I’ve recently been bothered by the term “social justice” as it relates to Christian cultures. Don’t get me wrong – the actions that come from social justice: feeding the hungry, helping the needy, caring for the widows and etcetera are all basic fundamentals of Christianity. Jesus himself commanded us to do these things! But according to the apostle Paul. “Mercy triumphs over justice” (James 2:13). So if Paul was correct, shouldn’t we, as Christians, be concentrating on social mercy instead of social justice?
Maybe its just a matter of semantics, but maybe not. Consider the following: Mercy implies lenience and compassion. Justice, however, implies retribution not based on compassion, but rather based on what is fair – what is just. Mercy is not fair – in fact, mercy is often times the exact opposite of fair. Justice never gives what one does not deserve, and always gives what one does deserve. Mercy will give one what they don’t deserve (perhaps food that they did not grow), and will withhold things that they do deserve (perhaps a severe and harsh punishment).
Now, some might say that if we’re giving food to those who do not deserve it, and withholding punishment from those who deserve punishment, then we are not in the right. While I believe that one who refuses to work should probably not eat, there is also the fact that some people cannot work. Some people cannot contribute to society. Justice would say that it is not fair to the rest of society that these people should eat of the labors of others. But might I remind you: An empty sack cannot stand. Truth be told, we might feed these people all their lives – they may never be able to “stand.” However, the position of mercy is not to say “we’ve fed these people enough.” The position of mercy is to hope they might be able to stand eventually, but also to understand some people will never be able to fulfill their own needs.
Ultimately, justice is about the law. Mercy is about love. Both Jesus and Paul repeatedly stated that our actions should always be about love. Justice, while a good thing in many cases, falls short of love in many other cases. And while most people who are concerned with social justice are doing so out of love, it is still a slippery slope. Where is the line between love and a quest to fight for our rights (as well as the rights of others)? If anything, perhaps using the term “Social Mercy” is about reminding ourselves that we are driven by the compassion of Christ; we are driven by the Love of God.