Acts of Mercy vs. Acts of Justice

One of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s enduring messages during his life was the need to move from acts of mercy to acts of justice. Many in the USA celebrate his birthday in January with community service acts of mercy consistent with the motto, “A Day On, Not a Day Off.”

What does he mean by acts of mercy? We have all done them. Things like supporting a soup kitchen, sponsoring a clothing drive, donating time to a homeless shelter or leading a stream clean up. While he was not philosophically opposed to acts of mercy, he suggested we go beyond these Band-Aid approaches to communal problems which cover up social wounds rather than address their root causes.

This dichotomy of mercy vs. justice also describes the difference between diversity and inclusion. The federal government has done a fairly good job of recruiting diverse workforces-acts of mercy. What it has failed to do is to ensure these differences in the workplace are fully recognized and embraced-acts of justice.

R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. talks about this distinction between diversity and inclusion. According to Thomas, the 20th Century act of mercy question was, is this a diverse workforce? He indicated in the 21st Century, we should be asking the act of justice question, is this workforce engaged and inclusive?

Leadership consultant Halley Bock speaks about acts of mercy and justice demonstrated by organizations trying to build diverse and inclusive workplaces. Acts of mercies through diversity include: (1) Focusing on individual characteristics; (2) Execution of strategy and (3) Institutionalizing polices. For a more inclusive workplace through acts of justice, Bock recommends: (1) Encouraging diversity of thought; (2) Building organizational values and (3) Confronting non-inclusive behaviors directly.

We see acts of mercy via diversity through such statements as: (1) We have one minority and two women on our staff; (2) I enjoyed learning how to make Indian tacos at an American Indian Heritage Month event or (3) I can tolerate Mohammed although I don’t agree with his religious beliefs.

Acts of justice responses to the above scenarios would go something like this: (1) We have hired people of color and women on our staff and we are working hard to make sure they reach their full potential; (2) American Indians are more than just a culinary treat, we are taking steps to ensure they feel included in our workforce and (3) I recognize and embrace Mohammed’s religious beliefs and see the value they bring to his world.

When leaders like Dr. King or other leaders in the workplace ask us to embrace inclusion through acts of justice, we fear being labeled as trouble makes, radicals, do-gooders and politically correct community organizers. Most of us actively resist the root causes of injustice in our world and workplaces. We run from the difficult conversations that acts of justice force us to confront.

Our social discourse keeps us fixated on avoiding justice. We talk about the elimination of affirmative action instead of the eradication of racism, sexism and bias. We talk about capital punishment as a deterrent to crime rather than addressing the underlying economic and social causes of misconduct. We speak about welfare reform rather than economic justice. We talk about immigration reform without dealing with the international economic structures that cause people to cross borders.

Continue to support your local soup kitchen while working on the root causes of world hunger. Sponsor a clothing drive while confronting your own materialism. Serve a homeless shelter while addressing the gap between the rich and poor. Clean up a local creek while understanding your own carbon footprint. Support diversity in the workplace with the acknowledgement that inclusion is the ultimate goal.

As we close out the month of January that honors Dr. King and his dream, let’s start doing acts of justice so we can make acts of mercy a thing of the past.

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