The Difference Between Justice and Compassion

Posted by Craig Borlase on 1 April 2013

The Archbishop of Kenya tells this parable:

There was a factory in Kenya in which workers were often injured. Seeing these wounded workers coming out of the factory a group of Christians decided that they should help them to recover from their injuries. They began by providing antiseptics and bandages. As significant numbers of workers continued to be injured the Christian group worked harder so that in the end they built a small hospital where the workers could be treated. They also bought an ambulance to bring the injured workers from the factory gates to the hospital. The factory owners contributed generously towards the purchase of the ambulance.

Then one day in all innocence a young girl from one of the local churches asked out loud ‘Why are so many people being injured in the factory?’ This got people thinking and talking. Eventually they went and asked the factory owners the same question. Since these owners were pretty shifty and hard to pin down, the group investigated further about how factories should be run. They discovered that by law, factories should receive regular inspections on health and safety standards. This particular factory had not been inspected for a long time and they guessed it was because a government official was being bribed. So the workers were being denied their rights under the law due to corrupt practices, and were being injured as a result.

So the Christians changed their tactics. They mounted a public campaign that eventually led to a government inspection of the factory. The factory owners were forced to introduce many safety features into their production line. This meant that very few workers were injured and the ambulance and hospital were no longer needed.

(as related in Graham Gordon’s book, What If You Got Involved?)

What is the difference between justice and compassion in this story?

Things change when the girl in the story asks why things are the way they are. The campaign that starts as a result manages to tackle the root cause of the problem. By getting ‘political’ the church go beyond tackling the effects of the problem and get to the root, moving from compassion to justice. And as a result they bring about lasting change.

Staying silent, doing nothing, is not being neutral: it is a way of us agreeing that everything should stay the same – all the injustice, the oppression, the poverty. It says to the world that our faith has no hope to offer them. When Christians stay silent it sends out a clear message about Jesus: he doesn’t care.

Do we really want to be a part of that? Is that the message we want to send?

Or do we want more – do we want to be fuelled by compassion to step in and help those dragged down to the dirt? And do we want to fight against the injustice that put them there in the first place and keeps them locked in poverty?Get someone to volunteer to read from the Bible. Tell them to sit down while they read, and not to get distracted at all, no matter what happens. Ask them to read Acts 2:42-47. As they read, wrap masking tape (or a scarf) around their mouth. When they are no longer audible, have someone else take over the reading.

Discuss (10 minutes)

We’ll come back and explain the point of gagging the reader later on, but for now here are a few questions about that passage from Acts:
* What were the things that made the community special?
* Imagine you could go back and observe the community in action over a typical week – what kind of things do you think you would see them doing?
* Imagine you were poor and with little hope of surviving on your own back then – an orphan, for example – what impression would you get of God through these people?

Reflect (5 minutes)

We can’t underestimate the importance of the descriptions of the early church in Acts. When it came to putting Jesus’ message into practise, these guys got it – they really got it.
It’s odd, but Jesus never talked a whole lot about the formal structures of church. Instead he used pictures and stories to explain how our attitudes and lifestyles should combine, making clear that as a bunch of believers our lives should make a difference to the world around us. Let’s look at some of those things that Jesus said:
"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” [Matthew 5:13-16]

Discuss (10 minutes)

1. In what way is the early church in Acts like a ‘city on a hill’?
[Tease out the answers here, thinking about the diversity of people you find in cities, the strength and potential the places represent, the idea of it being on a hill]
2. What about being the ‘light of the world’? What does this tell us about the way that Jesus’ followers ought to be?
[Again there’s plenty to work on here: what kind of light are we talking about – what kind of darkness? How could our actions have a similar effect of lighting up dark places and situations?]
3. What about the idea of being the ‘salt of the earth’? What’s all that about?

[Surely this one’s about being mixed in, not set apart? Isn’t Jesus suggesting that his followers will be found out in the world, mixed in and perhaps not quite so visible, but quietly influencing the world around them, changing the flavour by their very nature? Aren’t we supposed to be connected to the world around us, not isolated from it?]

Reflect (5 minutes)

So what kind of group are you? Do you feel that you are strong and welcoming like a city? Are you changing the dark places by your light? Are you mixed in with the world around you, transforming it by your very lives? If a stranger was able to observe you all for a week, what conclusions would he draw about the God you’re following?

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