Justice and mercy. We hear about these qualities in faith, especially Christianity, and try to strike some balance between them. Some days, we want “a pound of flesh,” others we lighten and forgive. More and more, mercy is lost. When that happens, societies fray, since mercy matters.
Too deep for discussion? Sure to be political? Not really. You could spend all day citing references to justice and mercy in the New Testament, or Jewish Selichot (penitential prayers), or Koran. All three argue showing mercy is what – in the end – warrants mercy.
How and when might mercy be useful? What happens if we ignore it? Obviously, justice – strict penalties for intolerable acts – is right. Acts warrant consequences. High crimes must be punished, accountability demanded, criminal laws enforced, political leaders held to account. Without this, we have no republic, rule of law, and society becomes violent and ungovernable.
But what about in daily life? Here is where, it seems, we are out of whack. When everything gets political, family relations, ties with friends, and everyone brings a hammer down, societies come apart. History is clear, societies divide into sides. Just think about Germany, 1932.
When basic human bonds – including forgiveness for mistakes and offenses – loosen, risk grows that order turns to disorder, respect to “what the hell,” and peace to hatred. Civil becomes uncivil, and a vicious cycle begins that is harder and harder to stop.
History should temper us. You may not think so, but references to this point are plentiful, part of all the holy books ever written. We even have references in our own lives, if you will think about it – times when mercy was desperately needed, thoughtfully shown, and willingly accepted.
Shakespeare had a knack for “finding the timeless,” pinning it to a page. He did that in “Merchant of Venice.” The entire book is about mercy and justice, the ways in which we ask and give it – or are asked for and decline to give it, often profoundly regretting that decision.
While justice is important, “the quality of mercy” between people allows wholeness of souls and preserves society. In “Merchant,” Shakespeare writes: “The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven …. It is twice blest. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Lots of history pre-dated Shakespeare. He wrote on it. Speaking of kings, he wrote mercy is “mightiest in the mightiest,” and mighty too in those not kings. “It is an attribute of God Himself … earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice.”
Think about our Nation’s Founders. They understood the balance – in their personal life and the Republic’s life. Early and late, they gave and asked mercy from a loving God and each other. Jefferson and Adams, at odds for decades, gave and sought mercy from each other at the end.
If national penalties must be enforced, mercy among Americans remains vital. Shakespeare wrote: Seeking justice alone “… none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy – and that same prayer doth teach us all to render.”
Wrote Adams, in his poem “The Wants of Man,” we all want things, as he did too. Yet: “My last great want, absorbing all, is when beneath the sod, and summoned to my final call, the mercy of my God.”
Yes, I hear the objections to showing mercy. As a former military officer, litigator, and law clerk, it has limits. But societies are not built only on laws alone. Societies have granularity, which can get lost at great cost. Showing mercy is part of that.
A healthy society depends on self-aware people, willing to get along with others, respect and have mercy on neighbors. Nowhere is that more vital than a republic, respect our lifeblood.
So, yes, seek justice – but recall “the quality of mercy” and what it delivers. As Shakespeare wrote, it is not strained, nor hard to give. As Adams wrote, we all want it. As holy books note, we warrant it by giving it. These days, few politicians say so, but Matthew did: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” In hard times, mercy falters. History teaches we must not.