by David Morstad
Recently overheard: “The concept of mercy has existed in Christianity for 2,000 years, but somehow has fallen out of favor in the last ten.” I agree with that assessment, and I don’t think it’s a completely bad thing.
When it comes to people with disabilities, there may be a reason it has fallen out of some favor. Mercy, for all its biblical high regard, is not much of an expression of equality. It assumes one person has power, control or influence, a portion of which is offered as a benevolent act to another. One definition goes straight to the heart of the matter:
There is a very real and inherent dynamic of power going on here and people with disabilities are decidedly not the ones who have it. Historically, they have been viewed as more vulnerable, less influential, more dependent, and less likely to succeed on their own. Being disabled has not been a socially valued role, and that’s a problem. Worse yet, history strongly supports the case that we non-disabled people have always had the power to “punish or harm”, and that’s a much bigger problem.
The power imbalance is not imaginary and cannot be simply ignored. It is very real and manifests itself in countless ways including underemployment, substandard healthcare, inadequate transportation, inaccessible buildings, and inferior education. Most disturbing is the force that seems to be at work perpetuating the problem, public policy that always seems to favor money and influence.
To be clear, mercy deserves the place of honor it has been given, particularly as it describes the relationship between God and the rest of us. It is a an altruistic act of self-sacrificing love extended to those who are in no position to repay or, in some cases, even say thank you. But the concept of mercy creates an odd dynamic among us and a ‘relationship of equals’ is usually its first casualty. In this portrait of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, people of faith feel a call to respond and that is a good and proper thing. But how shall we do that? Out of a sense of charity and mercy? Or, is there something better? As the first-person, lived experience of people with disabilities becomes a more prominent voice among us we may discover that mercy can give way to its healthier cousin, justice.
A more helpful response
Martin Luther King’s famous statement that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” provides both hope and context. Justice may not be as easily accomplished as an act of mercy, but it is certainly where we ought to be leaning. In definitions of justice, we are likely to find words like equality, fairness, objectivity, honesty, and righteousness. In a lived context of justice, a healthy intolerance emerges, intolerance of circumstances that run counter to what is right, e.g., segregated living, inadequate education, and a bias toward labor that provides only a fraction of minimum wage and no hope for equality.
Mercy looks at the other and sees an object of charity. Justice looks at all of us, sees inequality for some, and seeks to heal our collective body.