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Loving Mercy – Doing Justice

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"What does the Lord God require of us, O Israel but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God?" Micah 6:8​

[1] During the last ten years, well-known evangelical leaders such as Rich Stearns and Tim Keller have written various books on justice and God’s concern for the poor.  At the same time, secular social movements have increasingly begun to invite the participation of pastors and churches.  However, the increasing interest on both sides has not generally resulted in the hoped-for harvest of widespread commitment by churches to actions that produce social justice.  Christians are living our faith outside the walls of the sanctuary but more often through ministries that could be more accurately categorized as ministries of mercy.  These ministries seek to love the neediest and most vulnerable people in our midst through provision of direct services and educational programs for families.  They are “giving fishes” and in some cases “teaching individuals how to fish” but they are not taking down the walls around the pond which prevent people from using their fishing capacity to provide for their families.  Churches are taking care of the children of deported mothers but not investing their time and energy in changing the broken immigration system that results in unjust deportations and abandoned children.

[2] There are at least two reasons why most churches lack any ongoing commitment to participate in activities and coalitions that promote social justice.  Many of us do not have a theology of holistic mission which includes social justice.  However, even those of us who do are often turned off by the way in which secular movements do justice --- the tendency to self-righteous rage and hatred, the attachment to conflict even when collaboration would be possible, the focus on self-interest as the core human motivation, the belief that power is a zero-sum game.  These ways of doing justice give us spiritual indigestion.

[3] In order to participate, we need a theology that includes justice and an effective methodology for doing justice that fits well with the core principles and mandates of our faith.

[4]  Over the last few years, a methodology has been emerging that meets these requirements.  “Faith-Rooted Organizing” is a model that unites various strategies for involving churches in the work of changing the systems that enable injustice, contributing all their unique gifts, being salt and light in a dark world.  It is a way of bringing people together for systemic change as if God is real and Jesus risen, taking seriously all of the implications of those core truths, including our understanding of power, human motivation and possibility.

[5] An example: In Matthew 10:16, we are commanded to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  To be wise as serpents means taking human sin seriously.  It is true that every human being has the tendency to focus on their own narrow self-interest and hold on to power for dear life.  Legislative representatives do not always hold the welfare of the community to be their first priority or their central concern.  It’s necessary at times to create a critical mass of pressure so that the “pain of not doing justice” is greater than the “pain of doing justice.”

[6] In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus relates a parable about a widow who pressures an unjust judge until he gives her justice; he uses that widow as an example of faith.  It is an act of faith in the God of justice, the God of the Exodus, to persistently seek justice even if, looking through serpent eyes, we see the barrier of human sin.

[7] At the same time, if we only see the negative side of reality, we are atheists because we are acting as if we didn’t really believe that God actually makes a difference.  We can be innocent as doves because we trust in the movement of the Holy Spirit everywhere in the world and on every heart, awakening the image of God in people so that they become able to choose the way of love and peace even when it requires great moral courage.  The night before they brought Jesus before Pilate, Pilate’s wife had a dream sent by God.  We have dove power when we collaborate with the Holy Spirit in order to convert the hearts of the powerful, reminding them of their deepest values.  In 2 Samuel 12:1-13, the prophet Nathan used a parable in order to awaken the heart of King David and bring him to repentance.

[8]  How do we use the power of the dove?  We have to take the power of prayer, pastoral encouragement and the prophetic role seriously.

[9] Prayer is not a strategy; it is a way of life.  When someone we love is sick, how many times a day do we pray for them?  We pray without ceasing, right?  On the other hand, how many times a day do we pray for our political and community leaders?  I suspect almost never.  To exercise our dove power means that we have to pray fervently for our public leaders (as we are instructed in Timothy).  This can go farther than just praying inside in the church or in our private prayers; we can pray fervently in the public arena.

[10] In San Diego, California, a conservative Navy town near the Mexican border, we were trying to motivate the City Council members to vote for a legislative proposition that would benefit working poor families.  We attended every City Council meeting in order to participate in the session set aside for public commentary just before the meeting.  We had a strong case for the legislation and we were part of a varied and strong coalition; we had won the approval of 40% of the Council.  The other 60% however had been heavily funded by our opposition.  They were no longer listening to our case.  We decided that it was time for prayer.  When our leaders went up to the microphone, instead of presenting our arguments for the legislation, they just prayed.  Some prayed for working poor families whom they knew.  Others prayed for members of the City Council; others for the well-being of the community.

[11] After several weeks, a very conservative member of the Council who is also an evangelical Christian suddenly voted for the legislation and we won.  When a journalist interviewed him afterward and asked why he had voted for the legislation, he said that “he couldn’t take being prayed for one more week.”  He had armor against our talking points but he had no armor against prayer.  The prayer moved him to face his God and he changed.  This was an act of great moral courage.

[12] Where did this moral courage come from?  Military chaplains enable soldiers to remember who they love and what they believe, their deepest values and principles, so that they can overcome their fears and fight.  We can be chaplains on the battlefield for justice, encouraging our leaders to overcome fear with faith.   As Christian leaders, we know the power of encouragement to strengthen a person’s capacity to live by their deepest beliefs.  We just don’t typically apply this to the social or public arena.  However, God is the God of the whole universe, not just the world inside church walls.

[13] We can pastor and minister to our leaders, helping them to be true disciples in all aspects of their life.  We also can be prophets, carrying on the prophetic tradition and work of Jesus.

[14] What do prophets do?  Old Testament prophets remind powerful people of God’s concern for the poor, cast a vision for the future that God desires for his people, and expose and combat the lies that we use to justify our disobedience.  As Christians, we are called to carry out the same tasks.

[15] Prophets remember the poor.  We can remind our leaders that we only have one heavenly Father and the poor and rejected are truly our brothers and sisters. We are called to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; we have a profound responsibility to them and for their well-being.  And if they are believers, they are members of the same Body with us.  What is the disease with the main symptom of being unable to feel the pain in our extremities? Leprosy.  Jesus’ healings were both real and symbolic.  He opened the eyes of the blind to show us that he is the light of the world.  Why di he heal so many lepers?  His body, that is the church, is prone to leprosy; we will not be fully alive unless we are fully connected.  As Rev. Timothy Dearborn, former World Vision senior staff, said in his sermon on Galatians 2:10, to “re-member the poor” is to reconnect the limbs of a dismembered body.  It is a prophetic task to remind those in power that they are intimately connected to the poor.

[16] Prophets cast a vision.  We can unite around common pain or we can unite around a common vision.  Uniting in a common vision is inspiring and energizing.

[17] Prophets also expose and combat the lies that we use to justify our disobedience.  One of the oldest lies in our country is the belief that some people are worth more than others; that some are made to serve and others to be served.  This is the lie that was used to justify slavery.  A central biblical truth, however, is that we are all made in God’s image, equally and infinitely precious.  To be prophetic with a leader is to call them to enact legislation that recognizes and honors the image of God in each and every person.

[18] We can do justice in a way that is completely guided and shaped by our faith.  We can do it – and we have not excuse for not doing it.  It is beautiful to love mercy but it is not sufficient.  We have to call the people of God to the fullness of the Gospel, to holistic mission.

Alexia Salvatierra, is an ordained pastor of the ELCA with 35 years of experience in community ministry, she is the co-author of the book “Faith-Rooted Organizing.”


© November/December 2015
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 15, Issue 10