Lately, I have felt the need to register my uneasiness about calls for justice, or at least to examine why it is that I am so slow to join the chorus. I suppose I fear that an insistence upon justice-as-sole-concern encourages our becoming comfortable as, well, judges.
Without question, it is very good to avoid injustice in the present, and exceedingly good to correct past injustice. That said, I find that I am increasingly unwilling to embrace justice as a chief virtue, per se. It just seems to miss the point.
For one, justice requires that everyone receives his due, and I am not especially eager to receive mine.
For most of the past century in America, religious folk -- especially those of us who have worked to develop compassion in our hearts and in our actions for the dispossessed and the disenfranchised -- often find ourselves citing justice as our primary cause in the public realm. I don't think there is anything especially wrong with that, except when our efforts lead us into undue self-regard, self-righteousness, or when our efforts lead us into a flare of righteous indignation towards others who, by our standards, fail to meet our expectations.
Justice is, without question, a laudable goal whenever and wherever injustice abounds, but I'm fairly certain that our love for justice is wrong when it eclipses mercy.
Mercy, after all, is or ought to be appreciated as the higher virtue, the virtue to which we ought to be giving our hearts.
Saint Matthew writes: "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the beam that is in your own?" (Matthew 7:1-3)
Saint Luke writes: "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven." (Luke 6:37)
Writing in the seventh century, Saint Isaak of Syria wrote: "Do not say that God is just; He has not shown justice in His dealings with you."
No. He hasn't. Nor, I'm compelled to say, would we desire absolute justice from Him.
Instead, we desire absolute mercy, and that is what He gives; it is also what He most profoundly asks of us -- to forgive, even as we are forgiven.
Saint Isaak writes: "What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person's heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled, and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him or her, that they be protected and receive mercy. In like manner, such a person prays for the family of serpents because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God."
Saint Isaak reminds us: "God is not One who requites evil, but who sets evil right."
So, let's begin with ourselves, and the evil over which we have a say.
I'd like to encourage widespread use of the following 4th Century prayer, a prayer of Saint Ephraim, also of Syria. Think of it as a prescription, twice daily:
"Lord and Master of my life, grant not unto me the spirit of idleness, of discouragement, of lust for power, and of vain speaking.
"Grant, rather, unto me, thy servant, the spirit of chastity, of meekness, of patience, and of love.
"Yea, O Lord and King, grant that I may perceive my own transgressions, and judge not my brother, for blessed are you, unto all ages. Amen."
Follow Scott Cairns on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ScottCairnsPoet