Justice and Mercy

November 09, 2019

Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome

Bro. Al Rivera and I spent last week visiting Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, NY as part of our efforts to promote vocation awareness. Those familiar with Catholic buzzwords could correctly surmise that one goal of the week was to increase awareness and understanding of religious life as lived by religious brothers and sisters, and the Marist Brothers in particular. Much of our time throughout the week was spent with captive audiences, in which cases it was especially important to discuss vocation in a more general sense: how to direct one’s life in a meaningful and satisfying way according to an individual’s personality and formative experiences. I was thrilled that one group of students I held hostage for a class period was enrolled in a senior social justice elective.

I myself taught social justice for three years back when I was at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, MA. The core concepts around Catholic Social Teaching all flow from a strong belief in the life and dignity of every single person. This value engenders a commitment to notice and remedy the situations that prevent people from enjoying basic human rights and equitable treatment. BLUE Missions Group, where I interned last year, worked with rural communities in the Dominican Republic to obtain safe and adequate water systems and latrine facilities necessary for promoting health, livelihoods, and a felt sense of self-worth. This was truly a work of social justice.

It dismays me today however, to see how the term social justice has been distorted in popular usage. Critics from the right dismiss social justice concerns as if the term only referred to issues associated with identity politics: insensitive remarks, approval of traditional gender roles, etc. Because the loudest arguments seem to occur on-line now, the virtual social justice battlefield indeed seems to be fought on the turf of word and image. I rarely hear the term ‘social justice’ when advocates raise issues around infant mortality, faltering education, pervasive hunger, inadequate housing, or inhumane prisons. Of course, everybody should be treated with dignity and respect, and I count myself among those who can become exasperated when I perceive maliciously ignorant language. It is also clear to me however that the justice issues in which lives are at stake should merit the greatest attention as opposed to the most recent celebrity faux pas.

Social justice as understood in the Christian sense sets itself apart from much secular usage insofar as it is based on radical love and a belief in forgiveness. We don’t need to scour ancient social media posts to find evidence of past sins—after all, we can assume that everybody has their share of bygone unpleasantness. Those of us who have genuinely evolved since our younger selves published embarrassingly ignorant pronouncements into cyberspace should be allowed to move on and be recognized for the better people we have become. Not one person among us has been entirely innocent of any misdeed… there are those who have been caught and those who have not.

The example of Jesus is instructive. We know Jesus befriended the poor and vulnerable. It is important to remember though that he gave Pharisees a chance too. He even invited himself over to the house of Zacchaeus the tax collector before the latter has shown any repentance—although Jesus’ embrace then prompted him to make restitution to those he had cheated. If Jesus had been wearing his identity blinders, he would not have encountered Zacchaeus as an individual who could change for the better, but rather as an enemy of the poor who should be shunned.

It is important to challenge unjust systems whether through attempts to abolish or reform. It is also important to acknowledge the individuals in those systems, both for their contributions to the harm that is done but also for their potential to choose differently in the future. Bro. Roger of Taizé sheltered Jewish refugees while World War II raged, and when it was over, he extended his ministry of compassion to German POWs. Sr. Norma Pimentel works at the US-Mexican border with today’s refugees, but by befriending ICE and Border Patrol agents rather than scorning them, she has won allies who learned to treat migrants more humanely; some of these agents even began volunteering at her refugee shelter after their shift ended at work.

As Psalm 85 says, justice and mercy should kiss. In part, that means not dehumanizing the oppressor but trying to recognize how they too are unwitting captives of the oppression they inflict on others. Bullying the bully seems to be fashionable these days, but such an attempt to apply justice without a thorough grounding in love leads only to resentment that eventually causes even greater upheaval and violence.


This week’s “ear candy” is the Bob Dylan number Like a Rolling Stone, which details the disorientation that follows a mythic reversal of fortune. Those with unjust power should indeed lose it, but then how will the rest of us respond? With jeers and condemnation? Or will we manage greater empathy than the previous ruling class? The “brain food” is an opinion article suggesting that overly strident displays of progressive principle ends up helping certain retrograde governmental leaders rather than hurting their chances. When taking any public position, it may be worth asking whether one aims to feel good about sticking up for the correct principle or rather to effect some kind of actual change. These often require different approaches.

Ear Candy: “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan

Brain Food: “How the Insufferably Woke Help Trump” by Tim Egan

Come back next Saturday for a new post!