Loving Justice, Mercy, & “the Other”

I loved Rachel Stanton’s guest post on political correctness for Reformed Margins! Mad props to her for recognizing that “it’s possible for speech codes to become oppressive,” while focusing our attention on the importance of using “language that respects others and upholds their worth and dignity.” In other words, when it comes to how we ought to think about political correctness, we can acknowledge its limits, but ultimately love wins.

Still, this is easier said than done. What does it practically look like to respect others and uphold their worth and dignity? What does it look like to love “the Other”?

Perhaps some reflection on justice and mercy might help. To love “the Other” well, it is imperative that we stand for justice and mercy. However, it is very possible, even common, that the cry for justice and the cry for mercy become unloving gestures. Let me explain with two examples.

  1. Asian American Responses to Injustice

Most of my thinking has been in the Asian American Christian context. I’ve noticed two kinds of Asian Americans Christians amongst my friends.

First, there are the “justice-oriented” ones, who embrace the millennial spirit and have begun to raise their voices against social injustice, particularly against Asian discrimination in the workplace, academy, or the film industry. These are the ones who police social media for any infraction against political correctness. These are the ones who tweet social justice-y articles or statements and promote various causes on their Facebook timeline, ever motivated by the racial chip on their shoulders. Often their tweets and Facebook posts are calls for justice, accompanied by a certain tone of indignation. In their eyes, the world would be a better place if more people took a stand for justice.

Then there are the “mercy-oriented” ones, who are more silent. Maybe some of them don’t care about social justice, or perhaps it’s just that their social contexts don’t as palpably confront them with society’s injustices. Sure, they’ve experienced racism, but by and large, their experience of society has ranged from neutral to even positive. And for such reasons, when pressed to think and talk about current issues of injustice, they often don’t understand what all the noise is about. When they encounter instances of racial prejudice on their Asian friends’ Facebook timelines, they get turned off by the angry tone, and think, “Isn’t it more ‘Christian’ to just show mercy and forgive the racists?” In their eyes, the world would be a better place if people mercifully forgave those that harmed them.

How should we navigate the differences between the “justice-oriented” and the “mercy-oriented”? Rather than picking one type over another, what if we adjusted our perspective on when to stand for justice and when to stand for mercy?

Perhaps a grammatical distinction might help communicate my point. What if, when suffering injustice ourselves (in the 1st person: I/me, we/us), we defaulted to mercy, rather than the more common response: demanding justice or vengeance for ourselves? And what if, when witnessing injustice (or even committing injustice) against others (in the 2nd or 3rd person: you, he/she), we defaulted to indignation, rather than the common response: demanding mercy and forgiveness from “the Other”?

2. The Mission of the Church

There are very different emphases circulating around the evangelical church these days. While speaking of the church’s obligation to “social justice,” others prefer to speak of the church’s “mercy ministry.” “Social justice” has a connotation of obligation. We are indebted to people as image-bearers of God and must do full justice to their humanity. “Mercy ministry,” on the other hand, connotes benevolence, charity, and undeserved favor upon the needy.

So, which one best describes the church’s deed ministry? I believe a grammatical distinction between 1st person and 2nd/3rd person perspectives might help us here, too.

I’m convinced that as the church, in the 1st person, we should emphasize our commitment to “social justice” (“We are committed to social justice for the good of others”). To me, it is a far more winsome testimony to view one’s deed ministry as a matter of justice, an obligation to uphold the dignity of “the Other,” rather than viewing one’s deed ministry as an act of mercy. To love “the Other” is to see oneself, not as some benevolent and merciful savior, but primarily as a human being desiring the well-being of fellow human beings. Sure it’s possible that those who benefit from our social justice ministries, might see themselves (from their 1st person perspectives) as recipients of mercy (“We are blessed by this mercy ministry”). Yet the church, speaking in the 2nd person, would do well to encounter those in need saying: “You are deserving of justice and integrity,” and not “You are undeserving recipients of my merciful deeds toward you!”

Self-centered Demands vs. Others-Centered Demands

If we’re honest with ourselves, our demands for justice are more often self-centered than others-centered. Justice only matters when our selves are threatened or mistreated. Likewise, our demands for mercy are also quite self-centered. We demand mercy when we have done harm to others, or when the indignation of those who suffer makes us uncomfortable. Hence, both our demands for justice and mercy are dominated by selfishness, and hardly a concern for “the Other”.

But Jesus shows us a different way. He shows us a way to embrace both justice and mercy in a completely unselfish way. In the Person of Jesus Christ, we find a human being, who mercifully forgave others while suffering on the cross, yet angrily fashioned a whip out of a just zeal for Another in the Temple. Both his desires for mercy and for justice were unabashedly others-centered. By his Spirit, we can and must do the same. Let us commit our 1st person experiences of injustice to a merciful response, while allowing our 2nd/3rd person experiences of others’ suffering to result in indignation. In this way, love will win.

CAVEAT: Does this mean that we should never stand up and demand justice for ourselves? I understand that this is a legitimate action and that the option of showing mercy demonstrates privilege. Still, my hope is that we (1st person), who suffer injustice (and I believe all of us do to varying degrees), turn the other cheek and default to mercy and forgiveness. My hope is that we seek justice for others (2nd and 3rd person) first, before seeking it for ourselves. I believe that this is entailed in the second greatest commandment: “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

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