In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Antonio offers a pound of his flesh closest his heart as guarantee of a loan. When the loan is not repaid, and Shylock claims his pound of flesh. Portia intervenes to tells Shylock he must be merciful.

Shylock retorts, “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.”

Portia 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. Mercy just happens, the way gentle rain falls on the ground. And when it does, it blesses both giver and receiver.

In this way, mercy is related to grace. “Grace” is a name for the fact that much of what is good in life is “free” – that we are rich in blessings not earned, deserved, or expected. If a blessing comes to you when you didn’t deserve it, that’s grace. If a punishment is lifted or consequence averted from you that you did deserve, that’s mercy. We all deserve worse than we get, as Portia goes on to say:
“in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”
Mercy reminds us that justice and fairness – as important and necessary as they are – are not enough. Love and forgiveness take the name mercy when, as they sometimes must, they countermand the dictates of justice.

There are times when it is better not to save others from the consequences of their actions. Overprotectiveness is a misapplication of mercy. As Shakespeare tells us in a different play (Timon of Athens):
“nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy.”
It takes wisdom to choose well when to let justice prevail and when, and how much, to temper justice with mercy. There are formulas for retributive justice and better formulas and methods for restorative justice, but no algorithm for the wise application of mercy. Indeed, that’s what makes an act merciful: it goes beyond formula or right. Still, we can learn from good examples. When apartheid ended in South Africa, their Truth and Reconciliation Commission wisely chose mercy over justice alone. The Commission granted amnesty to perpetrators who committed violence and crime during apartheid if those people shared the truth about what they had done. Mercy and truth, in that situation, was more important than justice to their country.

In the Middle East, so many wrongs have been committed by so many people, that there’s no way to punish all who have acted violently. If justice is a prerequisite for peace, we may never have peace in that region. Peace will require some justice – and a lot of mercy.

Questions: What role has mercy played in your life? When have you most memorably received it? When have you given it? When have you wished you’d given more of it?

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