Compassion, Mercy, and Diakonia
Editor’s Note: Erik Herrmann’s essay appears in the Fall 2011 Concordia Journal. It is the first in a three-part series of essays that considers the current three-part emphasis of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, as outlined by President Matthew Harrison: “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” (related to the biblical Greek words martyria, diakonia, koinonia). We reprint it here for the sake of conversation and dialogue. The other essays will follow as they become available in Concordia Journal.
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Recently, the synodical office of the president offered up three areas of emphasis that give expression to much of the church’s work: Martyria, Diakonia, and Koinonia—Witness, Mercy, and Life Together. The second word, “diakonia” (ministry or service), is intended to designate the church’s work of care for the neighbor, especially the neighbor in need. The word “mercy” is not so much a translation of the Greek diakonia as it is a description of what kind of service is here meant. Having worked now with our deaconess program for several years, I have noted the prominence of the word “mercy” in describing the particular service that deaconesses render to and on behalf of the church. Placing this word as a central description of the church’s life and work is thus very helpful for those of us who are trying to make a case for the church’s reception of this particular diaconate. But in making that case, it has caused me to reflect on the language that we use. The following thoughts are by no means a critique of the synodical emphases or the customary descriptions of the diaconal vocation. They are intended only as a springboard for further conversation.
First, I do not want to give the wrong impression of the significance of word choices and labels. Orthodoxy cannot be reduced to vocabulary and syntax, guaranteed by getting the doctrinal formula precisely right. “Right teaching” is not the parroting of perfect phrases, but that which bears the work of the Holy Spirit for salvation. Pentecost proclaims that every tongue is a viable vehicle for the confession of faith in the Lord Jesus. On the other hand, language is not neutral or indifferent. Words do matter and have a force that outstrips “sticks and stones.” Further, as noted in Jeff Kloha’s recent blurb on dictionaries, the meaning of words is highly contextual, and it shifts and morphs as usage changes.
When it comes to the word “mercy,” there seem to be certain connotations worthy of sensitive reflection. When I was a kid, my older cousins would often like to play “mercy” with me—pretty much the same game as “uncle.” With my 7-year old hands crushed in the powerful grip of a 10-year old, I would finally squeal, “Mercy!” Magnanimously released by my cousin, I would then rub my sore, defeated knuckles. A crass example, but it makes the following point clearly: “Mercy” is the cry of the disadvantaged to those who have the upper hand. To have mercy on someone implies this disparity in status. Mercy is not a transaction between equals, but an act of benevolence from a position of privilege. The recipient has nothing to give in return, but must rely solely on the graciousness of one who has the luxury to be gracious.
How is the language of mercy used in the Scriptures? Much in the same way. The rich and powerful are called upon to show “mercy” to the widow and the orphan, the poor and the disadvantaged. At other times, the disadvantage is one of guilt or debt—a judge or king may have mercy and forgive a debt owed or forgo a harsher punishment. This language of mercy takes on its most poignant and beautiful expression when it refers to God’s relationship to his people. In every case, God is in the position of privilege (kind of part of the definition of God)—and we are in the position of need, dependency, and disadvantage. God is merciful in his gifts of rain, food, and daily provisions; he is merciful in his protection of his people from their enemies. God hears the cries for mercy from the sick, the oppressed, the marginalized. Think of the cries to Jesus, “Have mercy!” They are from the blind, the leper, and the mother of a dying child. They seek mercy from Jesus because he stands above their predicament. He possesses something they are without—something he can give—and they seek his benevolence, his grace. This, of course, seems right. When God is described as “merciful,” it is a beautiful thing.
Yet what happens when we use the term “mercy” to describe our actions toward our neighbor or the church’s orientation to the world? Are we to picture the Christian as one who is accustomed to a position of privilege? Is the church comprised of those who have the upper hand and thus from that place have the luxury to be gracious and merciful to a disadvantaged world? Interestingly, Paul writes that God did not choose the privileged—the rich, the wise, and the powerful—but the weak, the poor, and the foolish. So is “mercy” the right word?
Yes, and no, or maybe, or “why do you want to know?” Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.” Clearly, he thought it appropriate. Disciples of Jesus participate in the divine mercy of caring for the disadvantaged and forgiving debts and sins. As children of our heavenly Father, we too give gifts without expectation of return, but giving is risky. It can reinforce a disparity in privilege. In fact, it can create it—making debtors out of the needy and benefactors out of the benevolent with power as patrons. But the problem here is not gift-giving itself but sin. As C. S. Lewis described in his essay, “The Problem of Pain,” the fabric of this life has been created in such a way that there are necessarily haves and have-nots. We cannot occupy the same space, eat the same morsel, or spend the same dollar. But it is precisely this condition that offers the possibility of sharing and many other good turns for one another. Unfortunately, the same set of circumstances also produces the possibility of hoarding, exploitation, and oppression.
The church, especially in its institutional forms, has not always been successful at avoiding such sin. For example, we should remember the relatively recent and disturbing role of the church in colonialism, in which rich and powerful cultures exploited the weak and poor in a strange concoction of Western progress and the spread of the gospel. (It seems hardly accidental that the phrases “Manifest Destiny” and “Great Commission” were coined in the same era.) Perhaps our particular church body played a peripheral or negligible role in such past sins, and certainly the church could also be found fighting against the injustices of colonialism. Still, sensitivity to the church’s past abuses of power and privilege suggests some caution and clarity. Even the word “mission” sounds a little too militaristic today for what the church should be about.
Perhaps it is helpful to remember that in the context of God’s definitive expression of mercy—the gift of his Son—we find another striking word: “compassion.” Sometimes the word is used in parallel with “mercy” as a synonym, but in the context of the Gospels it seems to speak to something more distinct. Jesus not only gives gifts to his people from a position of privilege and power, but he looks out upon the people—people who are like “sheep without a shepherd,” people who are sick and hungry—and he is drawn to them from deep within his inner being (Gk: splangkna). His heart goes out to them so to speak. He sees the grief of Lazarus’s sisters, and he weeps with them. His mercy extends from the vantage point of solidarity—he suffers with the suffering (L: compassio). Thus it was the Samaritan, the marginalized and oppressed one—not the privileged Pharisee or Levite—who had “compassion” on the Jewish man at the side of the road. So also the waiting father, filled with “compassion,” humbled himself, indeed, disgraced himself in order to rush out and embrace his prodigal son. So it is in the form of a slave, in the death of a criminal, as a sinner on the cross—the point in which Jesus is united with us in our predicament most fully—that the mercy of God is most fully extended.
So what should we do now? Excise these words—some of which are biblical—from our vocabulary? Probably not. But I think how we use our words, especially when describing the church, is worth some careful consideration, not simply to give a good impression to those outside the church, but, perhaps more importantly, to teach ourselves who we have been called to be. The church surely has gifts to give, but we have also been called to come alongside one another and have a share in the burdens, to patiently suffer with the suffering. Care for the poor and disadvantaged begins to move beyond charity to community when the flow of gifts can move in both directions. Compassion means that we too are “needy” with self-sufficiency giving way to solidarity. And from this vantage point we are in a better position to point beyond ourselves to the One who has had mercy on us all. After all, before God’s grace and mercy, “Wir sind aller Bettler”—we are all beggars.
 For the meaning of diakonia in the New Testament and Early Church, see John Collins, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford, 2009).