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Mennonite Brethren HeraldVolume 42, No. 14October 24, 2003
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Justice and mercy
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Justice and mercy

Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder

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My passion for justice began at an early age.

As a nine-year-old child of refugee parents I was somewhat of a survivor. We had been forced to give up our home in the Ukraine; we had spent several years in refugee camps in Germany and another five years in the “green hell” of the Paraguayan Chaco. However I suddenly found myself in a situation I could not handle. Suspended halfway between heaven and earth on an airplane heading for Canada, I experienced injustice and could not defend myself because I didn’t know the language of those to whom I was trying to explain myself.

At that time in my life I had a passion for dolls. A little girl several seats behind me had a beautiful baby doll, the kind I had seen at the markets in Asuncion while our family waited for visa approval. I had begged my father to get me one, but we had no money for such frivolous things. I longed to hold that doll but I couldn’t ask because its owner didn’t understand my language.

I managed to touch the doll. It was a gentle, longing touch but it was not appreciated by the doll’s owner. She called the stewardess, who promptly and sternly guided me back to my seat and refused to give me any gum for the rest of the trip. I didn’t understand what the girl had told the stewardess, but I was sure she had told her lies because of how the stewardess reacted toward me.

That experience was only the beginning of the marginalization I was to feel as an immigrant child for the next few years. I felt my parents’ pain (even though I didn’t understand it) when the Mennonite church closest to where we lived wouldn’t allow my dad to preach because they didn’t want any German in their church. The first Christmas, we all memorized German recitations the way we had done in Paraguay. I can still feel the cold, stony reception, and the hard knot that formed in my stomach. For years I couldn’t get up in front of a group without that same feeling welling up inside me.

I learned English very quickly because I needed to defend myself against the bigotry that is experienced by those who are different. Above all, I wanted to be like everyone else, to fit in. That was my goal and I accomplished it in one year. However, the injustices I experienced were stored somewhere deep in my subconscious, and they surfaced whenever I saw injustice happening to others around me.

Shortly after our marriage, my husband and I went to Africa where we lived among the underprivileged and saw firsthand the global injustices that are so difficult to recognize when living in the rich part of the world. We realized that life is very unfair and that we have a responsibility to do our part to change this. When the physical needs of our sisters and brothers in Africa cried out to be met we sometimes forgot that our primary assignment was Bible translation. Today, in addition to dealing with problems of poverty, the African people struggle with HIV/AIDS and all the grief and sadness that brings.

When we returned from Africa after many years, I experienced a different kind of marginalization in the church, which again gave me the opportunity to feel in a very small way what oppressed people experience on a daily basis. Women were given many privileges, but not all. When we promote a hierarchical view of God as a model for the church, it seems to me that we may be losing sight of the fact that God is a God of justice and love.

I heard a sermon recently by a young man in our church that caused me to stop and think about my passion for justice. He pointed out the mercy Jesus showed at the Cross when He prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The early Christian martyr Stephen followed Christ’s example by crying out while his enemies were stoning him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59–60).

I realized how I have failed so often to follow this example in my passion for justice. I was struck by the fact that I too am one of the “enemies of Christ” who has helped put Him on the Cross and desperately need His mercy. The speaker asked the question: “Are we not entitled to justice?” He made the point that part of our difficulty with mercy, and extending mercy to others, is that we really want justice. He suggested that we give up our sense of justice.

I’m still working on that one. What I do remember from our years in Africa is that Congolese people took the lemons life handed them and made lemon juice out of them, which they then served to the privileged strangers in their midst!

Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder, a member of Kitchener (Ont.) Mennonite Brethren Church, is a freelance writer, an ESL tutor and a sessional lecturer of German at the University of Guelph, with a PhD in German language and literature.

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