Community,  Theology

Social Justice, or social mercy?

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.

I'm Aaron, and I am the owner of this site.


  • Rachel Hommel

    Aaron, this is lovely. I am reminded of the difference between mercy and justice so often in my daily routine… especially in my regular work with all those who would be so often classified as sinners or who may have turned their backs on God for whatever reason. I do my best to make a point to give when I can without any expectation of return and know that it is only when I think I am being “fair” or “just” that I suffer from those unmet expectations.

    When my heart is truly filled with gratitude and recognition of God’s grace and love for me, only then do my actions mete out true compassion for others. But when I am filled with judgement of myself and come to situations with a “lacking” heart, unable or unwilling to see God’s grace in my life, I expect others to fill the hole that no human can possibly fill… and thus they fail, and I resent and judge where I am not suitable to judge.

    Thank you for sharing this with me.

  • archie mark

    Hello AAron,
    please read the book by Wesley Campbell called Mercy and Social Justice’, then you will receive the full understanding, because they are both intertwined. thank you

    • Aaron

      I realize that they are intertwined, but they are also different. Consider this scenario: a man makes a bunch of bad decisions and ends up homeless. That’s justice. That is the man getting what he deserves. That is him reaping what he sows.

      Now, if someone were to see this man and take compassion on him – maybe even feed him, clothe him, and put him in their guestroom so this man can get back on his feet: That’s mercy.