All Things Being Equal

There’s an interesting choice of words in Micah 6:8. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?”

I find the translation and emphatic differences fascinating: We are to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

I pretty much understand the requirement to walk humbly with God. Humility means acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers. We walk humbly with God because we know that we may well be wrong … even about the things we’re most surely convinced we’re right about. I’m not always good at it but, conceptually at least, I think I understand humility, of walking humbly with God.

Similarly, I believe that many of our hearts are filled with compassion and love for the hurts of others. We want to help: Food for the hungry, clothing to those without, our time and resources to support the basic needs of others, especially those in causes that particularly touch us personally.

While it’s our compassion and love of God that prompt us to mercy, it seems that being merciful is something we do more than we love. Curious, isn’t it?

The Scripture doesn’t say to “do mercy,” which we all can understand; nor does it say to be merciful, something we also can comprehend. Yet God very clearly commands us to do justice.

Why? What’s the real difference — if any — between justice and mercy? Where does one end and the other begin?

For me, that used to be an easy distinction: The Old Testament was filled with God’s judgment and justice, I believed; the New Covenant, instead, focused on God’s grace, love and mercy. But I no longer believe it’s as simple or clear cut as that, especially because both the Old Testament and New give evidence of God’s mercy and God’s justice.

Asked about the most important commandment, Jesus said that the first commandment, to “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and soul, and mind, and might,” along with the second commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself,” accurately summed up all of the Law and the Prophets.

Loving God with all my heart and soul speaks to me of mercy … while loving God with all of my mind and my might refers more to justice. Add loving your neighbor as yourself to this mix and we’ve got a potent formula for both mercy and justice. Ahh … but, again, what’s the difference between them? And, in terms of the heart of Christianity, what does it mean that we are to do justice?

You know, a really simple way of looking at the distinction is captured in an old saying that’s more rational than Scriptural: “Give a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” Give him and you’re showing mercy; teach him and you’re practicing justice.

“Faith-based charity provides crumbs from the table,” said Bill Moyers, “while faith-based justice offers a place at the table.”

Unfortunately, too often we tend to substitute mercy for justice. Justice — as I’ve alluded to several times in this series about the heart of Christianity — is what our world would be like if God were our King and the world’s rulers, governments and principalities weren’t.

The New Covenant and the heart of Christianity, inherently, are about two primary changes: one personal, the other political. I’d like to look briefly at the political changes that come about, as Jesus said, in the “Kingdom of God.” Not family of God or people of God. Not churches of God or pastors and priests, elders and laypersons of God. But the Kingdom of God! Jesus purposefully chooses political terminology in allegories to which the people of His time could relate.

They were hungry, so He fed them; they hurt, so He healed them; as serfs and servants, they owed great debts to their masters, so Jesus asked that their debts be forgiven; they were in bondage, so Jesus set them free. Interesting, isn’t it, that there’s at once such a practical and prayerful dimension to Jesus?

God hates injustice, especially when it’s “systemic” — embedded in the system itself, against which we have little recourse but to find ourselves or others being victimized or marginalized, and taken advantage of. Unfortunately, this great country of ours has a history of injustices:

Our forefathers stole the land we’re living on from Native Americans, forcing them into concentration camps called “reservations.” These shtetls, as they’d be referred to in Yiddish, come up pitifully short when compared to our own gated communities. And to compensate them for these inequities, what do we give the Indian people? The right to make tax-free money from gambling and drinking on their premises!

African Americans and people of color suffered horribly at the hands of their slave-driven masters and mistresses. The U.S. Constitution deemed black people to be worth just three-fifths of a white person! That battle for equal rights still hasn’t ended. Just listen to what’s whispered when certain “good, Christian folks” talk among themselves.

Women, too, were denied essential rights. While it wasn’t until 1920 that females were finally “granted” the right to vote, let’s not forget that our friend, the Apostle Paul, urged women to be quiet and submissive, and to ask their husbands — or other men — when they needed or wanted to say something on their own behalf.

Whether mentally or physically challenged, the handicapped suffered grave injustices by an unwelcoming, unaccommodating system of physical barriers and unforgiving expectations until the ADA was enacted.

The poor. Ten years ago, our socioeconomics divided this country according to our riches: We were upper class, middle class and lower class … with derogatory implications about our social worth as well as our finances. Today, that’s no longer the case. We’re still a three-class country: the haves, the used-to-haves and the have-nots!

Immigrants, whom we used to welcome with outstretched hands and a beacon of liberty, arrived on our shores to be greeted by these words from “The New Colossus,” a sonnet by Emma Lazarus, engraved in 1903 on a bronze plaque mounted inside the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries sh

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

And today? Do we still believe and echo these words? E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one?

And then, of course, there’s us: sexual minorities. The last socially acceptable bias and bigotry, still scorned, punished and damned by the religious establishment and civil authorities. Inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Yeah, right! Tell me about it. Not only, for the most part, are we still treated as second-class citizens in this country … but right here in Jacksonville, we don’t even count or matter at all! You doubt me? Look at our existing Human Rights Ordinance: It categorically excludes LGBT people from discriminatory prejudice and practices against which, yes, everyone else is protected!

Today, as the largest sovereign superpower, we employ our resources to strike, preemptively, against those we suppose could challenge us … while withholding food, humanitarian help, aid and justice to punish people and places that reject our vision or values in building their nations according to our self-serving goals or expectations. In our own homeland, people are starving, dying without roofs over their heads, losing their last shreds of dignity as Atlas shrugs and looks beyond them, to fund pork for its favored sons and daughters, while we waste precious resources denying truths and jockeying for yet more power.

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace,” said American singer-songwriter Jimi Hendrix. But justice isn’t just about power and punishment; it’s about fairness.

A just society is a society that treats all of its citizens alike. Historically, we in the United States have treated one segment of our population differently than another. That, dear readers, is social injustice. What’s worse, we continue to do so.

Look around you: The struggle for civil rights has become a quest for human rights, for a society that treats all of its members with the same degree of fairness.

God’s justice calls for the fair treatment of all creation — not just of mankind, but of the earth and sea and skies above, and everything that lives among us. “It is good,” said the Lord, when considering each and every act of creation. If only we could say and believe as well.

“Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering and injustice, when He could do something about it. But I’m afraid that He would ask me the same question.”

I wish I could identify the author of this statement, to give credit where it’s due. Since I can’t, here are two that I can: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” warned Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu, while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The heart of Christianity is passionate about social issues. Many of the earliest prophets — Isaiah, Ezekiel and Amos, among others — called loudly and often for the fair treatment of the disadvantaged.

Righteousness was one of the primary themes woven throughout the gospel of Matthew. Among the Beatitudes which form the heart of Jesus’ powerful Sermon on the Mount, we find, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” That puts righteousness — an outrage and indignation over injustice — squarely in the center of Jesus’ enduring message.

Perhaps nowhere does Jesus speak as forcefully on human rights and relations as He does in the familiar parable of the sheep and the goats.

The sheep on the right will be invited to inherit God’s kingdom because they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked and visited the imprisoned. Conversely, the goats on the left will hear, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

So what would Jesus say about the injustice that continues to surround us … even 2,000 years after He founded His Church?

Honestly, I’m not really sure.

But I suppose He would remind us of the powerful words He taught us to earnestly beseech God whenever we pray: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it already is in heaven!”

The Rev. Dr. Bruce H. J

Joffe is pastor at Christ Church of Peace in Riverside, a welcoming and inclusive congregation.