God’s Compassion and Justice

Early Christians were called followers of “The Way”.   “The Way” refers to the way  Jesus walked in his relationship with God which gave them a living  picture of God’s love for his children  and of God’s passion for justice for all.  .  In Jesus’ daily practices  God’s love and God’s passion for justice for all are a constant interwoven theme.    Jesus reached out to the poor and needy, to the blind, to the shunned lepers, to the rich tax collector, to the sick and dying, to the mentally challenged—to all of God’s children. And Jesus also poured warnings and “woes” upon the heads of those who profited at the expense of others—especially the Pharisees.  From them he demanded “justice“.

these were  not new themes.  A loving relationship with God coupled with compassion and justice was the part of the message of many of the prophets.   That message is perhaps summed up best by the prophet Micah in these words:  With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?   Shall I come before him with burnt offeringws; with calves a year old?   will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?   Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?   He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:6-8)  

For those of us who wish to walk “The Way” of Jesus with our God in this world today, the message has not changed.   We must “walk humbly with our God“.   We must “love kindness”(compassion).   We must “do justice“.    What does this meanHow do we do this?

Over a hundred years ago, a Christian author named Vida Scudder listed three ways that Christians can respond this question of walking “the way of Jesus”:   (1) direct philanthropy;  (2) social reform; and (3) social transformation.    (See Borg, The Heart of Christianity)

The first two of this list are forms of compassionate charity.   Direct philanthropy means giving aid directly to those who are suffering.   Social reform means creating the organizations needed for the care of the poor and suffering, such as shelters for the homeless, food banks, mental and physical health facilities etc.   The third on the list, social transformation is a matter of  justice; i.e. changing the structure of  society so that the causes of poverty and suffering are lessened or eliminated.

Christians today do fairly well on the first two listed if they are made aware of the situation of the homeless and poor.   The third item of social transformation, which is a matter of justice,  causes us problems and we hesitate to get involved in it.   No one criticizes us for doing the first two (philanthropy and social reform) and we are applauded for doing it.  The problem that comes whenever we engage in working for social transformation is seen in a quote from Roman Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil:   “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.”

Compassion means helping the victims of poverty and suffering.   Justice means changing the causes of their victimization; i.e. the way the social, economic and political systems are structured that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor.    

This final way of dealing with the poor justly (social transformation) forces us into the uncomfortable area of politics and business.   And it brings us up against those who are profiting politically and economically  by arranging things for their own benefit with the costs resting  on the backs of the poor.  It threatens the net profit of the owners of such huge companies as McDonalds who pay only minimum wage without benefits.    It gets us into discussions of the problems of  lack of education, of inadequate and unaffordable housing,of slum landlords, of mental and physical health care and prescription drugs for the poor.   It threatens us with higher taxes to take care of the above problems.  It might cause us to pay more for that Big Mac at McDonalds!  The resistance we meet is therefore extremely fierce, because we must go beyond these discussions and makes demands that changes be made to the status quo.

But Jesus and the prophets remind us that the only biblical  answer to the problems of the poor is the justice of Social Transformation if  we are to do what God requires of us.   Note that “Doing justice” is #1 on the list as Micah speaks for God.

“To do justice”,

“To love kindness”,

“To walk humbly with our God”

Jesus did all of  these things and showed us how to walk in “the way”.   But remember the ones that he challenged—the legal, social, economic, religious  and political leaders all joined together to crucify him!!

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