In Which Mr. Entrekin Introduces Me to Portia and I Learn a New Way to Be Obnoxious: Mercy v. Justice, 1

"The leaves of the lotus are round, round, rounder than a mirror.
The edge of the water-nut is sharp, sharp, sharper than an awl."
This Zen koan came to mind as I was thinking about my 10th-grade English class. Our teacher, Mr. Entrekin, was the most nearly spherical man I have ever known. He was round, round -- and he was also sharp, sharp.

Mr. Entrekin was a man of presence. When I was genuine, I was seen. When I was putting up a false front, I was seen through.

I think somewhere I still have a theme I wrote in his class. It came back to me with his encouragement that I expand my toolbox of words. He wrote:
"You are possibly approaching an interesting point. The vocabulary, however, resembles that of my friend the retarded rhinoceros."
(Come to think of it, a rhinoceros would also be both round and sharp.)

I'm remembering that English class because Mr. Entrekin had us read Shakespeare's play, "The Merchant of Venice." If you remember the play (or even if you don't), Antonio offers a pound of his flesh closest his heart as guarantee of a loan. When the loan is not repaid, Shylock claims his pound of flesh. Portia then tells Shylock he must be merciful. Shylock retorts,
“On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.”
Portia famously replies,
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
“Not strained” means we cannot be constrained to be merciful. Mercy can’t be compelled. If it’s compelled, it isn’t mercy. Shylock asks, “on what compulsion must I be merciful?” The answer is there's no compulsion. It's not about compulsion.

Justice is about compulsion: there are principles of fairness that rightfully do constrain our behavior, but mercy doesn’t work that way. Mercy just happens, the way gentle rain falls on the ground. And when it does, it blesses both giver and receiver.

A few lines later, Portia makes the point:
“in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”
Mr. Entrekin skillfully guided our exploration of this tension between justice and mercy: the hook on which justice puts us, and mercy, which sometimes lets us off the hook. I’d never seen it that way!

As a tenth-grader, this struck me as a powerful “gotcha” point to use against my theist classmates. Mercy is what we call it when we are spared from what we deserve. That means God is either merciful or just – either spares us from what we deserve or doesn’t. God can’t do both. For the next year or so I was frequently obnoxious with the question: Is this God of yours merciful or just? Can’t be both. Even a little bit of mercy is a deviation from strict justice.

Then I would complete the one-two punch by following-up with,
“And if God is all-powerful can he make a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?”
Boom, boom!

After a while, even a teenager tires of throwing hard questions at other people and turns to wrestle with his own hard questions. What shall mercy mean to me? How do I cultivate this virtue in my life?

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Mercy v. Justice"
Photo by Diane Wilkes of painting by Cynthia von Buhler
Next: Part 2: Cucumbers and Grapes

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