Mercy and Justice, Defined

English: The Poor helping the poor
English: The Poor helping the poor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In a recent interview with Theresa Riley of “Moyers & Company, Joel Berg, of NYC’s  Coalition Against Hunger said that 50 million Americans live in “food insecure” households. That means, simply, that many Americans just do not have enough to eat. Berg made the point that in this, the wealthiest country in the world, such a number is morally unacceptable.  People are “rationing food and skipping meals,” and the most adversely affected by this dire situation are children.  (


Riley asked Berg what could be done about it, and Berg responded that Congress could pass legislation to give people a “living wage,” i.e., enough money to actually survive and live with some dignity. Berg said that the situation costs America $167.5 billion a year. That’s a staggering figure. Berg explained that hunger causes a plethora of problems, adding to health care costs in this nation, and ultimately has a negative impact of America’s economy overall. He said:  “Food insecure children experience a broad range of problems that affect their health, development, well-being and school performance. Poorly nourished children have lower school test scores and require far more long-term health care spending. Hunger also reduces the productivity of workers, which reduces their earnings, which, in turn, reduces their ability to purchase nutritious food for their children. In this vicious cycle, malnourished children do not do as well in school, are more likely to drop out, and are less likely to go to college than children who are properly nourished. Consequently, malnourished children earn less as adults and are less able to help America build a 21st-century high-skills economy. In order for the nation to build the best public education system in the world, bring down health care costs, and rebuild our economy, we simply must end hunger”


The entire interview was sobering and depressing. We do not want to see what is real in our world; it is much more comfortable and easy to reside in myth. If we do not see hunger, or the effects of hunger in our own country, amongst American citizens, it is easy not to think about it or to understand how dire a condition it is. Riley’s report, coupled with a documentary shown on HBO recently, American Winter, have made me think about, again, the difference between mercy and justice.


To give the poor and the needy food and clothing is showing mercy. Religious and non-religious people find it relatively easy to help people in this way. It is always gratifying but a bit troubling to see the outpouring of mercy gifts during the Christmas season. I have always wondered why the need to give seems so important only during that season, when in fact, hunger and poverty know no seasons. One of the major problems for poor children is that they do not eat well during the summer; the food that their parents are able to afford is often that which is least healthy, and so obesity, or the possibility of obesity, is much higher for those children …but the thought that some children in our country cannot and do not eat well in summer is sickening.  To give the poor the food they need, however skewed it seems that we think most about them only during the holidays, amounts to giving or showing mercy.


The more difficult work, however, is the work of justice. Berg said that the way to curb hunger in this country would be for Congress to pass a living wage. Berg said that the President and Congress ought to concentrate not only on creating wealth on Wall Street, but on making it possible for people to make a living wage; he also said the Congress should also move positively on President Obama’s request for the minimum wage to be raised to nine dollars, and then “index it to inflation.” (


That seems simple enough, and it seems humane. It also seems economically wise, as hunger causes so many other problems that adversely affect the American economy. And yet, lawmakers in general seem hesitant to pass legislation that would let people have a living wage or get some decent money for the work they do. That sort of legislation only comes through the voices and actions of the people; getting Congress to hear the cries and see the needs of the poor and act on them is what constitutes justice work.


Power concedes nothing without a struggle, noted Frederick Douglass. When justice is being sought, there is always a struggle. One need only to look at the current fight for justice being waged by the LGBT community on marriage, or look back to struggles for basic rights waged by women and by African- Americans. Unfortunately, it appears that wanting one’s “country back” is equal to having a country where the scales are not in balance. Apparently, that, to many, is how America is supposed to be.


But the God of us all would not agree, not if the holy books of all religions are to be believed. The God in the Christian Bible,  Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures, demanded justice, and grew angry when such justice was not forthcoming.


Once, a member of my congregation said to me, “Why are you preaching about the poor? There are supposed to be poor people. The Bible says it.” She was referring to a statement in the Bible where Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you.” Are we to draw from that that God wants us not to worry or fret about the poor? I think not.


Susan Thistlewaite, a professor at the Chicago Theological School, author of Occupy the Bible,  and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, urged a group of us in a recent presentation she gave, to read the parables from the bottom up, from the perspective of the poor and not the wealthy. The outcome of doing that was personally very revealing.


We are not eager to do that, however. The bulk of us are not eager to seek justice, though the Hebrew Scriptures soundly advises us to do so. Justice work is difficult. It has to be so powerful that stony minds can be penetrated, and the needs of others can be put in front of political aspirations. The current struggle for gun control is a justice issue; what is being sought is not the prohibition of Americans to own guns, but, rather, a limitation on the kinds of guns that can be purchased, and the size of magazine clips as well. All that the gun control movement is trying to do is make it more difficult for anyone to shoot up an office or school full of people. That is justice work.


People don’t want justice for others, however, or maybe it is more accurate to say they don’t want to put the work into it. Justice work is hard and tedious; the fights against justice are just as focused as are the fights for justice. One who fights for justice has to be in it for the long haul.


It would be nice if the Congress would really think about the vast numbers of Americans struggling and pass a living wage and raise the minimum wage. But unless there are soldiers on the fields fighting for that, it “aint’ gonna happen.”


And so, the wealthiest nation in the world will continue to engage in seasonal mercy offerings. That’s good, but mercy without accompanying justice can come off as efforts in futility, because in spite of the good-intentioned mercy, the root of the problem is being ignored by those who could make a more long-standing difference.


A candid observation …