There is an Old Testament passage of Scripture which is often quoted when the subject of social justice is being discussed.
O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8
Simply stated the prophet declares there are three things which God considers to be good qualities or three things He requires of His followers. One is to practice justice, the second is to love mercy, and the last is to walk humbly with God.
The subject of social justice is a hot topic. Regardless of what kind of social justice is being considered the temperature in the room rises when the subject is discussed. There’s something that rises in every fair-minded person when they observe someone being treated unfairly. No one likes a bully, and the need to defend the weak, vulnerable, disenfranchised, or marginalized is incumbent on everyone; especially people of faith.
There is something, however, that brings me grave concern when this topic is brought up. There seems to be a glaring absence on God’s requirement to also practice mercy and humility. Maybe I’m missing it, but it appears that discussing the need for social justice and history’s story of injustice as it relates to race, religion, or social issues generates a raging demand for vengeance and “a pound of flesh.” Rarely do I hear the call for forgiveness toward the offenders, by echoing Christ’s prayer from the cross for His enemies. It seems to me that when I make an infraction I want mercy. However, when you or “your kind” commits an offense I want justice. Why is it that when someone does humble themselves and repent or ask forgiveness for their offense, there is too often a hesitancy to immediately release our offender with the words, “I forgive you?”
This past Tuesday over 650 people gathered at the John S. Knight Center for our 6th Annual Awards Breakfast to listen to the story of Jameel McGee and Andrew Collins. Jameel shared how God supernaturally gave him the power to let go of the natural tendency to “even the score” with Andrew, the former crooked cop who framed him for something he didn’t do and which sent him to prison for three years. Jameel not only forgave Andrew for his part in a gross miscarriage of justice, but he also forgave those in the institutional justice system that didn’t protect him. He shared his story with a spirit of grace and humility, not with vengeance and retaliation. Jameel lives with the confidence that vengeance is not his to carry out. Rather, vengeance is God’s to carry out, and be assured in due season God will right all wrongs.
One of America’s original sins is the oppressive dominance which has and continues to be practiced by White America over other colors and cultures. The Native American and the African American communities have suffered under those who play by their own definition of the “golden rule”- the one with the gold makes the rules. The power and privilege that comes with money and pigment manifests itself covertly as well. The Akron Beacon Journal’s series on What It Means to Be White in America exposed the hearts of many who refuse to acknowledge that there are benefits that automatically come to those whose skin is of a lighter hue.
What is it that keeps many in the white community from simply acknowledging that we don’t face the same disparities that are experienced in the black community? There are several answers to that question, and I’ll touch on just a few. First, people say they’re tired of hearing about it. Second, they believe it’s old news. Third, the pendulum has swung the other way and now it’s reverse racism. Fourth, the feeling that I’m not responsible for the atrocities others committed during the days of slavery. And there are many other reasons used to rationalize and not admit the obvious.
But, the real reason is that at the root of this is an unwillingness to own up to our generational sin. This sin can be summarized in one word- PRIDE. The healing process will begin when white Americans model humility and no longer feel the need to defend ourselves, but rather simply weep with those who weep. In the Old Testament, this was called identificational repentance. People would repent for the sins of former generations or leaders on their behalf. True healing of racial brokenness will not really occur until we in the white community humble ourselves, listen empathetically, and try to understand a perspective that is so foreign to our own.
On the other hand, those who have been wronged must ultimately address the subject of forgiveness. I’ve preached many messages on forgiveness, so let me share a few things. First, forgiveness is both a choice in time and a process over time. Second, forgiveness will never be granted if one waits until their offender apologizes at the level they consider meriting absolution. There will always be an excuse such as: they really didn’t mean it, or their body language didn’t indicate true sincerity, or I’m sorry doesn’t cover it, or….! Third, forgiveness is not the same as trust. I can forgive and still not trust enough to be close friends. But to forgive relinquishes the right to “punish” by rejecting the offender. There are others, of course, but the point is the offended must ultimately let go of the past and move on like Jameel did with Andrew. There were family members and former friends that couldn’t understand and even struggled with Jameel’s willingness to forgive. When asked how he handled that Jameel basically said he wasn’t going to allow their unforgiveness to dictate his decision to forgive.
The root of one’s unwillingness to forgive is wrapped up in that same word I mentioned earlier- PRIDE. Remember the verse from Micah 6:8 and the third thing God requires of His people? HUMILITY. Bishop Johnson and I were discussing this matter this past week. We both agreed when it comes to the race discussion, there is plenty of blame to go around. The focus is always on what you did to me rather than on my behavior. Frankly, we don’t see a great deal of humility being exhibited from either “camp.”
Whatever happened to mercy and humility?
There is no one answer that covers it all, but in my humble opinion, these two qualities have been sacrificed on the altar of self and ego. The word EGO might stand for Edging God Out. God is too often being left out of the equation. Yes, I am grieved by how the Christian community behaves when tensions arise over race or other sensitive issues. I see little difference in the way people who profess no faith approach an offense compared to those who claim the name of Jesus but shame Him with their unchristian attitudes.
The purpose of this message is not to point fingers, rather to state what Jesus called “hard sayings” and confront all of us (MYSELF INCLUDED) with God’s truth. I hope this helps all of us to take an honest look at our own hearts, just as Rev. Dr. Ronald Fowler and Pastor Knute Larson challenged all of us to do at the Breakfast on Tuesday. I don’t know about you, but I have so many issues that Jesus’ words are convicting me about personally. “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Lord, heal my eyes and give me clear sight so I can indeed do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with all people.