Justice and Mercy
As a parent of two children under six, I have become very aware of their innate sense of justice and mercy. On a daily basis, they demand fair treatment when it comes to taking turns or sharing their favorite toys, as well as equitable consequences when they’ve behaved badly. They also want to be treated with mercy because they’ve forgotten that they aren’t supposed to do something (that we might have explained to them a hundred times.)
Most of us as adults have simply developed this same tendency: wanting people to get what they deserve when they choose badly, but not wanting to be treated in the same way. Driving is the simplest example of this. Although the law is clear, many of us speed or text & drive… but if we see someone else doing it (or hear about it), we shake our heads in disgust that these people would dare put our lives in danger.
It’s almost as though there’s an innate desire that others would receive justice, but a hope that we ourselves might get mercy. This is why a story like that of the Rev. Dale Lang of Taber, AB seems so notable. As you may remember, Rev. Lang’s family experienced tragedy in April of 1999, when a fourteen year old boy shot his son, Jason, dead. As an Anglican priest – and, in his own words, a Christian for 22 years – his response was clear. I don’t expect it was easy, but it was clear: he was to forgive the boy who took his son’s life. He did what many others – Pope John Paul II (to his would be assassin), St. Maria Goretti (to the boy who tried to rape and eventually did kill her), St. Stephen, and even Christ Himself did: he showed mercy. One of the best definitions for mercy I’ve ever heard is that mercy is our experience of getting what we don’t deserve (whereas justice means we get what we do.) And God pours His mercy upon us, offering up Christ’s life instead of ours in atonement for our sins, since St. Paul writes that “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) And the measure in which we share mercy is the condition by which God shares His mercy with us (forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive…) One could say that every Christian is expected to act with mercy in relation to others and not maintaining the view of justice my five-year-old has in relation to her toys.
While that may sound unduly harsh, it is an invitation to us to release those who’ve injured us by their words or actions, and to trust that God will dole out mercy and justice where appropriate – in the same way as He gives those to us. Unforgiveness binds us to this person, to the hurt we’ve experienced at their hands, while our own acts of mercy leave them where they belong: in God’s hands. Since this is the place we would most want to be, let us “put aside childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11), and pray for the grace of mercy both for and in ourselves.
(This was the first part of a talk I gave on the weekend, explaining the Catholic position on the dealth penalty. This need for mercy, as well as the integral dignity of every human life from conception until natural death means that we do not support the death penalty in any circumstance where there is another option. And in North America, where we have solitary confinement and maximum security prisons, there is always another option to keep society safe.)