Mercy v. Justice

Mercy Sakes! part 1

Mercy. It seems to be a species of compassion -- especially that compassion represented in forbearing from punishment, leniency, or forgiveness. Since it is unearned, it also overlaps substantially with grace.

One thing that uniquely emerges with mercy – that isn’t indicated in compassion or forgiveness or grace -- is the challenging relationship it has with justice. If justice is treating like cases alike – following rules about what sort of crime warrants what punishment, and applying those rules fairly and equally, then mercy looks like deciding to be unjust. If the judge is merciful to one convicted defendant but not others, that’s not fair. And if the judge is merciful to all of them, then that’s not mercy – it’s just that judge’s rules of procedure.

Mercy has not been a great focus of attention among Unitarian Universalists, but justice is. In the seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote, justice is the only word – other than articles, conjunctions, and prepositions – that appears twice. It’s in the second principle: “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” And it’s in the sixth principle: “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” Justice is big for us. So if there’s something called mercy that is at odds with justice, we need to look at that. We need understand how this mercy-justice relationship works, and begin to integrate that into how we are in the world.

St. Anselm, the 11th-century theologian and philosopher articulated what appeared to be a problem for imagining God to be both just and merciful:
“But how canst thou spare the wicked if thou art wholly just and supremely just? For how does the wholly and supremely just do something that is not just? We can find no reason to explain why, among men who are equally evil, thou does save some, and not others, through thy supreme goodness, and does condemn the latter, and not the former, through thy supreme justice.”
The issue was dramatized 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, 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 then famously explains,
“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. To Shylock's question, on what compulsion must I be merciful? the answer is there's no compulsion. It's not about compulsion.

Justice, on the other hand, IS about compulsion: there are principles of fairness that rightfully do constrain our behavior. On Portia's account, mercy doesn’t work that way. Mercy just happens, the way gentle rain falls on the ground. 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.”

Wait. What? None? OK, I think I see our problem here. If justice is understood as that which, strictly adhered to, condemns us all, then we need a new idea of justice. Alas, the idea that we all deserve damnation is our Western heritage. Theologians and priests for centuries emphasized what sinners we are. They gave us a picture of ourselves as fundamentally corrupt at our core. Every one of us is so profoundly, inherently sinful, that if we got what we deserved, we’d all be thrown to the worst punishment we can imagine.

So mercy enters the picture. No one is good enough to deserve going to heaven on their own merits, but some people get in just because of God’s benevolent mercy.

The Church has generally avoided stating precisely how many would receive this grace. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses are an exception. They teach that exactly 144,000 faithful Christians will go to heaven to rule with Christ in the Kingdom of God.) Mostly, only a rough sense of the proportions was indicated. In John Calvin’s theology, for instance, it seems like very few. I get the impression from Calvin that he imagines maybe something around 2 percent of all people will get to heaven. Our forebears, the Universalists, taught that God’s benevolent mercy extends to all -- every person will go to heaven. We get our name, Universalists, from this doctrine of universal salvation. But even the Universalists, for the most part, didn’t think people deserved it, or had earned it. Justice would condemn, but God’s mercy saves. On that point, the Calvinists and the Universalists agreed -- they merely disagreed on how many of us God’s mercy saves.

Through the 20th century, Unitarians and Universalists slowly shed the sense that sin – inner corruption – was humanity’s essential feature. Instead, we began to see human suffering in terms of disconnection: the deprivation (in the lower classes) and alienation (in any class) that accompanies uprootedness from healthy community of care, respect, meaning, and opportunity.

We stand, as ever, in need of justice: not justice as punishment for our wickedness, not justice in the course of which none of us should see salvation, but justice as the construction of fairness in the face of oppressions that undermine community, justice as healing the wounds of separation, justice as the restoration of belonging. We stand, as ever, in need of mercy: not mercy as respite from harsh punishment (though we could use a lot more of that, too), but mercy AS reconnecting justice.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Mercy Sakes!"
See also
Part 2: Sin v. Disconnection
Part 3: Justice AND Mercy

What Is Mercy?
Just Mercy

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