I recently had the privilege of attending “In the World for Good”, a conference on Urban Ministry at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN. The keynote speaker was Dr. John Nunes, the recently appointed Emil and Elfriede Jochum Chair at Valparaiso University. I’d like to offer a few reflections on something Nunes highlighted in his presentation, namely, the connection between mercy and life together.
It is easy for us to separate mercy and life together. On the one hand, we know the importance of showing mercy, but what’s often missing is any real desire to do life together. This is typified by the ads we see on TV to support such-and-such a cause, or even sometimes by well-intentioned mission trips. When we engage in “poverty tourism” or get suckered into “relief pornography” (to quote Nunes), we perpetuate a relationship with the impoverished that keeps them impoverished. These things do not actually help the poor, to which the oft-heard remark, “they did more for us than we did for them,” testifies. Such an approach does not treat people as having been created in the image of God, but as mere objects who exist solely to make us feel better about ourselves. This separates mercy from life together.
On the other hand, it is easy to enter into relationships with dependents (life together), but fail to be merciful. Mercy sometimes requires us to show tough love, to hold one another accountable, lest we (perhaps unintentionally) enable a destructive lifestyle. Where we engage in relationships without accountability, we fail to show true mercy and actually end up doing more harm than good.
As important as it is to keep mercy and life together together, it is equally as important to allow our witness to the crucified and risen Lord and His grace to us in Word and Sacrament to pervade our relationships (Nunes also touched on this in his presentation). There is no mercy where witness and life together are lacking, and there is no true life together where mercy and witness are lacking. Apart from witness, we merely apply a band-aid solution to a much deeper problem. Like St. John, we have been called to point to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). After all, the deepest human need isn’t for clothing, food, or shelter, but to be clothed in Christ (Galatians 3:27) , to eat the Bread of Life (John 6:48, 51), and to dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6).