People’s United Methodist Church has a year-long theme for 2022 – Mercy and Justice for All. At one level, this is self-explanatory; at another it involves some complex unpacking. It is hard to imagine that any Christian believer would find fault with such a sentiment and theme, yet we see a whole lot of less-than-charitable attitudes toward those most needing mercy and hungering for justice.
Also, we have modern, Western definitions of both mercy and justice that have evolved over time and space, and are weirdly related to original concepts from Hebrew and Christian scriptures. When we hear the word mercy, we tend to think in terms of leniency and compassion offered to people deserving of harsher punishment or treatment. Mercy, as we define it, it about power – only those with power and authority may extend mercy to those under them. We don’t have many examples of the weak and powerless being merciful to those in control. The original Greek concept of mercy (έλεος) contains the aspects of compassion and kindness, but digging deep into its meaning, it literally means “covenant loyalty.” This is not such a stretch when it is unpacked. God sent Jesus as Savior to all people as the ultimate act of covenant loyalty. God pursues us actively to forgive and redeem us. This is an ultimate expression not only of leniency and compassion, but unconditional love and unmerited grace. God’s mercy is as boundless as God’s love.
Justice (δικαιοσύνη) has the same elegant nuance. Beyond what a person deserves, justice is about equity, fairness, and an honest accountability. Justice is NOT fundamentally about punishment, vengeance, judgment, or condemnation. It is not a way to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, holiness from evil, but a foundation of integrity, transparency, and the well-being of the common good. Justice is a value of seeing all human beings as equally precious in the eyes of God. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has been indoctrinated with images of vigilantly justice steeped in violence and revenge. Batman, Rambo, John Wick, and others like them provide the shadow side of true justice.
Note that both of these concepts are grounded in “we,” rather than “me.” This isn’t about how we treat an individual, what they deserve, or what we feel like doing with them. If we commit to be loyal to God’s covenant, we will be merciful as a core characteristic of our culture. If we commit to honest accountability, we will become a fair, equitable, kind, and compassionate people. We won’t have much to debate on a case by case basis; we will be just and merciful to all or not.
And that brings us to “all.” We struggle mightily with all. There is something hardwired into our wetworks that distrusts “the other.” And once we determine a moral code, no matter how strict or lax, we divide everyone into insiders/outsiders, who is acceptable, who is unacceptable. A liberal trope is “All means all,” and I love the sentiment, but it denies the incredible obstacles and challenges in establishing inclusive and total rapport across differences and divisions. For any group, including some excludes others. This is where we are; this is what we must confront and transform.
For me, we need to stop talking about people as categories, demographics, niches, targets, topics, problems, coalitions, tribes, races, ethnicities, cultures, languages, etc. Yes, certainly, we account for these things, but we don’t build relationships with categories etc.; we relate to real, live people. In each of the divisions I delineated above, I know positive individuals and negative individuals and none of them are representative of everyone connected to them. Unless and until we create personal encounters and engagement, nothing significant will change. Likewise, information, as important as it is, will not take us to new places. The concepts and key learnings contained in research and sociological studies are very valuable, but they are limited. Beyond information, we need formational engagement that opens the door to radical transformation.
If the disciples at People’s have any chance of transforming our world, it is likely to be one person at a time. The frustration with this is that it is slow and provincial; the exciting aspect is that there is an unlimited supply and we will never run out of opportunities to improve and grow.
So our vision is covenant loyalty to include and support all people in all places in all ways at all times. It is a step-by-step process, but it must begin with first steps, no matter how faltering and awkward they might be. We can’t change the whole world, but we are committed to change the part of the world we are in.