I had the opportunity recently to be part of a group making a deputation to the mayor and the Policy and Finance Committee of the City of Toronto regarding a proposed strategy for moving chronically homeless people into housing. Many other groups deputed as well, and the general consensus was that, although the “Streets to Homes” strategy had some serious flaws, its over-all direction and intent were laudable. There was, however, a widely and passionately expressed objection to the proposed bylaw, forming part of the strategy that would make it illegal for people to sleep at City Hall. Every deputation expressed objection to the proposed bylaw would result in homeless people being harassed, driven into hiding (and therefore away from the relative safety of City Hall), or even jailed. At the eleventh hour, changes were made to the bylaw prior to its passing such that sleeping on any city-owned property became illegal. I’m happy to report that the Streets to Homes initiative has been more successful at housing our people than many of us (myself included) expected; it saddens me that, in many other cases, our fears regarding the further victimization of some who are already excluded and desperate have come to pass.
And now at least one city councilor wants to make panhandling of any kind a criminal offence. It hardly seems just to criminalize the last option many p rofo9undly poor people have to eke out a minimal existence without stealing, hurting someone, or prostituting themselves. (A number of my friends have already received several summons under existing bylaws, for behaviors that would pass completely unnoticed in anyone not visibly homeless. If past experience proves out, their unpaid fines will provide leverage to place them behind them behind bars for a few days the next time the streets are deemed in need of cleansing.) But neither does it seem merciful to merely accept the status quo, and allow them to continue to beg, with all the humiliation and self-abnegation that word infers. To confuse the matter further, I know the councilor in question, and although I disagree with her “J40” bylaw proposal, I believe that she cares deeply about the plight of the poor in the city.
The requirements of justice and mercy seem often to be at cross- purposes- mercy is precisely not about the kind of fairness, redress or measured vengeance that we often call justice. Even if one accepts the definition of biblical justice as a bias in favor of people who are poor, disenfranchised, disadvantaged or otherwise behind-the-eight-ball-of-life, this is still not really mercy. It’s simply a rebalancing ( a justifying) of systemic in-equities. Mercy, on the other hand, comes into play when someone has already benefited from the rectifying effect of justice – and spits in its face. Mercy, by definition, is only for the guilty.
These values, then, can only be held in a creative tension: mercy needs the balancing effect of justice, and justice needs to be personalized by mercy. God is telling me, in other words, that I can’t really act justly without loving mercy, and vice versa. This tension is evident everywhere in my life.
Where I am in positions of power, I am charged with the responsibility of action in ways that will balance the inequities that abound in my world. I am called to do this in personal relationships, in the places where I have “executive” power (by virtue of my position as a business or ministry leader), and in society at large, where my power is a result primarily of being a western, white, middle class (or higher) male. I am also called to behave in these same venues in a manner that’s consistent with God’s extravagant mercy – which means, generally, paying the cost of someone else’s mistakes myself. That’s essentially what mercy in application is: being willing to absorb the cost of another’s fault.
For me, as for many of my peers, it takes some doing even to recognize the extent of the privilege my place in society affords me. (Owning a house, regardless of the size of the mortgage, places me in the top 5% of the world in terms of wealth.) What the Bible describes as justice seems often to be a profligate favoritism toward those who won’t do for themselves. To start at that point, and then be told to “love mercy” on top of it, can seem, at times, to be just plain wrong – or, at the very least, unfair. Until I consider how different justice and mercy look when I am looking at them from a place of weakness or brokenness in my own life. Then, I am eager for the balancing of inequities I am unable to address by my own strength. And if I’m eager for justice, I positively crave mercy – even (or especially) when I don’t think I deserve it, or can’t bring myself to ask for it. Mercy, after all, is by definition only of value to one who is guilty.
As a person who lives in society’s “power bracket”, I don’t often think of myself as someone who needs these values applied to me. Not until I try walking with God, it’s simply not possible to “walk with God” other than humbly. Even on those rare occasions when God works His incredible power through me, and accomplishes something of true value, the reaction it creates in me is humility, not pride (at least, not until I have it myself!). Striving for fairness on my own only underscores my suspicion that I don’t really deserve it; mercy without God leaves me feeling patronized or patronizing. But his mere presence, dimly sensed, is enough to remind me of just how small I really am – how helpless to rectify the deeper inequities of my life and relationships, and how much in need of mercy for my behaviors and motives.
I want to live this way because it’s addictive, intoxicating – and so entirely contrary to the prevailing dogmas of vengeance and condescension that masquerade as justice and mercy. This quickening, to use an old term, is the effect of God’s justice and mercy on me, and that effect is why I’m willing to try to live out these values. I want to do the right thing, and seek the right things for others. I want to do so out of a passionately merciful heart.
“Do the right thing”, He says, “but go crazy for mercy for mercy! It’s the only way you’ll be able to walk beside me, secure in the knowledge of who you really are.”