Mercy vs. Justice

Greg is having the summer interns read The Other Face of God, by Mary Jo Leddy.  Leddy has lived with refugees in Toronto, Canada, for about twenty years.  Her book is a reflection of the spiritual effect that “the stranger” has on a person and the way such encounters help us to better understand ourselves and our place in God’s kingdom.  So far, it has been really fascinating…especially because she includes a lot of stories!

In the first chapter, Leddy speaks of “the summons,” that thing that calls us past ourselves and into service for God’s kingdom.  Her “summons” came from specific refugees she encountered while living in a group home for refugees, called Romero House.  In speaking of such “summonses,” she says,

It is in these moments that issues of ‘justice’ or ‘the environment’ dissolve and become refocused so sharply that they are heartfelt.  There is no walking away; there is no going back.  The way ahead is not clear, but the road has closed behind you.  Justice is no longer a sometime thing, but a lifelong task.

I have participated in many earnest discussions in church groups about the difference between charity and justice, the works of mercy and the works of justice.  The works of mercy are often described as hands-on, one-on-one, direct service of those in need.  In contrast, the work for justice involves struggling  for systematic change so that there will be less need for charitable activities.

As I have reflected on my twenty years at Romero House, I have come to understand that mercy is a dynamic response that begins when one’s heart and mind are touched by the need and suffering of another person.  We are summoned by mercy.  If one begins to act mercifully, as one’s compassion deepens and expands, then one is inevitably led to an awareness of the systematic causes of such suffering.  At the reach of mercy, one is moved to act with justice…

Without mercy, the categories of concern can also be oppressive, those categories that are only the mirror image of the categories of contempt that are so easily used:  the poor, the victims, the abused, the oppressed, the refugees, the marginalized.  Even when we use these categories in describing our concern and care, it ends up reducing real people to a category of concern.”

It’s funny that Greg and I are in Nashville now, working in close conjunction with Y.E.S., because I definitely felt my first true “summons” through the children I met in that ministry.  A couple of years ago, as Greg and I were reflecting on the purpose and direction of our lives, I even remarked to him, “The time of my life that I felt most alive was at Y.E.S.”  And I think that was because for once, “the less fortunate” were not simply a category of concern to be analyzed from a distance.  They were people with names and unique personal circumstances that I came to know well.  They were people with whom I played and ate, people whom I tutored and took on trips.  And working with them didn’t feel like “doing a good work”; it just felt like life.

My interaction with Y.E.S. started with acts of mercy, and yes, they did escalate to concerns about justice.  My feelings on immigration laws and the public education, for example, have been forever changed by the names and faces that made those issues concrete and immediate, not philosophical and abstract.

Regarding Leddy’s last paragraph, I must confess that sometimes I do feel uncomfortable when I sit around with a group of middle-class Christians–even Christians from my church–and philosophize on how to best help “the neighborhood” or “the poor.”  There does seem to be something slightly dehumanizing in lumping people into a generalized “category of concern,” even though, practically speaking, it seems hard to avoid.

What about you? Have you ever felt a “summons”?  And do you agree with Leddy’s sentiments about “categories of concern” and “categories of contempt”?

Quote is from:

Leddy, Mary Jo.  The Other Face of God.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2011.  28-29.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on June 12, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Kim, this is a wonderful reflection on what it means to serve people, whether one-on-one or at a broader level. The idea that justice flows from mercy, and vice versa, is a powerful and true way to understand Micah 6:8.

    The barriers that labels can put up are problematic, aren’t they? I think labels can also be helpful, but they are a tool and need to be used correctly. Remember when the Chilean governemnt was oppressing its own people, abducting some who were never to be seen again? Those who were taken were called “the disappeared”. It was a powerful label and did much to bring world-wide awareness to the problem.

    The label issue came up recently at a human trafficking conference my son and I just attended, too. Are people who sell their bodies for sex purposes Prostitutes? Sex Workers? Victims of Human Trafficking? Labels affect how people interact with the problem, or even whether they choose to engage with it at all. Even more, labels can keep us from building a relationship with the people involved.

    Great job starting this conversation, Kim.


    P.S. Jenny Rae Armstrong just posted a guest piece I wrote that stems from that conference on human trafficking. Hope you and others here at KC get a chance to look it over:


    • Tim, I totally agree with you that labels are helpful and even necessary. Even the author admits that she has to refer often to “the refugees.” However, she tries to always do so in a way that includes their individual stories and personalities. Of course, you can’t always do that, but I think it helps to have an awareness of how dehumanizing labels can be, even by those who are trying to be helpful.

      Now, I’m heading over to your guest blog!


  2. Posted by Ivy on June 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Hi Kim!
    I think a summons for me was actually reading a few online adoption blogs – namely Jen Hatmaker’s and Rage Against the Minivan. Along with reading those (and yours) came exposure to child slavery, the orphan crisis, just caring for the least of these in general. It was like a big, world opened before me and unfortunately, a frustration with “the church” came with it. But that aside – it was a great feeling to actually care for people I’d never met – I felt like it kind of broke down the generalization of their groups, and help me think about the individual people – the one child who is right now working in horrible conditions for my coffee, or chocolate, or what have you. I don’t know if that makes sense. But, somehow learning more about the child slaves as a group, helped me think about child slaves individually.
    I hope you’re doing well!!


    • Posted by Ivy on June 14, 2012 at 12:06 pm

      I don’t know how to edit my post – but please forgive me for the overuse of commas! 🙂


    • Ivy, I can totally see that! Have you read Jen Hatmaker’s book yet? I thought it had a lot of good stuff in it.

      Also, I’m excited to see what God does with that summons in your life!


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