only be in one place at a time. It’s a journey and a process that takes a lifetime. My comfort is found in knowing that I can go just about anywhere (and so long as I am called, I will surrender my fee to the pace of the Lord’s guidance.
In full confidence, I can go, knowing that unlike me, God can be here, and there and he doesn’t forget his compassion at home.
Originally posted on Medium.com on August 10, 2017 as "Mercy Here and Justice There."