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Justice Begins With Mercy

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 NIV)

The causes of poverty are so numerous and complex that I often feel hopeless about knowing where to start addressing it. Then a friend of mine posted an op-ed entitled “The Compassion Gap” on her Facebook page. In it, the author describes the negative responses he received to an earlier piece about a struggling single mother whose son has developmental delays because of undiagnosed hearing impairment. Many of his readers focused on her picture and condemned her for wasting money on tattoos (which she had probably gotten before having a baby) and being fat (even though obesity is more prevalent among poor and less-educated women, so they’re basically criticizing her for being poor).

Even though I knew that not all kids are born in a nice hospital where a hearing test comes standard before discharge, I’d never stopped to think about the implications for them. I went to half a dozen well-child pediatrician appointments before my son was 18 months old. If he had had a hearing impairment, it would have never been missed. As Doug talked about on Sunday, one of the problems with being privileged is that you don’t even realize the advantage it’s given you, because you can barely conceive of a life without that advantage.

Something I doubt I’ve really pondered before is that God calls us to help the poor. He doesn’t say “the deserving poor,” or “the poor who can’t help it,” or “the poor who are really close to being self-sufficient if they could just catch a break.” He just says “the poor.” The problem I have when I think about that command is the same as many rich people would have: we probably all know someone who is poor because of their own bad choices. I admit it: I resent helping people who dug their own pits.

Jesus does tell us to be discerning and harmless as we go out into the world (Matthew 10:16), so we want to give wisely, in ways that will actually help. But we are still supposed to help, and that means getting over the resentment. It’s been said that we easily desire judgment for others but mercy for ourselves, because if they only knew our story they would understand. The more we get to know others’ stories, and can understand how they ended up where they did (I’m willing to bet that for all of us, it’s a mixture of circumstance and choices), the more compassion we will have for them, and the less resentment we’ll harbor.

Micah 6:8 calls us “to act justly and to love mercy.” As Doug has mentioned, mercy means helping people who are struggling, while justice means asking why that struggle exists and trying to do something about it. Both are important to God, and to leave one off is to miss half our calling. Still, I think we can’t get to a point where we pursue justice until we have enough compassion to be merciful.

Curing poverty? It starts with compassion.

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