Having just finished Dr. Elaine Heath’s doctoral seminar class, Evangelism and Discipleship in a Missional Church, at Perkins School of Theology, the topics of justice and mercy are filling most of my thoughts. One of the richest conversations we had during the course was a discussion about the differences between mercy and justice, as we sat around a table at the Refugee Services of Texas.
Inspired by the conversation, I decided to see how the teenagers in my youth group would handle a discussion of the topic. So last night, during our weekly small groups, I began our time together by offering a metaphor. I explained that mercy can be illustrated as giving someone an aspirin to alleviate a regularly returning headache. Justice, however, is the discovery and surgical removal of the tumor that is the true cause of the recurring headaches in the first place. While mercy may provide temporary relief to a problem, justice identifies and addresses the source of the problem. I then dismissed each of the small groups to discuss this idea further amongst themselves.
Each week I have the privilege of leading our high school guys’ small group. Last night’s small group discussion with these young men confirms my use of that word, “privilege.” As we talked about biblical examples of mercy and justice, one young man spoke about the injustice that Jesus addressed as he turned over the money-changing tables in the temple. Another young man brought the discussion home as he talked about our annual mission trip, which has taken us to Oklahoma City for the past two years to work with an intentional living community of urban missionaries called, The Refuge OKC.
Commenting on his observations, he said, “You know, when we fix up and paint all those houses, we’re showing mercy to the residents of that neighborhood. But the real justice is found in those members of the Refuge who have chosen to move into that poor neighborhood for the long-haul. They’re the ones who are bringing the light into that darkness.”
At this, another young man piped up and said, “Do you remember when a couple of the guys from the Refuge talked about arms-length ministry? It’s like arm-length ministry—when you give someone a handout—is mercy. But when you turn that into a handshake, then you level the playing field. You’re saying, ‘We’re equal.’ That’s justice.”
Sometimes in ministry you shake your head because you cannot understand why people keep choosing to make the same mistakes over and over, as if nothing you were trying to teach them was sinking in. And then there are those divine moments, when all of a sudden, something sticks. Last night, as I listened to these young men grasp the difference between acts of mercy and the pursuit of justice, I thanked God that they were getting it!
Now the question becomes: “How do we address issues of justice in our own back yard?” As we tackle this challenge together in the coming weeks, it’s my prayer that our youth ministry will lead the way in teaching others that although mercy is good, it’s not enough.