When I was a pastor back in West Virginia over 20 years ago, I used to conduct a weekly Bible study. I remember leading a series on some of the parables of Jesus, and another series on the Old Testament prophets, Amos and Hosea. As I recall, the Vietnam War was either in its final stages or had just ended, Watergate was still fresh in the public memory, and there was a lot of dissatisfaction with our national public life. As we worked our way through Amos and Hosea, we repeatedly encountered words of judgment rendered against the people of God for the failings of their religious, political, and social existence. As the participants in this Bible study reflected upon how God might be dealing with us today, and as they responded in our discussion of these texts, there was one response that kept coming forth again and again.
In my memory there was one man who consistently articulated this response, but there may have been others. In any case, it went like this: "Give me mercy, not justice." Now I want you to understand that there were no reprobates in this Bible study, so far as I know, and so this appeal for mercy was not coming from anyone who had lived a terrible life. It was coming from some of the kindest and most decent people I have ever known.
Mercy, not justice. In one very important respect, this response was right on. We would all be in serious trouble if we received from God only what we deserve. If justice means "getting what we deserve", then justice would be very hard to take. Some people would disagree, of course. They think that they have lived a life so good that God owes it to be good to them. From a Christian perspective, however, we always get better from God than we deserve. We not only need and want, but can actually hope to receive, God's mercy.
I have never been very satisfied, however, with the idea that God's justice must be at odds with God's mercy. In last Sunday's sermon, I tried to suggest that God's justice looks very much like God's mercy. As the great Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, wrote, "The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of divine mercy; and is founded thereon" [SUMMA THEOLOGICA, I, 2144, 1272].
The problem is that most of our ideas of justice are at odds with the idea of mercy. One of those ideas of justice is based on retribution. In this view, justice means "getting even" or "paying someone back". It is a form of revenge. A more reasonable and less vengeful idea of justice is based on ideas of fairness, equality, and impartiality. In this view, violations and transgressions disturb the peace and tear the fabric of society. The balances in society need to be restored, and that requires transgressors to pay some kind of price that corresponds to their transgression. There is still another understanding of justice, however, that is more in keeping with the biblical understanding of God. The Hebrew word is mishpat. Mishpat is a dynamic form of justice. It is justice that aims at the wholeness of society, and expresses a special concern for those who are most likely to be found on the margins. It is a justice that aims to restore relationships that have been broken, to bring healing where the social fabric is torn, to bring peace and harmony where violations have generated hatred, enmity, division, and strife. I called this view of justice "restorative justice," because its primary goal is not punishment, or even fairness. Punishment may be involved. Fairness remains a consideration. But restorative justice seeks, above all, to heal and restore.
When the prophet Micah says, "what does the LORD requires of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" he speaks first of mishpat. This is the kind of justice that we are called to do. It is the kind of justice that God requires. But Micah also says we are to "love kindness." The Hebrew word here is hesed. Throughout the King James Version of the Bible hesed is usually translated "mercy." Here and in some other places the New RSV translates it "kindness." In many other places it is translated "steadfast love." Hesed is a rich enough concept to include all of these meanings. It connotes loyalty and faithfulness as well. I will speak of it this morning primarily as kindness, but it is a kindness that is not occasional or random or merely spontaneous. It is a kindness that is rooted in commitment or loyalty or steadfast love. Micah says we are to love such kindness, and he does not mean that we are simply to appreciate it in others. He means that we are to be devoted to such kindness as an integral part of our relationship to others and to God.
I mentioned last Sunday, and it bears repeating, that Micah's statement about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God is an eloquent summary of the prophetic understanding of true religion. This morning's text from Zechariah also summarizes the heart of prophetic teaching in similar terms: "Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the orphan, the widow, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another." Zechariah presents this as the central teaching that has been given by the prophets to the people of God. He then goes on to describe the great social and political breakdown and environmental desolation that resulted because they refused to listen. When they did not order their lives according to justice and kindness, great disorder came upon them at the hands of God.
So we are not only to do justice, but also to love kindness. What does that mean? A couple presidential campaigns ago we were all courted with the promise of a "kinder and gentler society." The promise surely reflected a realization that, as a society, we are not particularly gentle or kind, especially toward those who are most vulnerable and in greatest need. It may also have reflected a sense that we have not been minding our manners.
Some time ago Roy Rivenburg of the LOS ANGELES TIMES wrote, "The kinder gentler nation has fallen and it can't get up." He went on to note a number of instances in our public life where basic civility has broken down: Television commercials that directly attack a competitor's product; greeting cards with hostile and insulting messages; high school sports teams that have banned postgame handshakes to avoid fistfights; news reports of fatal duels over parking spaces, loud stereos, and subway seats [BLOOMINGTON HERALD-TIMES, 7-23-95]. New phrases keep popping into our vocabulary to express the changing realities of our times, phrases like "shock jock" radio and "road rage." More recently we had a U. S. Representative, Dan Burton, calling the President a "scumbag." What was it that Jesus said?--"Do not judge, so that you will not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged" [Matthew 7:1-2a]. And as Paul wrote to the Romans, "you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things" [2:1]. As journalist Rivenburg quoted a psychiatrist in his newspaper article, "We're playing tag with hate."
If we are to love kindness, perhaps the place to begin is with rejecting meanness and cruelty in all its forms. In a small town in south Georgia lived a man named Sam Tate. There was another man in town known as the "town drunk." One morning he saw Mr. Tate and told him, "Sam, the high school boys threw rocks at me last night." Tate replied, "Well, Jim, maybe they were just trying to make a better man out of you." The old drunk replied, "Sam, I never heard of Jesus throwing rocks at anybody to make them better." Loving kindness means rejecting meanness and treating others as if we share a common humanity.
As I indicated in last Sunday's sermon, currently popular attitudes toward those who fill our jails and prisons to over-flowing are anything but kind. Every weekday we receive an unsolicited fax in the church office called "Bloomington Fax Today". And every day there is a poll regarding some issue of public concern. A couple weeks ago that poll had to do with a request of prisoners in a certain institution that they be allowed to purchase their own underwear rather than having to wear underwear from a common supply provided by the state. The current underwear is always washed, but it is often stained and may have been worn by any number of others.
Results from the poll were fairly even divided, but you can imagine what some had to say: "If they want to purchase their own undies, they shouldn't have gone to jail in the first place." "When are we as a society going to learn prisons are to punish criminals, not cater to them." "All inmates should wear used undies, skidmarks and all! Who cares if they want new ones. They gave up that right when they committed the crime" [August 24, 1998]. The underwear issue may not seem all that important. There are a lot worse things that people in prisons must endure. The point is, when are we as a society going to realize that even inmates and criminals are human beings. If we treat them as less so, they will likely become less so, and their constructive reintegration into society will become all the more unlikely.
Several features of our modern life make it easier to treat all kinds of other persons with disrespect. For one thing, many of our daily interactions are anonymous. It is easier to get away with rudeness and other expressions of contempt. For another, the sense that we all belong to a community of shared values and interests has been diminished, and with that has come a depleted sense of obligation to others around us. Instead of shared interests, we see competing interests. Instead of regard for those who exercise authority over us, we see exploitation of advantage and power. The idea that "it takes a village" to raise a child, or to care for another human being, expresses an important truth. The problem is that we no longer live in villages and we know too little about how to create meaningful substitutes for them. In such a world, to love kindness requires a kind of personal conviction and commitment regarding how to live and how to meet each other in our living. It may also require the support of an intentional community of others who likewise seek to be people devoted to kindness in their dealings in a world that more often seems indifferent if not mean and cruel.
In their book, HABITS OF THE HEART, Robert Bellah and his associates speak of "practices of commitment" as means by which communities define the patterns of loyalty and obligation that keep them and their way of life alive . To love kindness requires more than good intentions toward others. It requires personal and communal practices of commitment that continually inform our attitudes and actions with regard to all those with whom we have to do.
Loving kindness may also mean a transformation in some of our basic values in life. When I began thinking about this sermon, it occurred to me that we seldom find an unabashed celebration of kindness in the media and the arts of our culture. We celebrate courage, strength, cunning, daring, brilliance, success, as well as certain forms of superiority and conquest. Sometimes we celebrate persistence and determination. But there is frequent ambivalence about kindness and gentleness and compassion, as if these were almost signs of weakness or failure. Our media are often openly scornful of do-gooders and bleeding hearts.
William Willimon, chaplain at Duke University, relates the following telephone conversation with a very upset parent:
"I hold you personally responsible for this," he said.
"Me?" I asked.
The father was hot, upset because his graduate school bound daughter had just informed him that she was going to chuck it all ("throw it all away" was the way the father described it) and go do mission work with the Presbyterians in Haiti.
"Isn't that absurd!" shouted the father. "A B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Duke and she's going to dig ditches in Haiti."
"Well, I doubt that she's received much training in the Engineering Department here for that kind of work, but she's probably a fast learner and will probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months," I said.
"Look," said the father, "this is no laughing matter. You are completely irresponsible to have encouraged her to do this. I hold you personally responsible," he said.
"Me? What have I done?"
"You, you ingratiated yourself with her, filled her head with all that religion stuff. She likes you, that's why she's doing this foolishness," he said.
"Now look, buster, "I said, struggling to keep my ministerial composure. "Weren't you the one who had her baptized?"
"Why, yes," he said.
"And then, didn't you read her Bible stories, take her to Sunday school, let her go with the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship to ski in Vale?"
"Well, yes, but . . ."
"Don't but me," I said. "It's your fault that she believed all that stuff, that she's gone and thrown it all away on Jesus, not mine. You're the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me."
"But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian," he said, meekly.
"Sorry. You've messed up and made a disciple."
Are we really committed to loving kindness, or not? If we are, then it can not be that we will only be kind when it suits us and gets us ahead.
None of us would disparage kindness. We would all say that it belongs on our list of Christian virtues. But to practice such kindness does demand of us a transformation of our values, and a new way of seeing. The following story comes from the tradition of Shin Buddhism:
When a man heard a noise coming from his yard, he looked out and saw neighborhood boys climbing up one of the fruit trees in the yard, trying to steal some fruits. So he went out into the yard and placed a ladder underneath the boys in the tree. He then quietly returned to his house. Is this not a stupid thing to do? The boys are stealing his fruits, but the owner does not stop them from committing an unlawful act. This man feared that when the children try to come down the tree, nervous about being caught, they might slip and fall, and hurt themselves. His impulse was to prevent them from being injured, not to save his property from thieves [D. T. Suzuki, BUDDHA OF INFINITE LIGHT: THE TEACHINGS OF SHIN BUDDHISM, THE JAPANESE WAY OF WISDOM AND COMPASSION (Shambala, 1998)].
In theory, kindness would always seem to be a good thing. In actual practice, however, it often requires us to re-order our priorities, to look at the world in a different light, and to regard the interests of others in ways that are not so thoroughly at odds with our own. In an increasingly impersonal and complex society, to love kindness requires a personal commitment to be a person who is kind. It probably also requires membership in a community in which the "practices of commitment" affirm the need for kindness to be integral to our way of life. To love kindness also requires of us the awareness that we share with others, including many whom we will never know, and many with whom we will be at odds, a common humanity, a common need for mercy and kindness and love. Loving kindness will lead us to nurture in ourselves the capacity to recognize kindness and to celebrate the kindnesses of others. Loving kindness may finally enable us to see, in ways we have not seen before, the community of interests we share.
David Black is a novelist and television producer who reports this experience of living on the Upper West Side of New York City. Leaving his car unlocked outside, he discovered that somebody began living in it. The car was always empty when he or his wife arrived to use it in the morning, but they knew they had a tenant because they found cigarette butts in the ashtrays, and the radio (which worked without the ignition key) was tuned to a salsa station that neither of them favored. David Black and his wife felt outraged and violated until they realized that their tenant was in effect serving as a night watchman. They left a pillow and a blanket for him in the back seat. Every morning the blanket was neatly folded [Edward Zucherman, "No Radio," ATLANTIC MONTHLY, January 1992, p. 42].
This is not a story about the solution to homelessness. It is a reminder, however, that even in our impersonal, anonymous, complex social existence, we are not isolated individuals whose actions are of little consequence to others. Nor are these actions of little consequence to the quality of life that we all share. In our common humanity we share a community of interests, even where there is no identifiable community. We have obligations to others, even those we do not know. We ought not exclude any from the circle of our concern and compassion and care.
In one of his sermons, the English poet and clergyman, John Donne, declared, "God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of His mercies. . . . In Heaven it is always Autumn, his mercies are ever in their maturity" [LXXX SERMONS, Sermon II, 1624]. A similar maturity is enjoined upon us. Do not commit random acts of kindness! Rather, commit regular, persistent, deliberate, intentional acts of kindness. Devote yourself to help make this a world in which kindness needs no apology, where God's mercy and steadfast love are cherished for all. AMEN.