J. Ryan West serves at the North American Mission Board as the National Coordinator of the Boulevard Urban Church Planting Initiative, a strategic effort to establish churches in 32 major US and Canadian cities. He helps local churches carry out holistic gospel-centered mercy ministry and community development. Also, he is a Senior Fellow at the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies in Louisville, KY. He and his wife, Danielle, have three children and live in Atlanta, GA.
Pity—the word has a broad range of meanings, including compassion, mercifulness, and sympathy. Yet in most cases, it carries derogatory meanings of shame, disappointment, and misfortune. When we seek to minister mercy, our acts often appear to be more about satisfying the needs or wants of the one doing ministry than of the person receiving our generosity. Such acts reinforce established dehumanizing messages that those we serve are less than us. Whether we realize it or not, most efforts that appear to be merciful are, in fact, anything but merciful; they use the poor for our own gratification to give our people ministry opportunities or some other short-sighted end. Do the people we minister to really need this type of ministry? Guess what—they don’t need our paternalistic and dehumanizing pity. Instead, they need an approach that I characterize as restorative mercy, which leads to developmental ends and brings about human flourishing.
This post operates on several assumptions that I cannot explore here because of space limitations. So here are my foundational assumptions along with recommended reading:
- Mercy is absolutely mandated for local churches – Keller, “The Gospel and the Poor,” in Themelios 33.3: 8-22; and Philip Ryken, What is Mercy?.
- The mission of the church includes redeeming broken sectors of society for the end goal of human flourishing – Michael Goheen, A Light to the Nations; and Al Wolters, Creation Regained.
- Working for justice—what is just as defined by Scripture—is a nonnegotiable element of churches in the North American context – Chris Brooks, Urban Apologetics.
With those assumptions stated we should consider the nature of restorative mercy.
Restorative Mercy is Spiritually Grounded
For all of the schemes we can create, we must not forget the means—according to Scripture—for building effective and lasting transformative plans: begging the King to take action for His glory. Do we, in the West, give half-hearted acknowledgement to the spiritual battle facing our communities today and ignore Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 6:12? Do we think we can battle systemic oppression and binding personal choices through government programs, being more tolerant, or marching through the streets? While these things may help in some ways, we need to acknowledge lasting social change will not happen apart from the efficacious means of prayer and fasting on behalf of people experiencing deep social brokenness.
Of course, God has given His people to the world to be ambassadors of peace. We should not make the mistake of believing, however, that restorative mercy simply comes through individual Christians living out this ideal. Rather, we should see the church—as a whole body of Christ—as the agent for bringing the kingdom of God, as much as possible, to our neighbors. Rather than a programmatic approach to addressing injustice or an individual effort, such activity—at least, that which is lasting—only comes through a close community of believers committed to caring for one another deeply in all areas of life. Restorative mercy is not a process of doing acts of mercy, or creating programs for meeting needs, on behalf of people but rather walking with people, in community, to call them to beauty, goodness, and life in Christ.
Restorative Mercy Empowers Dignity
Restorative mercy also seeks to uphold the dignity of people within our communities. Without doing so in three particular ways—consisting of both individual and systemic considerations—our work is not very merciful.
1. We must allow the person receiving our mercy to disciple us as much as we disciple them. One of the greatest means of restoring dignity to men and women who are otherwise without honor and distinction is to allow them to have the authority to speak the gospel into the minister’s life. One-way ministry only reinforces an us-them mindset, whether that line is drawn by economic distinctions, racial lines, or educational accomplishments. The gospel of Christ, however, teaches us that there is a level playing field as seen in passages such as James 1:9-11 and Ephesians 4:1-16. The economically poor brother or the sister struggling to forsake drug addiction has as much to say to me as I do to them. Sure, we acknowledge this reality but move on quickly to more practical matters without letting this truth soak into the marrow of our bones. As a consequence, our mercy is belittling and paternalistic in many cases.
2. We must help people move from mere recipients of relief to personal and community development through capitalizing on their assets. This is completely different than needs-based relief ministry alone. Too often, we assume that we accomplish our biblical responsibility of mercy by meeting the felt needs of an individual, through a commodity-based exchange alone, which perpetuates a Christian version of the welfare system. Our restorative mercy must enable the person needing restoring to become an agent of gospel-driven restoration himself. As Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:22-28, individuals are meant to quit needing relief so that they can, in turn, be the ones who give to those in need.
3. We must seek to restore systemic dignity to our communities. As Chris Brooks states, “Over time, wealth redistribution and one-way charity only causes people to feel incapable of providing for themselves. Dignity is derived from the right to enjoy the happiness that comes from earned success. True prosperity and empowerment come when a person is given equal access to education, employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities.” Truly, Brooks, as well as John Perkins and other authors thinking along these lines, understand mercy that restores systemic dignity. Access, empowerment, and opportunities—in connection to the life of Christ’s people—are the path to bring dignity to broken communities on behalf of individuals under the thumb of unjust systemic oppression.
From Pity to Restorative Mercy
Biblically, we are called to be ambassadors of Christ, proclaiming and ushering in the good news of holistic peace. That peace, unlike relief-based distribution of commodities, comes in the form of restorative mercy, offering hope where there is now sorrow and peace where there is now chaos. May we be people marked by mercy that is grounded in the spiritual means Scripture accords that lead to restored dignity.
Brooks, Urban Apologetics, 142. Elements 7-9 of the Economic Wisdom Project support this same understanding of opportunity and human dignity. These elements support the Project’s third central theme, which states, “Economic systems should be grounded in human dignity and moral character,” (9). To download a copy of this document, visit this webpage: http://oikonomianetwork.org/economic-wisdom-project/;internet. Accessed May 10, 2015. According to another statement within this resource, “The most effective way to turn around poverty, economic distress, and injustice is by expanding opportunity for people to develop and deploy their God-given productive potential in communities of exchange, especially through entrepreneurship;” Element 9 of the Economic Wisdom Project, 12.
Perkins, Beyond Charity, 127. Perkins states, “Justice is our management of God’s resources, our working to make these resources open and available to all of God’s creatures.” Randy Nabors offers a helpful reminder: development and empowerment should not necessarily result in removing individuals from their community. Our goal is not to “get them out” of depressed communities, but rather help the people of a community have access to wholistic development. See Nabors, Merciful: The Opportunity and Challenge of Discipling the Poor Out of Poverty, 85-86.