Justice & Mercy
It was the early 1980s, and the AIDS epidemic was sweeping through North America, making people into social pariahs and killing them in weeks. Affecting mainly gay men and drug abusers, AIDS was so stigmatized that President Ronald Reagan wouldn’t even refer to it by name. Victims lived in constant fear, parents disowned their children, and many medical professionals refused to treat patients for fear AIDS would infect them too.
Ruth Coker Burks was a young mother in Arkansas who became involved with AIDS victims when visiting a friend at the hospital. There was a young man dying in the next room, alone, and the nurses were drawing straws to see who would have to tend to him. He had been at the hospital for six weeks, and his family refused to visit. Incensed, Ruth went and sat at the man’s bed side, holding his hand for thirteen hours until he died. In his last hours, the young man thought Ruth was his mother; when she called his real mother to tell her the news, the woman announced she wasn’t interested in burying her son. So Ruth cremated him and buried him.
Over the next decades, Ruth cared for nearly 1,000 AIDS patients. Though she had no medical training, she took them to their appointments, picked up their medications, helped them fill out forms, and talked them through their despair. She personally buried more than three dozen people after their families refused to claim their bodies, in cemetery plots her mother had bought years before as part of a family feud. “I always wondered what I was going to do with a cemetery,” Ruth says. “Who knew there’d come a time when people didn’t want to bury their children?”
While over the past few weeks we’ve focused on entire books at a time, this week I want to zero in on a single verse, one which arguably sums up the entirety of the Christian mission: Micah 6:8. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV). What we translate either as “justice” or as “mercy” in the Hebrew Bible is often the word tsedeq, which more accurately should be seen as an intertwining of the two concepts then. It's a word that means righteousness. This interrelationship – and the necessity of their presence together – is evident in the story of Ruth Coker Burks. Because of the injustice towards and abandonment of AIDS victims by society, Ruth’s mercy was required. Because of her mercy towards them, they received humanity - recognizing the justice denied them by others.
This tsedeq, God’s justice, is an insatiable longing to lift up the downtrodden, to comfort the distressed, to balance and bring together, to prove the innocence of the falsely accused. The justice of God is not the justice of the hangman’s noose, but rather that of embracing those who have been pushed away and forced to undergo terrible suffering.
Again and again, the Bible links justice and mercy. “Give justice to the weak and the orphan,” writes the Psalmist, “maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalms 82:3-4).
Too often we think of justice as being the same thing as judgment – justice is a murderer going to the electric chair. It’s people getting what they deserve. Our idea of a "just God" is too often simply us engaged in a very long game of revenge.
What if we’re the reason God’s justice is needed? What if we are causing the suffering of those God calls us to be merciful to?
In the United States today, twenty families have as much wealth as fifty percent of all Americans. Experts estimate that 40% of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender – often homeless not because of poverty or unemployment but because they have been kicked out of their homes due to their sexual orientation. The American for-profit prison system treats human being like objects, resulting the U.S. – which contains 5% of the world’s population – accounting for 25% of the world’s prisoners.
If these facts make you uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. “‘My God,’ writes John D. Caputo, “is not a name that provides for a good night’s sleep, but a passion that disturbs our rest and keeps us on the alert. ‘I do not care about religion,’ [YHWH] seemed to say, ‘but about a religion without religion, or before religion, a religion where the only thing people believe in religiously is justice, where their passion is to let justice flow.”
“Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus promises in Matthew 5:7, “for they will receive mercy” (NIV). This is not simply a promise, or an equation – rather it is the key to understanding the Kingdom of God. All of us are called to restore justice, because all of us have caused injustice. All of us will need to receive mercy, because all of us have been victimized, been made to suffer beyond reason – by evil, by destruction, by our fellow human beings and the systems of power that we have created.
Ultimately, God was faced with a decision about what to do with humanity. Our evils demanded he execute justice against us, but his immense love demanded that he show mercy. Through Jesus' death at the cross, God accomplished both - clearly condemning the evil of human sin, but making room for forgiveness by washing sin away. Christian faith after the cross is to seek the same thing: justice and mercy at the same time, because Jesus made a way for it.
Kyrie eleison, Christians have sung for centuries upon centuries. Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy upon us all.
Related texts or passages to consider: Matthew 5:7; Matthew 23:23; Amos 5:24; Leviticus 19:15
• Romans 12:19 says: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord." If vengeance is the Lord’s, then to what extent are humans responsible for pursuing justice? What does this verse mean for our own human responsibility for punishing evil actions? Are justice and vengeance the same? Why, or why not?
• Why do you think superhero movies are so popular right now? Do they fulfill some need for a visceral display of justice – or being avenged? Are superheroes good role models? Some more than others? What about these stories attracts people, and is this healthy?
• Read Romans 13:1-10. Christianity began during a time when the government powers hated them, and were otherwise generally corrupt. Nevertheless, Paul advised believers to try to stay within the boundaries of legal justice as much as possible. How should Christians relate to social and political systems of justice today? What if those systems are flawed and broken? How can Christians help to bring positive change in society?
• Read Micah 6:1-16. What seems to be the problem God has with Israel? What does he propose as the solution? What does he say they should do?
• Read all of Micah 7. First, start with 7:1-6. What does this tell you about the results of sin? Can you relate to this feeling/experience? Then read 7:7-20. What kind of message does Micah leave the reader with? How does that message make you feel? Note especially 7:9 - how does this verse relate to Jesus and how he saves us? (See Hebrews 4:14-16 for more on this.)
• Watch the following video from The Bible Project. What helpful information does it give you about Micah?