In a previous article, I did a brief analysis of the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” and how this phrase is often used or disregarded by Christians trying to bring their faith into practice. As I mentioned in the article, the phrase has its origins with St. Augustine, and while it draws from scripture, it does not come directly. Over the past year and a half, I have had the opportunity to dwell more on this issue that often falls along political lines for Christians. In this article, I want to address the balancing act between those Christians who seek mercy without a proper understanding of Justice and those Christians who neglect mercy and focus only on Justice.
For some context, I have been going through Fr. Mike Schmitz Bible in a Year podcast and, at the time of writing this article, just reached Exodus 22 and 23. In these two chapters, we see God continue to give his people the rules by which he desires them to live out their lives. There are several rules regulating social life and communal justice, and I wanted to focus specifically on two passages regarding how Christians should care for the poor or suffering.
The first passage is set up to ensure that Israelites do not develop the hardness of heart that Pharaoh had before he finally let the Hebrews leave Egypt. In Exodus 22: 21-27 the Lord says:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering, it is his mantle for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”
Further throughout Exodus, the Lord reminds the Israelites to do these things as they were once aliens in Egypt themselves. Those who are weaker than us, whether socially, economically, or otherwise, are placed in a position that can be easily taken advantage of. The Lord will hear their cry and “will kill you with a sword” the oppressors that prey upon these weaknesses. God is compassionate and to act as one of the people of God is to reflect his compassion to all we see. Mercy is an essential commandment for us Christians, this commandment of compassion is echoed throughout the New Testament by Christ and the first Apostles (Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, etc). Even though the alien does have a right to our land, nor does the economically weak have a right to our support, it is through this spirit of mercy that we choose to move beyond the justice/injustice paradigm and love those in weakness.
I also want to include that one must also be aware of one’s influence over others, especially children. It can be all too easy to give a child, friend, or student the “easy” answer to get them to do what we want them to do, but is not an honest answer. For parents, teachers, leaders, and even bishops the authority you are given is a gift from God and it is imperative to recognize this authority and the responsibility that comes with it.
Right after the Lord goes through warnings against oppression, he then talks about justice. In Exodus 23: 3-7 he states:
“You shall not utter a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man, to be a malicious witness. You shall not follow a multitude to do evil; nor shall you bear witness in a suit, turning aside after a multitude, so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his suit […] You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his suit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.”
To some, it might seem that God took a step back from the way of mercy by saying that you should not pervert justice for the sake of a poor man. However, just as with loving the sinner and hating the sin, a more balanced approach is necessary. While it is an act of compassion and mercy to love, support, and aid those who are oppressed, it is sinful and wrong to seek to aid the oppressed by further acts of injustice. Further oppression, violence, or evil is done to help those who have had evil done to them is wrong. We are not called to be Robinhood and take from those who perpetuate injustice, rather we are called to take from our own wealth and abilities to show mercy.
I will not go into any detailed political examples which may detract from the point I am making. That famous quote attributed to Aquinas makes this point clear, “mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.” Both sides are necessary. If you are reading this article and generally seek out to help the oppressed I would caution you to pray seriously about the method you may use. If you generally hate any discussion of oppressor vs. oppressed I would pray that God softens your heart that you may hear the suffering of others and be aware of any way you have acted wrongly against the poor. Awareness of where we come down personally can help us to see if we can work more on showing mercy or acting with justice.