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We care about the poor.

Through faith-based organizations and as individuals with faith-based commitments, we've found numerous ways to help people who've fallen on hard times. We offer free food. We provide free medical services to those without health insurance. We do whatever we can for families whose marginal income keeps them from providing what all parents, rich or poor, want for their children.

Our efforts to help are acts of mercy, and their continuation represents our belief that just as God shows mercy to all his creatures, his followers also show mercy to those who live damaged lives. Though damaged, they still bear the image of their Creator.

There is, however, one big problem with acts of mercy: there is no end to the need.

Beyond Mercy

As long as we leave the causes of continued poverty untouched, there is no hope for the poor.

For example, as long as access to health care remains limited to those with adequate resources, there is no hope for changing the health of a nation. As long as laws allow a minimum wage that's less than a living wage, there will be no hope for those with limited skills in the marketplace.

But the pursuit of justice offers new hope, for it looks to the systems—rules and laws, economic and legal practices (like those of banks and credit companies)—that often reward the rich and powerful while ignoring the plight of the poor and powerless.

If we are all equally valuable in God's sight, then searching for ways to enhance the lives of those who need a hand up and not just another handout is just as pressing as rescuing the perishing so they can live another day.

Sometimes we forget that the idea of social justice is just as biblical as the concept of mercy—and that we have the opportunity and responsibility to create policies and practices that minimize the surging inequalities in society today.

The Old Testament prophet Micah saw that the rich and powerful often create a system that allows misuse of their power. He put it succinctly when he said, "And what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly and love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8). Micah railed against the denial of rights to widows and against the use of false measures in business. He saw that acting justly and loving mercy are inextricably joined.

Jesus himself took action when he saw the money changers at the temple misusing their power and taking advantage of people. He overturned their tables and charged them with making his Father's house a "den of thieves."

Jesus' followers who seek justice today turn their attention to the elements of their political system or economic practices that discriminate against the poor and the powerless and to policies that perpetuate the marginalization of whole classes of citizens and keep them living in hopelessness and despair.

Legislators and corporations have the power to shape policy for their own benefit. The recent fiascos involving Wall Street and the banking industry have made it all too clear that those with power tend to seek their own best interests and are blind to the effect on others. Recent efforts to discontinue unemployment benefits to those already on the edge of being destitute are but another example—as is the desire to minimize taxes while resisting efforts to increase the minimum wage.

As long as we leave the causes of continued poverty untouched, there is no hope for the poor.

Speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves is one of the ways Christians make a difference. When our voice is loud enough and organized enough, legislators at all levels of government will listen. By giving voice to the voiceless, we can balance the influence of rich and powerful lobbyists. And for help in these efforts we can look to those social workers, judges, political analysts, and lawyers who see more clearly than the rest of us where laws and policies damage those who are hurting rather than delivering help.

Prophetic Call

While the challenges are immense, there is a loud and clear call to action from both Scripture and the Holy Spirit.

Once again, the Old Testament prophets reinforce the Christian's sensibilities of the needs of the downtrodden. Isaiah put it strongly when he thundered, "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people" (10:1-2).

Martin Luther King Jr. was a prophet for our own era. In a speech one year before his assassination, he looked beyond doing mercy and toward seeking justice. He said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

Voters for whom faith is important for determining whether policies harm or help fellow citizens can pursue both mercy and justice. For one without the other is less than Jesus requires.

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