Justice or Mercy?
Who here has lived in New Jersey at some point in their lifetime?
I lived there for three years in seminary. And the thing that made me most jealous of people from New Jersey is that you are from the same state as the Boss, Bruce Springsteen.
Now I don’t know if there is a list of greatest American musicians of the past 50 years, but if there is, Bruce Springsteen should be near the very top. He is awesome, and about every decade he changes up his style of music, from arena rock to acoustic, from big ballads about his hometown of Asbury Park to quieter reflections on the loss of jobs and the need for faith.
About 10 years ago, he came out with an album called the Seeger Sessions, named after the folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger. On this album, every song is a cover of an old folk song or spiritual, but with a big band sound accompanying them. I played one of the songs for Nick this past week and he said he was reminded of the soundtrack to Chicago.
And one song on it that immediately caught my ear was, “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Hearing this title, you might immediately think of Mary, mother of Jesus. But the song is actually about all the Marys who were prophets and leaders of faith in scripture, including the first Mary we meet in the Bible – Miriam, sister of Moses. It’s a spiritual written by slaves over 150 years ago about freedom and hope. And the chorus is a joyful singing out of that hope: “O Mary, don’t you weep no more/ O Mary don’t you weep no more. Pharaoh’s army got drowned, O Mary don’t you weep.” In Bruce Springsteen’s version there is a huge brass section blasting along with trumpets and trombones, and just listening to it, you feel the joy of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, for the first time gaining freedom from slavery.
A couple years after I heard this song, I was at a worship service where they played it as a song of praise. Before I hadn’t worried too much about the lyrics, but this time, as I was singing in worship, I felt strange celebrating the words, “Pharaoh’s army got drowned.” Singing these words over and over, I wondered why should I be celebrating the death of and violence to other people? It was strange to me that a whole army of Pharaoh was killed by God, and that instead of being troubled by it, we were meant to celebrate in their deaths.
But that is exactly how God’s people, the Israelites, responded to the death of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army. A lot of scholars believe that the first Psalm (and maybe the very first words in the Bible ever written down) comes to us in Exodus 15. They are the words of Miriam, Moses’ sister, celebrating right after they crossed the Red Sea and saw Pharaoh’s army perish in the water:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has
horse and rider
he has thrown into the sea.”
Now Pharaoh deserved this death and attack. Out of fear and racism and xenophobia, he enslaved the Israelites, beat them, worked them tirelessly, and murdered any male children born to them. But there is still something about this idea of violence that can be disturbing to us. After all, didn’t Jesus say love your enemies? Didn’t he say forgive “Not seven times…but seventy-seven times”?
How then can we connect this action of God and song of praise from Miriam with the words of Jesus to forgive? How do we connect both this passage and the one we heard earlier from Matthew 18 about forgiveness? Do we have to choose between full justice, what Pharaoh got, or the mercy and grace that Jesus teaches?
For me, the answer lies with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” Cheap grace is forgiveness without any change in our hearts or our lives. In this grace, there is no change of action. There is no growing in love. There is no justice and wholeness. If Pharaoh and that army continued onward, if the Israelites turned back and said to them, “I forgive you,” then the Egyptians would have simply taken the Israelites back into slavery and oppression. That’s not grace. That’s not reconciliation. That’s not peace. It is injustice. It is cheap grace. It is allowing evil to continue onward.
While we might be uncomfortable with the idea of violence and God going hand in hand, that is what the Israelites needed at that time. They needed freedom. They needed life. They needed hope. They needed God to act and save them from Pharaoh, save them from this army. Even if it meant violence. Even if it meant God giving that army justice instead of mercy.
Allan Boesak, a South African theologian, who grew up knowing only apartheid, racism, and injustice in his country, wrote this about violence and justice in the Bible:
“People who do not know what oppression and suffering is react strongly to the language of the Bible. The truth is that God is the God of the poor and the oppressed…Because they are powerless, God will take up their cause and redeem them from oppression and violence. The oppressed do not see any dichotomy between God’s love and God’s justice.”
Like many Christians today, we want to jump straight to ideas like peace and unity and love. And those are the end goals. They are what the kingdom of God will look like. But if we jump to them too quickly, we end up with cheap grace, with empty peace, with superficial unity instead of real love. We first need to face issues of injustice, issues of evil and oppression, issues of human sin in our culture and in our lives. Those may be less comfortable topics than peace and unity and love, but unless we face them, we never get to that real justice, that real Shalom, that real grace. We never get that full freedom and love God wants for all of us. Like Pharaoh’s army, we need to wash away the sin and evil first.
After the march in Charlottesville in August, a lot of people were telling me what we need is peace and unity. And I thought yes, that is true. But we also need more. We need to have real discussions on racism and race relations and privilege. It is easy to point the finger and denounce the men who were wearing swastikas and shouting racist and anti-semetic slurs. It’s a lot harder to face how racism and privilege affects our schools, our neighborhoods, our prisons, and even our churches. It’s a lot harder to ask the question, “what ways am I prejudiced?” Because we all are prejudice. We all have sin. Before we jump straight to words peace and unity, we need some honesty, some dialogue, and some justice.
This does not mean that I don’t believe in grace and forgiveness. Grace is our only way forward. But it’s got to be costly grace. It’s got to be grace that challenges and transforms us and our world. For many of us, we think of Jesus’ grace as something that wipes our ledger clean, something that gets us a pass into heaven. That’s true, but Jesus’ grace is so much more than that. It is a grace that claims our whole lives. It is a grace that makes us into new and more holy people. It is a grace that makes us work for justice and freedom, care about oppression and lift up those who have been hurt. Through the grace of Jesus Christ there is no dichotomy between justice and mercy. When we know one, we live for the other.
I still love the song, “O Mary, Don’t You Weep.” It is a song of freedom. It is a song of hope. It is a song of God’s activity and justice in our world. But I do believe our hope in Jesus Christ can go even further. The hope of Christ is not just that Pharaoh and the army will be washed away. It is that all of our own evil, our own sin, our injustice and systems of oppression, will be washed away as well. It is the hope that even the most oppressive forces in our world today will one day be radically changed and made new. That is the true justice of the song of Miriam. That is the real grace of Jesus Christ. Amen.