The following is the transcript of a sermon written by Grecia Hernandez Perez '24 for Dr. Wallace Best's American Sermons course (Spring 2021).
The way American Christians practice mercy and justice is inconsistent with the way Jesus Christ taught us. I say this not to anger or scorn or shame, rather, I hope that this can be a small step in the right direction. In order to talk about how we do mercy and justice wrong in this nation and throughout the world, I want to first think about what the best possible practices of mercy and justice look like.
The lectionary for May 9 directs us to John 15:12 where we read, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” At its very best, mercy is an expression of the love Jesus asked us to show to one another. With the right intentions and execution, doing mercy helps those in need and alleviates the pain of the suffering. Mercy can look like any number of different actions. It can look like a church running a foodbank for those in need in their community or a clothing drive for those who cannot afford new clothing. These actions are undeniably good, because they help people who are in need. Whether it be the Catholic enthusiasm for doing charity or the mission work we might find any number of Protestant denominations doing in our nation and around the world, it is easy to see when people do mercy. It feels good to do mercy, because we can spend a day in service to other people, look back by the end of the day, and know that we did indeed help people.
Mercy doesn’t just make us feel good, it is something that Jesus asked us to do. In Mark 14:7, Jesus said, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” When Christ told us that the poor would be with us always, he instructs us to show them kindness. Over 2000 years after Christ lived and died for us, we continue to live in a world with poverty and it remains just as important today for us to show mercy. Doing mercy allows us to address people’s immediate pain and suffering. By feeding and clothing all of God’s people, we do exactly what Jesus asked us to do – be kind to the poor. In fact, many good Christians dedicate their lives to doing mercy in service to others. At its very best, mercy is one of the most loving actions we can do as Christians.
Though mercy is one expression of Christ’s love, we are not limited to doing mercy, and, in fact, I ask that you ponder on the word justice. When I say justice, there are a few different pictures that might come to your mind. If you ask a law enforcement officer what justice is, he might tell you that justice is catching the bad guy and locking him away from the rest of society. If you ask a judge what justice is, she might tell you that justice is the impartial and fair application of our laws and consequences to those who break the law. If you ask twelve different Christians what their definitions of justice are, you are going to receive twelve different answers. If you consult the Bible for a definition of justice, you will read hundreds of different definitions of what justice is and justifications about why that specific one is the right one. To understand what I consider justice, we read John 15:16 from the May 9 lectionary where Jesus tells us, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” While I have your attention, I ask that you consider the best form of justice to be the action of working towards making a society where every person’s needs are met and they each have the same opportunity to thrive in life or what Jesus might call bearing “fruit that will last.”
This definition of justice is certainly not the easiest one to imagine. When I say justice, I ask you to imagine the constant struggle to that just society. Making justice this way is not an action we start at nine and finish by five. Justice must involve restructuring our society in such a way that we are not beholden to the forces of greed or capitalism or racism, but rather each person is liberated enough to create and live the life that God wanted for us. This version of justice is hard for people to accept because it involves a reimagining of what our nation and world must look like. Justice in this form does not accept that people would die of hunger or cold when there is an abundance of food and shelter in this nation. It does not submit to the idea that it would be impossible to run a society without exploiting one group or another. This justice is radical and hard to imagine, but it is exactly what Jesus Christ calls us to build. It is not something that I can hope to achieve in my lifetime alone, but if every single Christian in America woke up tomorrow morning and decided that they wanted to dedicate their lives to making justice, these wouldn’t be musings or dreams but a tangible reality.
We began with the goal of understanding mercy and justice at their best, and now that we’ve thought about what that looks like for each one, we must also understand why these are not the reality. Ideally, every single Christian in the world would do mercy and justice as an expression of their faith, and, in very little time, the world’s forces of injustice and pain would be eliminated. However, we know that this is not what present-day actions of mercy and faith look like for a great portion of Christians. In the United States, specifically, centuries worth of imperialistic, capitalist, and racist developments have brought us to where we are today. The development of this nation alongside its many specialized denominations has created warped expressions of both mercy and justice. Because of its immediate and fulfilling nature, mercy has been twisted past recognition in this nation for many Christians. For this reason, we have to take a close look at what mercy looks like and how we might change that for the better.
Mercy, as we hope to see it, is nothing more than a way to express one’s faith by showing love to God’s people. In this nation today, mercy has taken on a perverted form that not only takes the dignity of those it was supposed to benefit, but it shifts the ultimate benefit onto the wrong party. The way many Christians practice mercy today is by volunteering at a foodbank or participating in a mission trip. This is not inherently bad, as we know, but we live in a society that fixates and indeed celebrates people who document themselves doing almost anything. This, combined with the ever presence of cell phones in people’s lives allows people to document every part of their practice of mercy and warp them into performances of mercy. More and more, the people who are supposed to benefit from the acts of mercy are used as props to improve someone’s image on social media and the dignity of those in need isn’t given a second thought. The practices of documenting and searching for praise in doing mercy are some of the most destructive ways to do mercy and indeed prompt me to wonder if many of those acts can be considered merciful at all.
To make this more concrete, I will describe a scenario that I’ve watched happen several times. A predominantly white church that does not engage in merciful acts in their own community sends a group of members to do mission work in a far-off community. The town or city this group arrives in has dramatically different population demographics than the one the mission group is used to at home. While this mission group is in the far-off community, the members take this as the perfect opportunity to take pictures and videos of their good deeds, never asking if the people they’re filming are comfortable or consenting. The mission group stays for a week handing out fliers encouraging people to attend a dinner and worship service or the pop-up foodbank the group established while they were there. At the end of the week, the members of the mission group get to go home to their comfortable houses in the white suburbs they came from and they get to fondly reminisce the week they spent doing mercy before heading to school or work the next day where they will alienate people who look like the folks in the community they just left.
In this example, the mission group has used the trip as an extended photo-op. They left their community with people in need and entered a different community in need. They might have had the intent to help the people in the other city or town, but what they often end up doing is providing a short-term service and in turn dismiss people’s dignity and right to consent to a video or picture. This goes on to help the members in the mission team who get to use this on a resume or as evidence of their good deeds. The imbalance of power and lack of consent then allows the mission group to act as white saviors to people who did not ask for them to be there or particularly want to be used as props. This is not a terribly unique example, and that is the exact problem. If the people in this mission group were truly only interested in helping others, they would not have gone into a foreign community and humiliated native residents, rather they could have concentrated their efforts into feeding the hungry or providing to the impoverished in their own towns. This imperialist performance of mercy often does more harm in perpetuating racist stereotypes than it does in good.
If we understand that this model of mercy is not what Christ intended, we might wonder how that scenario would change if the mission group decided to practice true mercy and what the key difference was. To help us better imagine this, I will give a different, and much less common example of what mercy can look like today. A predominantly white church group recognizes the need in their community to do mercy. They respond by opening their doors every Wednesday night to provide free dinners to anyone who shows up. Beyond that, during the cold months, this church asks its congregants to donate coats or gear for the weather. During the Wednesday night dinners, those most in need are asked to take all that they need and make the church aware of more it can do. This church recognizes that the next town over was recently impacted by severe weather and this combined with the lack of investing in infrastructure means that many are without food or water and there is considerable damage to some buildings. The church responds by sending a team to distribute nonperishable food packages and water bottles for two weeks and sending a team to fix all the damage they can while they are there.
In this model of mercy, the same demographic responded to the need around them in very different ways. This church recognized that taking care of those in its community was one of the most important ways that it could interact with people who were not part of the congregation. They understand that mercy is not an act that should be started and finished over the course of a fun week away from home, but an act of love that they get to do again and again. In this model, the mission group still responded to need outside of its own community, but rather than allowing the members to use this as a photo-op, the group focused on the work and did not document themselves being merciful. The key difference between these two groups is a small and important. While the first group was happy to glorify their own name and image, the second group did these acts of mercy with love and humility, ultimately glorifying God in the process.
When we attempt to recognize what distinguishes acts of mercy from performances of mercy, we can quickly point to humility. When we read Matthew 6:1, we learn that humility is the distinguishing feature between practicing piety and mercy or prioritizing praise. We read, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them for then you have no reward from you Father in heaven.” In our two tales of mission groups, we saw that while the first church was entirely occupied with celebrating its good deeds with pictures and videos, the second church did the good deeds without asking for affirmations or praise. The next time you find yourself doing mercy, I challenge you to ask yourself a couple of questions: Have you done these merciful acts humbly? Can you look around and be completely assured that the good deeds you or your group have done have been without the expectation of rewards or praise? Did you do these good deeds to make only yourself feel good or did you do these good deeds with the express goal to improve the lives of the people you interacted with? Doing mercy without humility makes the act little more than a performance and is certainly not what Jesus Christ asks us to do.
Recognizing that we often do mercy wrong is only the first step to correcting much larger issues at hand. I began by asserting that we, as American Christians, do mercy and justice wrong, and I would like to return to this idea as we consider what we’ve learned and how to apply it to our lives. We can address our lack of humility with self-inspection and constant awareness of how we do mercy, but our failure to strive for justice is what keeps us from ever truly changing our society. As Christians in America, we’ve become too comfortable with only doing acts of mercy. Though it might seem that these good acts can be enough, we do a great disservice by neglecting to do justice.
When we allow ourselves to only do mercy, we neglect to fight for a more just society. By only practicing mercy, we do not bear fruit that lasts, rather we allow the future of those we love to be controlled by worldly and cruel hands. This means that we are caught in an endless pursuit of addressing ills and pains with mercy instead of working to end these pains once and for all. When Christ tells us that the poor will be with us always, we must recognize that the fight for justice will never truly be over. We must not be content with allowing systems of injustice to dictate what the future looks like, but we need to continue the fight towards justice. I am aware this is by no means an easy task. I am asking you to join a struggle as old as mankind that will never truly be finished, and I ask that you do it humbly. Recognize the unjust systems that harm you as well as those that you benefit from and work to deconstruct them. All the while, continue to do mercy. Live in service to the world around you and do these acts as both demonstrations of your love for your fellow man as well as to our God. Day by day and person by person, these acts add up, and one day, long from now, people might be able to look back and see that the world around them is better for it, and we can rest assured knowing that this is exactly what Christ wanted us to do.