Commentary by Rev. Michael VandenBerg
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Psalm 103:6, 8
Another week, another shooting, another city in protests. Do we advocate for justice or do we advocate for mercy?
Jail overcrowding causes early release of prisoners. Do we advocate for justice or do we advocate for mercy? Another high-profile figure is caught in a situation that brings dishonor. Do we advocate for justice or do we advocate for mercy?
Fredrick Buechner, in his book “Beyond Words,” wrote “Justice may consist of paying a price for what you’ve done or simply of the painful knowledge that you deserve to pay a price, which is payment enough. Without one form of justice or the other, the result is ultimately disorder and grief for you and everybody. Thus justice is itself not unmerciful. Justice also does not preclude mercy. It makes mercy possible.”
Without justice, mercy becomes sentimentality or emotional debris. Without mercy, justice becomes cold and isolating. This is why God in his wisdom has always held the two together. They are like two sides of the same coin. You cannot effectively have one without the other. If you want to do justice, the prophet Micah says you need also to love kindness and walk humbly with God. If you want to exercise mercy, you must first recognize that it can only take place in a just society. The book of Exodus says, “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. … Do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.”
In God’s scheme of life, justice is willing to stand alone if need be to do the right thing for the right reasons. It is an outward-directed action that stands mercifully with the poor, the weak, the oppressed and works for their justice, not simply demanding my own. Mercy on the other hand is, upon knowing the crime and the consequence, we choose to forgive and restore peace rather than side with the crowd and destroy the peace of the city.
Riots, lawlessness and vigilantism are not justice, but political tyranny. Mercy practiced without any sense of justice is simply emotional tyranny, and both destroy life. Both are needed and in balance in order to become the people God intends us to be.
Mercy or justice — you cannot choose between them and have either. You can only have one if you have the other. The prophet Micah says it best when he says, “But God’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what he is looking for in men and women.”
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your mercy and don’t take yourself too seriously — take God seriously.