Beloved St. John’s community,
When we were teenagers, my brother and I sometimes accused my mom of giving us “guilt trips.” And she would always say: “If the guilt fits, wear it.” The guilt probably did fit! But still, she never convinced us from the heart to change our behavior in this way. In the version of Christianity I grew up with, I remember a conversation at church: which is more important, God’s righteousness (which can also be translated God’s “justice”) or God’s mercy? And I remember hearing one of the leaders say, God’s righteousness is more important. That was an important indicator of the cultural and theological value of that church. But it never sat quite right with me. How would you answer that question?
I suppose it’s predictable that I’m going to say next, it isn’t either/or, but both/and. God’s justice and God’s mercy are equally important. But to truly live both values is extremely difficult. What, truly, is justice? Is it to be like a prosecutor and to call out negative behavior with righteous indignation? And what is mercy? Is it to be forgiving and even enabling of bad behavior? One without the other seems to cause as many problems as it solves.
In the New Jerusalem translation of the Bible, the Greek word for “righteousness” is translated as “saving justice.” Jesus lived out a saving justice, for example, when the religious leaders brought to him a woman caught in the act of adultery (I’ve always wondered where the man was since they caught her “in the act”). They reminded Jesus that per the terms of Moses’ law, she should be stoned. What would Jesus say should be done? They were intending to put him in a no-win situation. Either he denied the law or he enforced violence against this woman. But instead he did neither: after making them all wait an uncomfortably long time, he said, “Let whoever is without sin among you cast the first stone.” (John 8:7). Justice and mercy had met one another, and the result was healing for all.
In our nation, vitriol is at an all-time high. This is as true among us as it is anywhere. Part of what we struggle with, seeking to understand those who differ from us politically, is the enormity of big feelings we have about these things. The values at stake are very great. How can we show up with kindness for others unless we process those big feelings? So in order to process big feelings we talk with people who agree with us to “vent” a little bit. But our venting is judgmental, harsh, and unkind. And it is precisely how we talk about “the others” when they are not present that entrenches our nation deeper and deeper into polarity and ultimately violence.
There is an old saying about “three gates” of speech that might provide a way forward that honors both justice and mercy. We might have learned it in kindergarten, but I know I really need the reminder:
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
Loving kindness is a characteristic that is at the heart of most great religious traditions. It goes by many names: compassion, kindness, humility, love. I would like to suggest that we begin to reclaim these three “gates of speech” even in our conversations with one another about the “political other” or whomever we are discussing. And use it on social media, and with our beloved relatives who disagree with us.
In this way, we can engage the spiritual practices turn, learn, pray, and bless all at once.
Beloved ones, let us remember simply what it is to be universally kind, even as we address injustice. Let us ask ourselves whether what we say is truly necessary. Let us tell the whole truth and be open to learning the whole truth, even if it contradicts our own assumptions about things. May God’s Spirit give us the grace and power to live in the intersection between the justice and mercy that we ourselves need so much.
Faithfully, in Christ’s love,