April 10: Marching for Mercy

Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me:
   Say to all the people of the land and the priests:
When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh,
   for these seventy years,
was it for me that you fasted?
And when you eat and when you drink,
   do you not eat and drink only for yourselves? …
Thus says the Lord of hosts:
   Render true judgments,
   show kindness and mercy to one another;
   do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor;
   and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.
Zechariah 7:4-10

Once again, God shows disdain for the practice of fasting when it is unaccompanied by the pursuit of justice. Zechariah shows that he stands firmly in the line of Hebrew prophets who criticized the people’s ethical standards. It doesn’t matter that they have been fasting at the correct time for seventy years; their religious practices are nothing but a cover-up for their own narrow self-interest.

In this particular scripture, however, we find a word that is fundamental to the understanding of God’s character, and therefore, to the character of God’s people. That word is the Hebrew hesed, translated here as “mercy.” It’s a notoriously difficult word to translate into English; other translations include “lovingkindness,” “loyal love,” and “goodness.”

What is important to know about hesed is that it is a quality of commitment primarily, not emotion. Like the word “agape,” or “love,” hesed is not a feeling; It’s something people DO for other people “who have no claim on them,” as one Biblical commentator put it.

God says that the Israelites must show hesed to those who have no claim on them — namely the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the poor. In fact, Zechariah insists that the people’s relationship with God depends on how they act toward these others.

At yesterday’s Mega-March in Dallas, I looked around at the people marching at my side. I saw a lot of people “who have no claim on me.”

I walked alongside Hispanic immigrants, many of whom are undocumented. I am a citizen of this country, and I have no obligation to defend their presence or protect their status. In fact, I could make a phone call to ICE and likely have a number of folks rounded up, if I wished. 

But God insists that I show mercy/hesed

I walked alongside Muslims. I am a Christian, and I have no obligation to pray with Muslims on Friday, nor do I have to pay heed to their Scriptures or their teachings. Muslims have no claim on me. I could argue, like many politicians do, that this is a Christian nation, and that Christian faith ought to be privileged in the public square. I could make the case, like many politicians do, that some Muslim-majority countries produce terrorists, and thus, we ought to close our entrance procedures to these countries. 

But God insists that I show mercy/hesed.

I walked alongside the poor and homeless. They have no claim on me. I could argue that I have a job, and that I work for my living. I could point out that many of the poor abuse drugs and alcohol, and that some of them have had multiple possibilities to turn their lives around. 

But God insists that I show mercy/hesed.

And then it hit me — everyone has a claim on me. I am obligated to love every single one of God’s children. It is only when I begin to draw distinctions between myself and others that I find myself drifting away from hesed. When I point and say, “I’m legal — she is not,” or “I am a Christian — he is not,” or “I’m responsible — they are not,” then I have already begun to run from God’s commandment to show hesed.

The truth is that we all are dependent on each other. There is no “them”; it’s only “us.” Or as we shouted repeatedly yesterday on the streets of Dallas, “The people united/shall never be divided!”

Prayer: God, as we begin this Holy Week, I remember that your Son did not experience much kindness during his last days. Help me to be merciful, and remind me that I am connected to my neighbors, known and unknown alike, by the divine gift of our humanity. Amen.

Justice Challenge: April is National Poetry Month, and there is a long tradition of American resistance poetry. Follow this link for a list of some classic justice-oriented poems. Read a couple, then try writing your own!