Synon(amiss) – Why our approach to justice and mercy is missing the mark

Synon(amiss) – Why our approach to justice and mercy is missing the mark

“Jesus and justice go together” he said.


It’s no news to me at this point, in some ways it’s astonishing to me that this is still news to some of my brothers and sisters in the U.S. Church.

I forget sometimes that my journey into God’s heart for justice is only a few years long.

I was in college interning with a nonprofit and watching Invisible Children with tears slipping down my cheeks into my cup of drink-to-do-good coffee.

I felt like I was going to change the world.  I watched the documentaries, bought the t-shirts, wore the bracelets, walked 3 miles without shoes on, talked about it to anyone who would listen, sponsored a Compassion kid and drank my fair-trade coffee.

Wonder Woman had better watch her back.  Now that Jesus had got ahold of me and instilled the call to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly” on my heart, there was a new heroine in town.

That was about five years ago, and while sometimes I can still taste the tears and coffee on my lips, it mostly feels like another world to me.

Last weekend Mike Hogan of International Justice Mission spent the weekend sharing with our congregation about the work that IJM is doing – specifically to combat child sex trafficking around the world.  I was devastated over and over again by the heartbreaking statistics and overwhelming, gut wrenching stories.  I was encouraged by the glimpses of success Mike shared about IJM’s work.  But more than anything, I was dumbfounded at the ways that we’ve really missed the mark on justice as the U.S. Church and cheapened God’s heart for justice by engaging almost exclusively in acts of mercy.

The Church in the U.S. loves to talk about starving children overseas, who need nutritious meals, access to education and clean water, roofs over their heads and mosquito nets around their beds.  We’re comfortable with that.  We feel good about buying gifts out of the World Vision or Compassion catalogues – heroic almost.  We sense that we’ve made some lasting impact as we pack our shoeboxes full of toothbrushes and coloring books to send to Samaritan’s Purse.
And these are all good things.

But this is not what it means to do justice.

These are acts relief, mercy, charity.  They are band aids on a hemorrhaging humanity.  But what the world needs is reconstructive surgery to fix the severed arteries within.

I asked friends recently what they thought the difference between justice and mercy is and I got responses like this:

“Justice – getting what you deserve.  Mercy- being given what you don’t deserve as an act of kindness.”

“[Mercy is] being spared what you actually deserve.”

” Justice is being judged according to the law or standard set up. Mercy is not ignoring the law but granting pardon no strings attached.”

None of these are terrible definitions, but I think our understanding of justice and mercy is largely incomplete and that this has incredible impact on the way we approach justice and mercy as the Church in the U.S.

In the Old Testament the word for “Justice” in Hebrew is Mishpat which denotes the “setting up” or establishment of propriety, fitting measures, customs and ordinances.  That is to say, it is a way of existence that governs the whole person and the whole community.

“Mercy” on the other hand comes from the Hebrew word Checed  which means goodness, kindness, loyalty. It also has roots in the ideas of shame and reproach.  Which may seem out of place right now, but hang with me for a second.


Justice is a system.  Mercy is an act.

Justice is the establishment of propriety.  Mercy is loyalty, even in the midst of shame and reproach.

Justice is all things made right.  Mercy is a response, a faithfulness,  even in the midst of brokenness.


So often I hear Churches and para-Church ministries bill acts of mercy as ways to do justice:
Sponsor a child
Give someone a goat
Deliver Christmas gifts to children in need

These are acts of mercy, not justice.  

These are ways we demonstrate faithfulness and kindness and loyalty to our brothers and sisters, and in the same breath, the existence of such needs are the reproach of the American Church.

The starving children in Ethiopia are a reproach to the lifestyle in which I consume three $5 pumpkin spice lattes in a week without batting an eyelash.
The ill-equipt farmers unable to sustain themselves and their families are a reproach to the most resourced limb of the Church pouring millions of dollars into building funds and high definition screens.
The thousands of people dying from lack of clean drinking water are a reproach to the Children’s ministries who are more bent on competing with the fun-factor of Chuck E. Cheese than building the Kingdom of God.

We are called to be faithful to help alleviate the suffering we are complicit in, but that is not all we are called to do!

God also calls us to be people of justice.

Justice is when the people with power relinquish their privilege for the betterment of us all.

Justice is when we stop fearing that the oppressive systems of this world are too big to take on and remember that our God is bigger still.

Justice is demanding that all men, women and children be treated with the propriety of a being made in the image of the Invisible God.

Justice is hard.  Justice is costly.  Justice takes time, and sweat, and tears, and blood.

God’s mercy said to us, make sacrifices, spill blood, keep festivals and fasts that God’s wrath might be held back.
God’s justice said, “IT IS FINISHED” as God took on all brokenness, all sin, all evil and turned the systems and powers of this world on their head.

You see, justice turns you into a freak and an outcast.  It is not a stylish t-shirt or a cheeky bumper sticker.

Justice is when you stop seeking your safety and your betterment and your advancement and you start seeking the healing of the world and humanity as a whole.

When you are seeking justice, you stop seeking to be the hero – you serve the Hero.

Justice does not seek to maintain systems for the sake of having missions projects to complete or orphans to hug.  Justice dares to dream of a world in which parents are empowered, resources are available, children are valued and there are no more orphans.

Justice does not seek to rescue and rehabilitate women and girls who have been exploited.  Justice dares to dream of a world in which sex-trafficking and prostitution and pornography are no longer issues because women are inherently valued in this worlds as equal persons and men no longer stand, let alone pay, to watch them strip naked or rape them for profit.

Justice does not seek to boycott unethical companies and picket outside storefronts.  Justice dares to dream of a world in which our business and trade industries are approached from the standpoint of “enough” instead of “scarcity.” In which human life is no longer just another commodity to be bought and sold.

Justice dares to dream, but it does not only dream, it works to make dreams come true.

Mercy is a valuable tool, but if God’s justice which restores humanity is not our ultimate goal, I question whether our acts of mercy are truly working for God’s glory or for our own.

Because, if I’m honest, I want to be a hero sometimes.  And there is no justice in that.

Act justly.
Love mercy.
Walk humbly.

These are paired this way for a reason.   Our merciful acts may become the root of our pride, Church.

“Look what we have done!  The children we have fed!  The letters we have written!  The Christmas gifts we have given!”

But have we challenged the powers that starved that child in the first place?

That imprisoned that young African-American boy?

That devastated that family’s economy?

Do justice.  Do mercy.  Do not act as though they are synonymous.

image credit: Jim Forest via Flickr 


  1. Beth Duncan on October 17, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    I’m printing this out to bring to our home group tonight. We’re talking about the core values of our church and i’m sure justice and mercy have to be in there somewhere. hopefully this will be helpful in our discussion.

  2. Lynda on October 17, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    A huge part of the problem is that mercy can be quick, and fairly easy. And it makes us feel good. Whereas justice requires long term investment, and changes in systems. You are dead on correct. But the U.S. church — myself included — loves mercy because it is easier; easier to do and easier to sell to reluctant participants.

    And to be fair, sponsoring a child so she can stay in her family home is a step in the right direction from the poverty orphan option. And gifting a goat is a step in the right direction, because we are providing a source of food/income rather than handing out food.

    And emergency food supplies are still necessary in certain situations. The difficulty comes in figuring out what are the real “relief” situations vs those better addressed by development (which often requires that systemic justice issues be addressed).

    This article bears reading several times, and then inspection of our personal and church charity/justice activities. Thank you, Megan.

    • megan on October 17, 2013 at 4:30 pm


      there is absolutely no intent in this post to discourage people from engaging in sponsorship, goat-giving and meal packing. simply to help us understand that this is only a piece of the puzzle.

  3. gail on October 17, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks, Megan! This is SO GOOD. It always bothers me when I allow my conscience to be assauged by the fact that we sponsor a child, give money for mosquito nets, etc. As you said, these are acts of charity, but they do nothing to right what is wrong. We need to go below the surface and address the system issues. We need to keep speaking out and speaking up about the unjust social structures that have come about as the result of greed and sin. Recently, I was struck by the fact that Jesus came to seek and to save not just “the lost” (people) but as another translation says, “what was lost” (justice). So yes, let’s be people of justice!

  4. Jay DePoy on October 18, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Mind = Blown. Beautifully written, emotion invoking. A call to faith in action…

  5. Andrew Cole on October 18, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Reblogged this on Spider Web of Life and commented:
    Wow. We definitely need to think and look and do more on this.

  6. Marty Alan Michelson on October 19, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Megan ~

    A student of mine (I’m a professor of Hebrew Bible) shared this with me as a personal reflection of the themes/issues they’ve heard from me in other contexts.

    Your title is a brilliant turn-a-phrase! Love it! (I’ll borrow it and cite you!)

    Thanks for writing an inspiring and thoughtful post – that I’ll share with lots of young people, because your clear, direct stories and bullet-point-directed-points are captivating in ways where ‘scholarship’ is less-accessible to some!

    I also share David Hilfiker work with them, do you know him? And of course, there is so much on these themes in “scholarly” theological works – Premnath, Swartley, Brueggemann, Wolterstorff, Volf and so many more – but far too many people do not read this stuff.

    Blessings to you in all things.

    ~ marty

  7. parmanifesto on November 5, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    I feel like you moved a huge refrigerator and there’s a lot of gross stuff underneath it. I need to walk away and pray and come back and clean.

  8. Looking back: 2013 | crazy little thing called love on December 31, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    […] Our church hosted a weekend with International Justice Mission, and then I wrote about how we get justice and mercy mixed up. […]

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