Mercy ministries are not enough; we can’t meet justice issues with mercy solutions

Corey Fields

Corey Fields

Earlier this year during an interview with CBS MoneyWatch, the CEO of GoFundMe, a crowd-sourced fundraising site, said that one third of all the money that has been raised through the site since its 2010 launch has been for the purpose of covering out-of-pocket medical bills. A Monmouth University poll released June 3 finds that 27 percent of adults in the United States say they or a member of their household have foregone necessary medical care in the past two years because of cost.

Although it is very fortunate that we have things like GoFundMe where people can seek the help of others, finding the money for this or that person’s bills leaves the fundamental problem fully in place. Healthcare in the United States is unaffordable for a lot of people, made worse by the fact that we’re not even close to the top of the list in health measures and outcomes.

Problems like bankruptcy over healthcare, high premiums and price gouging are justice level problems. Fundraising to help individuals or groups of people is certainly needed, and an amazing life-saver for the recipients; but this is a mercy level solution that is not sufficient for addressing the root problem.

“To ‘do justice’ is to address the systemic barriers and policies that keep necessitating our mercy ministries.”

When I talk about “mercy” versus “justice,” I’m addressing two of the three parts of the well-known Micah 6:8 passage: “…what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Jesus alludes to this passage in Matthew 23:23 using slightly different wording and calls them “the weightier matters of the law.”

“Mercy ministries” can be thought of as the things we do to meet immediate needs and help people in their time of desperation. Meals for the hungry, disaster response and fundraising campaigns for healthcare costs are examples of mercy ministries. We can also include here the things we do to try to empower people and increase their self-sufficiency. I think of things like job training, literacy, mentoring, etc. This is mercy. These are good and necessary ministries.

To quote the old Chinese proverb, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Giving and teaching are ministries of mercy, care and compassion.

But the Chinese proverb doesn’t go far enough. We can’t assume that “the man” has access to places where he can fish. We can’t assume the pond is not contaminated. We can’t assume that the pond is available to all or that the wealthy few who may control the pond are being equitable.

You can give someone a fish today. You can teach them to fish for tomorrow. But if barriers remain to them being able to fish, that must be addressed as well, and doing so is a totally different kind of work. That’s justice work.

There’s nothing wrong with providing mercy ministries to those in our families and communities that need help now. But if Christians don’t also commit ourselves to justice, if we continue to meet justice problems with only mercy solutions, we will just get sucked dry and worn down, which may at times be exactly what the perpetrators of injustice want.

The urgency of justice permeates the biblical text. In the Hebrew Bible alone, it is mentioned hundreds of times. The two Hebrew words most often translated “justice” (mishpat and tzedek) have deep and rich meanings that are quite far from our society’s common usage of “justice” to mean punishment. They carry concerns about what is right, good and fair for the collective whole, especially for the less powerful.

“One of the most powerful ways followers of Christ can bear witness to the God of love is to ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.’”

Both words appear in the Amos passage famously quoted by Martin Luther King Jr.: “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” The context of that Amos passage is a characteristic example of what justice means in the Bible. Amos was pronouncing judgment on God’s people for things like taking bribes (5:12), trampling the poor (2:7) and “selling the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6).

Jeremiah bemoans the exploitation and wage theft of poor workers who build grand structures for the rich and powerful, and says that doing what is “right and just” and “defending the cause of the poor and needy” is what it means to “know the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:13-17). The Torah shows great concern for vulnerable populations (orphans, widows, foreigners) and the need not to put up barriers and make life harder for them than it already is (e.g., Exodus 23:1-13).

So to “do justice,” as commanded in Micah 6:8 and reaffirmed by Jesus, is to address the systemic barriers and policies that keep necessitating our mercy ministries. We begin to see that many of the issues that roused God’s anger in biblical times are largely still around, including wage theft, oppression of the foreigner and bribery and greedy self-aggrandizement on the backs of the poor. Beyond healthcare, today’s justice issues also include housing costs, wealth disparities, pollution/carbon emissions, race and gender disparities and many more. Mercy ministries in the face of these problems help certain individuals and groups but don’t make a dent in the fundamental problem.

Part of the problem is that justice, even though it is a common theme of scripture, has been off the radar of some Christian traditions. In certain evangelical circles, the idea is actively opposed. At last year’s Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas, a failed resolution sought to declare justice a Marxist, unbiblical idea. This year, at the SBC meeting in Birmingham, an organization called G3 hosted a panel discussion on the “dangers of social justice within evangelicalism.” A graphic for the event shared on Twitter sported an all-white male panel and the hashtag #WokeChurch. I cannot tell if the irony is lost on them.

“The Bible treats justice not just as a good thing to do but as the very nature and character of God.”

Evangelicals who rail against the idea of justice do not deny that the Bible commands care for the poor and needy, but they seek to make a distinction, saying that individuals and churches are supposed to help the poor and needy, but not try to make government do it. This ignores the context of these Bible passages and the nature of the problems they mention. Proverbs 31:9 calls us to “defend the rights of the poor and needy.” How are we supposed to do that without engaging those who are taking those rights away?

One narrative example of this is found in Nehemiah 5. The prophet hears the cries of the people who have had the cards stacked against them by the power brokers, and he calls a public assembly to demand that they remedy the situation. Mercy ministries would not have helped.

One of the most powerful ways followers of Christ can bear witness to the God of love is to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8). Show up at town halls, council meetings, and community partnerships. Be a refreshing departure from the usual kvetching and self-centeredness and be a voice for those who normally don’t get a hearing. Develop cross-sector partnerships with people who care about similar issues and get the attention of those who have the power to change things. For more large scale, national causes, get involved with efforts like the Poor People’s Campaign.

The Bible treats justice not just as a good thing to do but as the very nature and character of God. Jeremiah 50:7 in the King James Version uses great language: it calls the Lord their “habitation of justice” (naveh tsedek). Naveh elsewhere refers to sheep pasture. Whenever we “defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless, [or] plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17), we are in God’s pasture, doing God’s work of justice.

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