Why churches prefer loving mercy to doing justice?

Marilyn Sewell writing for the Huffington Post touches on a familiar, but nagging question. Why do churches feel more comfortable asking their members to give to charity than to advocate for change.

When I became a parish minister, I began to understand why almost universally churches will avoid political action in favor of charitable deeds. For one thing, churches are populated mostly by middle-class people, who are relatively comfortable. And ministers of these institutions value stability more than mission. We professional leaders are reluctant to do anything that would cause conflict or controversy in our churches, fearing an institutional split — or at the very least, a reduction of gifts to the church.

Some church people wrongly believe that churches will lose their tax-exempt status if they take a stand on political matters. But the tax code is clear: churches and ministers may speak out at will on any issue, so long as they do not engage in partisan politics — that is, advocate for one candidate over another.

Other people believe that politics is worldly and not therefore suitable for an institution given to spiritual endeavors. Realistically, however, we must understand that politics determines everything from assuring that we have clean drinking water to deciding when we go to war. And politics determines how the abundant resources of this country are shared — or not shared. These issues, which are decided in the political arena, have moral dimensions which churches can hardly ignore, if we are to be taken seriously as a religious people.

So, are churches too timid in pursuing justice?

Posted by
Category : The Lead

Comment Policy
Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted. We also ask that you limit your comments to no more than four comments per story per day.

  1. Paige Baker

    So, are churches too timid in pursuing justice?

    Anyone who would answer that with a “No” is either lying to hirself or delusional.

    Some churches–particularly the Roman Catholic Church–have actively worked AGAINST justice. I am thinking particularly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ heavy-handed lobbying against healthcare reform because they insisted that it could lead to abortions. In doing so, they argued against giving help to 40+million Americans who don’t have access to healthcare.

    I am also thinking of our Presiding Bishop, who asked our LGBT brothers and sisters to “stand in a crucified place” for the sake of the Episcopal Church’s place in the Anglican Communion.

    Whenever this issue comes up, I am reminded of a quote I read long ago on Louie Crew’s blog:

    “My friend Kevin Jones told me: “I asked Aaron Henry, long-time Mississippi civil rights activist, whether the church had been a light during the struggle for justice… `The church a light?’ he said, and paused for a long beat to fix me with a stare from his bulging, famously jaundiced eyes and then answered:

    `Yeah, a tail light.'”

  2. John B. Chilton


    I know it sounds funny given that parishes are so often places of petty conflict, but the fear of talking justice is the fear of division. Remember the family that avoids talking politics? Same thing.

    You don’t hear real justice talk from the pulpit of churches because rectors care more about the number of members.

  3. Bill Carroll

    Since the requirements of mercy exceed those of justice, I should think that doing justice would be a precondition for loving mercy.

  4. Here’s a story about a congregation in our diocese which does NOT shrink away from the social gospel for the sake of appearances or avoiding conflict.

  5. I know why I shy away from proclaiming answers from the pulpit – true it is partly fear but mainly that I do not know the answer about how best to proceed. I would rather raise the issue and challenge people to seek solutions in their own way. The community can offer respite and support for justice workers of all sorts. So many times the “law of unintended consequences” comes into play in every choice – not that it should keep us from acting but at least keep us humble about what we can do.

  6. Or maybe people would actually rather do things themselves than pay the government to do it? Grass roots vs big brother, or as it is in England, the nanny state.

    There is a wide spectrum of valid political beliefs and not everyone thinks exactly like you do. The priest who preaches from a particular point of view (and let’s admit it, everything political comes from a biased point of view) risks alienating a lot of people who are perfectly entitled to their different views.

  7. Paige Baker

    Dave Paisley–only the government can ensure legal protections for the marginalized.

    I can work all day long to promote equality for women, minorities (racial/ethnic, sexual, those dealing with physical limitations or mental health issues, etc.)–but without the power of law to support that work, justice is impossible.

  8. John B. Chilton

    1. Ann, you’re right that we don’t want to provide answers. But I don’t here enough clergy saying from the pulpit it’s not right that [fill in justice issue here].

    2. Dave, I agree that part of the answer is that people hold alternative models of good government that will solve justice issues, some of which are equally valid (but some that are not). (Valid in the sense they are coherent and not immediately contradicted by evidence.) Differences over solutions goes back to Ann’s point. What we don’t want to do is throw up our hands and say there’s no hope.

    3. Paige, I agree there is a role for government. At the same time government can fail us as well, spectacularly at times. Part of this innocent and negligent unintended consequences such as Ann spoke of. And government can actively deny justice. Think of the fugitive slave law. Think of Jim Crow laws. Market forces would have put pressure on slavery and on Jim Crow unenforced by law.

  9. Lois Keen

    There is a church in TECland whose choir recruited choristers from among the poor children of Jamaican descent in the neighborhood. The congregational changed, but grew, among the poor. Now it may close because the poor cannot support buildings.

    I’m extremely proud of the people I serve, those who remain, after inviting a homeless Hispanic/Latino congregation to come live with us. Bilingual services are a challenge, but the non-latinos who stayed are my heroes. And we can’t support our building either. Where will the people – the poor of one and the latinos of the other – go when these churches close? And yet, both congregations are right in doing what they have done – invite in, as equals, those who have no public equality.

    Justice for the poor. Mercy for those who prefer someplace else than home with the poor.

  10. Paige Baker

    And government can actively deny justice.

    As it is actively working to do right now. Which is why clergy need to be speaking out.

    I often hear conservatives talking about how they think individuals should give to charity, rather than using taxes and the government to provide the social safety net. Fine. Clergy can challenge those who hold that opinion by asking them what percentage of their income they are giving to charity? How many homeless people are they willing to take under their own roofs?

    Taking care of the poor and marginalized is a gospel imperative. There are multiple ways of dealing with that imperative–but refusing to talk about it because it reminds the comfortable middle-class people in our parishes that they live well, while others go wanting shelter, food, medical care, etc. seems to me to be a denial of Christ.

  11. Clint Davis

    Episcopalians are all the time trying to get comfortable, and stay that way, this was built into our outlook from the very beginning – Elizabethan Compromise? Why yes. And all decisions look like good decisions at the time, or at least very well intentioned. Faith happens in the endurance of the fallout from these decisions – Jesus knows a whole lot about that! Jesus also found a way – 30 pieces of silver and a willing scapegoat – so that he alone would suffer the fallout and not all his friends in a mass roundup, at least until his friends got to a place where they could make the same decision he did and thus go to their fallout completely freely and voluntarily.

    So when we make radical, well intentioned, gospel-grounded decisions that lead to churches closing and dioceses struggling and what have you, where are all those middle class church workers going to go? To the poor house, so now you have even more poor and needy to care for, more anxiety to go around? I’m an organist, living paycheck to paycheck because that’s how Mother Church likes it. If my parish closes, where am I supposed to go, or the kindly RE director, or the sassy secretary? Three more folks to feed at a community dinner and live off family? I’m glad I have an Indian card!

    Is a town supposed to lose even more architectural treasures and musical masterpieces because they’re culturally insensitive and look like “rich people”? Wal-Mart looking “worship centers” can spring up on the prairie but our lovingly built parish churches can just rot down because we feel bad about the poor?

    People think they’re all experts and know what has to be done. I don’t know, I have no idea, I’m not writing this because I know. I’m writing to plead for and pray for real wisdom and light, to move forward in ways that fulfill mission while not squandering our inheritance; the parables of Jesus absolutely demand nothing less.

    Oh I can see it now, all this talk about giving up all you have, etc. Well, it cuts both ways, some people are called to give up everything to feed the poor, others sell everything they have for the Pearl. Folks, IT’S BOTH. Find a way to advocate for GLBT equality that doesn’t sound like outdated soundbytes from the 70’s and thus turn off everyone but the choir you’re preaching to. Find a way to feed, even host the poor, get the whole community involved, that doesn’t squander your inheritance. DO IT. It’s hard, but do it. Give your all. Make it happen.

  12. C. Wingate

    Justice is great for the churches because it isn’t something they do: it’s something that someone else does, and whether or not it gets done, we get to feel good about ourselves for advocating it.

    And calling social services “justice” is inaccurate. Governmentally-provided mercy is still mercy. It is easy to refute us when we advocate such programs as “rights” because however necessary they are, however the law of God demands them, however prudence calls for them, they are nonetheless mercy.

  13. Chris Arnold

    One reason is that we really are conflicted about exactly what sort of actions would be the justice of God. We really are. I know that many of us (especially in TEC) believe we have it all figured out, but we get into just as much trouble when we presume that we’re acting for God as when we sit on our hands.

    The second reason I can think of is that our churches are meant to be engines of justice, sure, but they are also meant to be places of holy rest and reflection and prayer for those who come into their walls. Now that I’m a parish priest, I remember how bullied I felt by posters and pins and pleas to join in some protest or other. Commendable though those effort were, I came to church first and foremost to rest in God’s presence.

  14. Many of the responses here are much more black and white than real life. It isn’t either or, but some blend, and what the right blend looks like is different for different people. Look at England – double the taxes, pretty much everything is run by the government, and what you have is a large percentage of the population that is totally dependent on the government for everything. And what do you get? Looting. Really, look at Europe and tell me that they’ve “solved” poverty and I’ll call you a liar.

    More government programs only create more and more dependent people, supported by fewer and fewer people actually working and the whole system collapses on itself.

    What does a real safety net look like that does its job but doesn’t create a large permanent unemployed and unemployable culture?

  15. Paige Baker

    Dave Paisley–my mother lives in England. I respectfully suggest that you have no idea what you are talking about.

Comments are closed.