Practicing Lent: Service and Justice

A conversation about faith practices for Lent with my good friend Jason Evans.

Jason: Justice is a sexy word these days. Many congregations boast of their “social justice” programs. But I think it’s important to make clear that there is a difference between “justice” and “mercy.” Even Scripture draws a distinction between the two. In the Old Testament book of Micah we read, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The Christian community is called to do both of these; extending mercy and acting for justice. But they are not the same.

Before moving to Washington, DC I worked for a congregation that had an incredible feeding program for the urban poor in San Diego. On Sunday afternoons, this program could feed hundreds of people. And while this work was good and deeply Christian it was not justice, it was mercy. It was a noble and charitable act extended by privileged Christians to those with much less. It’s something we’re called to do. Even Jesus said that we are serving him when we serve others in this way. This is mercy. Not justice.

To seek justice is to seek change. Feeding the urban poor of our city, who while disadvantaged were far from starving, was a good practice but it was not changing the situation of those without a home, with nothing in the foreseeable future that might change their financial situation. Seeking justice changes the future of those without enough. We, as people following the way of Jesus, are called to do both.

Mike: The former assistant bishop of Washington, Jane Holmes Dixon, used to say that Episcopalians loved that quote from Micah, but we got it backwards. We often love justice and practice mercy. When you first moved to DC, I was a priest at St John’s Lafayette Square, a congregation that was engaging in justice work around housing the homeless. The work was slow. It involved tense meetings with city council members and organizing voter turnout to show political power.

Before I go on, I should point out that St. John’s is most famous for its role as the “Church of the Presidents.” Every US president since Madison has worshiped at the congregation, at least once or twice. People dress up for church. St. John’s can be a fancy place. The homeless are welcome at St. John’s, but we would ask someone who came regularly to try and shower before they came to church. When you are working with a population that faces mental illness and substance abuse, setting “ground rules” can be important. There is another Episcopal church just a couple of blocks away that is known as a “homeless church.” Most of the parishioners at the early service are housing insecure, and they have a big feeding ministry every Sunday morning. Sometimes people referred to Epiphany, the other church, as a more “justice oriented” church. I always had a hard time with that, St. John’s was working with the Interfaith organizations that were trying to get at the root of the problem and house the people that Epiphany served.

Jason: Every congregation–indeed, each individual–has a particular charism, a unique calling. Some are passionate about works of mercy, while others are just as passionate about working for justice. Both are deeply Christian and all Christians are called to do both; offering relief to those in need and changing the systems that create the need for relief. All at the same time. At the core of the practices of mercy and justice (what we are categorizing as “service”) is a call to relationship with the “other.” Since the most ancient of conversations between God and the Hebrew people there has been a unique distinction of God’s people: they were always called to consider the outsider, to offer basic human dignity to those that others may not. Who is our “other”? Make it personal, who is your “other”?

Mike: There’s a quote from Australian Aboriginal Organizers from the 1970s that I find really compelling. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I shy away from the service and mercy paradigm sometimes because it can be “paternalistic.” After “serving” the poor, I can walk away feeling like I have proved that I am a good person. But the boundaries between service and justice are permeable. Often, through long time mercy work, I have known people who built relationships with someone who might be called “other:” a social worker who befriended a client, a priest who ended up serving as the godmother for the children of an undocumented immigrant couple. Relationships that are formed in service, if we let them, can transform us. We can realize that without “the other” we are not whole. When we do so, I believe, we get closer to that reality that Jesus described as “The Reign of God,” and Dr. King described as “The Beloved Community.” To get there we’ll need both service and justice.


Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Practicing Lent: Service and Justice

  1. Mike, thank you for this post. It is an area that I think many of us in ministry deal with, and often fret over. Acting with mercy is often the easy part, but I agree, it can also be paternalistic, and often doesn’t do much to further the cause of justice. Trying to bridge that gap, particularly in a congregational setting with diverse thoughts and beliefs about justice can be challenging, to say the least, but it’s something we can’t ignore. Great post! Thanks again.

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