Risking Justice with Compassion
God’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously — take God seriously. ~Micah 6:8, The Message
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end— Because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior. ~Isaiah 43:2, The Message
Have you ever heard someone say something like this: “There’s so much pain out there. I suppose someone’s got to address it, but why should I have to do it? I mean, I’ve got my hands full right now, what with working 60 hours a week and my family and all. Besides, I’ve worked hard to get what I have. Why shouldn’t be able to enjoy it?” That’s what might be called the “I’ve Got Mine” theory of social justice: I’ve got mine; let someone else take care of the world’s problems. It’s not much of a social justice theory, but I hear it a lot.
How about this one as an alternative? “Yes, I know. The world is full of injustice and all. It needs to be corrected, but that will take a better person than I. It will take a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, a Dorothy Day. Maybe all three rolled into one. I can’t do that. I’m just an ordinary sort of person” That’s the Great Healer Theory of social justice: It takes a few great people to make a difference, and since I’m not a great person, I’ll wait for one to come along and follow that one. In the meantime, there’s not much I can do. Again, not much of a social justice theory. But I’ve heard it.
A variation on this theory is this: “There’s so much to do I wouldn’t know where to begin. I need someone to tell me. In the meantime, all I can do is wring my hands.” That one at least has the merit that it does not pretend to be anything but an excuse for not getting involved. Still, it has precious little to do with social justice. And it won’t heal any of the pain the world.
The church often uses guilt as a way to motivate people into action. “How can you possibly just stand there and do nothing? The world is falling to pieces all round you, from famine to racism. And if you don’t do anything about it, you are as guilty as those who perpetuate the pain, because your inaction allows the pain to continue and grow.” I know you’ve all heard some version of this. I’ve even preached it on occasion. It has the great virtue of getting a fair amount of social justice work started. Guilt really can motivate people. But there has to be something better, something that really will motivate people to get involved and touch the world with the loving compassion that Jesus demonstrated.
As we enter into this time of reflection, I want you to consider something. In this sanctuary are people who look so well put together on the outside, but whose hearts are breaking inside. People whose children are struggling, or who themselves are fighting depression, or the fear of a medical diagnosis, or angst over the future. People sitting in here today are facing death and grief, unemployment and financial insecurity. Behind the Sunday façade are people who are upside down financially but cannot bear tell family or friends; survivors who work hard every day to heal from the trauma of abuse; good people trying to hold it together after surviving the rough waters of a miscarriage, or between the rock and hard place of a divorce, or wrestling with the dead end of Alzheimer’s. Too many of us are being kept up late at night with worries – shared concerns – that consume us.
What might happen if we can risk taking one step out from behind the veneer of put-togetherness to discover the many, many of us who are feeling overwhelmed and overextended? What might happen if our social justice commitments started right here and now as we risk compassion? Let’s think about the ingredients of this kind of compassion as we consider the words of the Hebrew prophets.
In the reading from Micah, God and the people of Israel are in the middle of a lawsuit. They have come to court to see who is at fault in their fractured relationship. Israel has ignored God. The people have forgotten how God saved them from the land of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. They are all too willing to bargain, to bribe, and to buy off their neighbor and their God. On the stand, Israel comes up with a clever defense. “What can we bring before the Lord to make up for what we’ve done? Maybe God would be happy if we took a valuable yearling calf and sacrificed it. No … God will want more. Maybe we should raise the value by sacrificing not one, but a thousand rams, and then smother it with rivers of precious olive oil. Then would God be pleased? What if we sacrificed our firstborn children to pay for the sins of our souls? Then would God forgive? Tell us the cost, and we will pay.”
The urgent cries of Israel don’t sound very different than our own laments today. We mess something up, and we have an urgent compulsion to clear our consciences. We cry, “God, what do you want from me. What can I do to make up for what I’ve done? Will you be happy if I promise to go to church every Sunday for a month? How about a year? What if I make good on my stewardship pledge? I’ll even put a little extra in? Then would you be pleased, God? How much do I need to give in order to secure your love? Do I need to find the people and things that are most valuable to me and offer them to you, Lord? Then would you forgive? Tell me the cost, and I will pay.” WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE?
Micah gives a surprise answer. God doesn’t want stuff. God wants you. Micah says that if you want to experience God’s presence, then do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility with your God.
First God says do justice or do what is fair and right. Unfortunately, when people talk about justice, they sometimes mean vengeance, punishment, pain for pain, and an eye for an eye. Some people are impatient with anything that delays the gratification that comes from the exercise of retribution. If we could see the world through the eyes of God, we would be looking through eyes of compassion. God cares deeply about people and how we treat one another. God cares about our needs, our hurts and brokenness. In Micah’s day, most of the county’s leaders were caught up in their own comfort and prosperity. But Micah saw the suffering of the general population. He knew that justice would not come from the state or the power structure. Justice rises from people who dare to envision dynamic alternatives to their current unjust conditions. To do justice is not a romantic ideal nor an abstract concept. Rather, justice means hard work. A life of justice asks us to work together, to analyze the present unjust system and to find ways to change the system. Justice is able to disrupt, dismantle, break down, disarm, and transform the world when we dare to see what is really happening without growing cynical. Living a life of justice means being willing to risk seeing another person’s suffering as our own.
Doing justice is hard because it means taking on some risk. And many of us have a strong allergic reaction to change of any kind. We also have a strong revulsion to the church getting involved in politics. CCC is one of those rare congregations that does not shy away from some political issues that demand our attention. I love that we get involved. However, not every political issue of the day demands a decision from the churches. I don’t think churches should pursue political goals that are self-serving. I can’t stand to see Christians try to legislate their convictions on divorce or abortion into state and federal law. I don’t have much patience when Christians fight the ACLU to keep crèches on public greens, or prayer in schools, or evolution out of schools. I love to see Christian speak up and act up on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, to fight for housing for low-income families, for decent health care for the aging and the underprivileged, for fair treatment of all people. Jesus pointed to the outcasts of the world—those who were considered “the least”—and said, in effect, “Those people are just like me. If you love me, then you will also love them.” Anyone can love the healthy, the successful, and the glamorous. There’s little nobility or courage in that. But God calls us to a higher standard—to risk loving and serving the world just as he does – to understand that when one suffers, we all suffer. When one person is given dignity, we are all brought a little higher. In these times that are neither safe nor sane, I love to see Christens risk maximum commitment to Jesus Christ when they can expect to see minimal support from the culture around them. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. And, we also remember that the answer to homelessness is homes, not shelters. What the poor and downtrodden need is not piecemeal charity, but wholesale justice.
During the Democratic National Convention, we heard Michele Obama say, “When they go low, we go high.” I would like to add something to that. If you’re going to go low, make sure to pick someone up.
Micah also mentions kindness. We all know what kindness is. Compassion, sympathy, gentleness, benevolence, helpfulness. I read about an experiment where setting, macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so. 87% preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain.
In an updated version of the experiment, observers placed pairs of captive macaques opposite one another and allowed them to take turns picking an icon on a computer screen that offered the other either a reward or a punishment. Rewards were juice sips, while punishment came in the form of puffs of air into the eyes. The researchers found most of the 14 pairs of monkeys used in the experiment were reluctant to cause another to be punished but gave rewards freely. They also found that the monkeys most likely to administer rewards to others also tended to blink more in anticipation of an air puff to another monkey’s eyes, and blinked more afterwards as well. In other words, monkeys are aware in some respect of the wellbeing of their peers, and respond in ways they deem appropriate. In some cases, it was harder for the macaque to view another’s suffering than to experience it.
I just have to wonder, if the circumstances were reversed, and captive humans were offered the same deal by macaque scientists, would we do as well? When we become witnesses to the realities in our communities, it can flood us with compassionate kindness towards others.
Micah also mentions humility. A story is told about a doctor at mental health institution who made his rounds one evening. She heard someone shouting from one of the rooms. “I am the King of the Universe. I am the Ruler of the World! From now on everyone will do what I say because I am the Supreme Commander of the Galaxies!” The doctor opened the door to find a man in his underwear, standing on a chair, beating his chest and yelling, “I am the King of the Universe!” The doctor shouted, “Harry, get own off that chair! And quiet down! You’re disrupting people who are trying to sleep!” “I am the King of the Universe!” “Harry, you are not the King of the Universe!” “Yes I am!” he cried all the louder. “And just what makes you think you are the King of the Universe?” asked the doctor. “God told me I was King of the Universe!” shouted Harry. Just then, a voice erupted from another patient’s room down the hallway: “I did not say that!”
Humility means recognizing that the universe doesn’t revolve around us. In fact, it means serving others in a way that doesn’t even draw attention to the good deeds we do. It means that we do acts of justice and kindness with quiet simplicity.
Justice. Kindness. Humility. Honestly, it would be a lot easier to buy God off. It’s risky and uncomfortable. The life of justice is a response to God’s goodness. It refuses to back down in the face of evil. It never relents shining the light of grace into the dark place sin the world. Do you want to experience God’s presence? Do you seek tangible evidence of the New Life? Then live for God by living for justice, kindness, and humility, not just out there on the frontlines of the protests and legislative hearings, but in this room, in your living room, in the room of your heart. In the words of poet David Whyte, start close in.
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.