Justice AND Mercy

Mercy Sakes! part 3

The Count of Monte Cristo wreaks upon his wrongdoers the perfection of retribution. For the betrayer who was cowardly, "afraid to challenge Dantes for Mercedes love directly," the Count "orchestrates a public accusation of treason," exposes his "claims to honorable military service as false. His wife and son then desert the deserter." For the one who was acting from greed, the Count "turns his own scheme of trading on public secrets against him, bankrupting him and publicly humiliating him." He is then "captured by greedy bandits at [the Count’s] instigation, and suffers near starvation and extortion" because of their greed. For the one who just went along with the other two because it would let him blackmail them later, the Count "turns his own blackmail against him." For the compassionless prosecutor whose own ambition led him to prosecute the case against Dantes though he knew to be ill-founded, the Count "arranges a public exposure of the crimes he... committed to achieve his position."

The reader is drawn in, attracted by the Count’s ingenuity, and delighted at the perfection of justice that is rendered. "The plunderer is plundered, the traitor betrayed, the blackmailer blackmailed, and the ambitious deposed by ambition". The Count himself gains nothing from all this. He spends down most of his fortune on it. "He does not even bother to clear his true name in public – even in the end when his revenge is complete." Nothing sullies the purity of the retributive justice.

Notice that what we’re seeing is not the carrying out of a private vendetta. It "is the very opposite of a private vendetta discharged by discreet duel or shadowy murder." The Count "transcends the personal;" his punishments are highly public. He is not merely a vengeful victim of wrong. He "plays the part of Providence [itself] – absolute justice come to earth." And the fear his betrayers feel as their downfall unfolds is a fear "not of Dantes, but of God" – for Dantes' reappearance after many years as a wealthy Count is so improbable that they can only think it a form of divine retribution.

"Each sees his own fate, his own life as under the power of a higher order and a higher justice. Each understands his punishment as just and deserved, and each has the opportunity to repent....Chaos is abolished; cosmos is reestablished." Yet even this most perfect justice, as art and not life can render it, goes astray. Alexander Dumas is too good an artist not to notice the difficulties inherent in even the most perfect of retributions.

The Count, after all, "is not omniscient nor omnipotent." The innocent suffer along with the guilty – family members of the betrayers also fall, though they had done no wrong. The cosmic scales are left as imbalanced as before – merely differently imbalanced. "Neither rewards nor punishments can be confined to their targets." Dantes is left to wonder toward the end of the book whether "perhaps God is not on his side" after all.

Dantes' quest "for a perfectly rational, perfectly fair, perfectly meaningful universe" in the end fails – because neither we nor our world is perfect. Justice cannot be the kind of thing that Dantes thought he was accomplishing. The problem is not that we humans, in our finitude and frailty, fail to achieve the ideal. The problem is that this ideal isn’t one we should ever really want.

We are thrown into this world to be with one another. And we mess up. All the time. Some of us will mess up in ways that are criminal – even felonious -- and all of us will mess up in ways that are rude, inconsiderate, less than fully respectful. This much of the traditional Christian doctrine of sin is true: we make mistakes, including moral mistakes. I don't think those mistakes are result from an inherently sinful nature. They result from being highly social organisms that: (a) must balance competing needs, including social needs; (b) are not always skillful at effectively balancing these needs, and (c) are built to learn through experimentation and the inevitable error that goes with it.

It is community, it is being-with, that is the only context of our wrongs and our only strength and our only salvation from those wrongs. It is in re-connection that the hope of wholeness lies. There is no ultimate rationality that can explain "why bad things happen to good people." Our maturity lies in the extent to which we can embrace the uncertainty and mystery that come with being finite, rather than seeking to resolve it all into retribution for wrong.

Dantes has made himself into something inhuman in the precision and perfection of his vision of justice. He loses kindness. He loses capacity to trust. He "loses his pride and his dignity." He sought to embody Providence, and indeed became as impassive and unfeeling as fate. Retribution "does not heal, it cauterizes."

So yes, we really need significant expansion in those alternatives to retribution I mentioned. This doesn’t mean the end of punishment. It means the reconceiving of punishment, such as Linda Ross Meyer does: "punishment is the shared memory of a wrong as wrong" (87). Wrong-doing affects the whole community, and we need structures that will allow and facilitate those offenders that are able to recognize that their greatest need is reconnection and restoration not just of the victim but of the community – to enact a humble penance of restoration.

This is a view of justice in which the very limitations that make perfect retributive justice impossible – our finitude, our inability to know all the effects of a given action or even to know all the actual actions -- are not our corruption, our unfortunate weakness. They are our humanity itself. It is boon not bane that we need each other to heal together. We are in continual need of mercy, of forgiving ourselves and each other, beginning again in love. In this capacity for re-beginning is both justice AND mercy. While impassive balance and order is neither possible nor particularly healing, our capacity to forgive and begin again is both.

This grace is free -- but, as the saying goes, not cheap. "We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love" is not a performative utterance. It may be a start, but more than saying it is required to make it so. A process of truth and reconciliation is necessary -- a process that, depending on the nature of the offense and the injury, may be difficult and even harrowing. This is the path of healing. If we seek justice that heals -- rather than merely, at best, cauterizing -- we must step into the abode where mercy is not "the madwoman in the attic" (11), but rather "the lady of the house" (44).

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Quotations in this post are from Linda Ross Meyer, The Justice of Mercy. Unless otherwise indicated, they are from pp. 165-175.
This is part 3 of 3 of "Mercy Sakes!"

See also
Part 1: Mercy v. Justice
Part 2: Sin v. Disconnection

What Is Mercy?
Just Mercy

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