I don’t understand the Jubilee Year of Mercy, but I’m trying to. I love learning, so, as I said on my panel during the ATX Catholic Retreat, I’m taking this year as an opportunity to learn what mercy means. I encounter tons of media already, so my learning mostly consists of keeping my eyes and ears open for any discussion of what mercy means. I’m especially curious about how it relates to forgiveness and justice. We’ve got three words, so there must be some room within there for shades of meaning and nuances of the Faith.
My latest foray into understanding mercy comes from one of my favorite magazines, First Things, and one of my favorite authors, Mr. William Shakespeare. Maybe my buddy the Holy Spirit tossed this one into my path, since this is the only Jubilee Year of Mercy I’m aware of, it was just Pentecost, and it was just the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Then again, maybe I just read widely and Bishop James Conley, of the Diocese of Lincoln, is just a timely writer, offering us “To Render the Deeds of Mercy.”
The title, as well as the essay’s opening, comes from The Merchant of Venice. Portia’s monologue that begins “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” is often considered poetic in and of itself. As Bishop Conley notes, it is also theological. By pointing out that experiencing the fullness of God’s justice would leave us all goners, so it’s a good thing we have God’s mercy, Shakespeare connects us to similar thoughts by St. Anselm:
Anselm concluded that both punishment and mercy are a part of God’s justice. We are justly punished because we are sinners. And God is just in mercy because mercy reflects the goodness of God’s nature. Anselm wrote: “When you [God] punish the wicked, it is just, since punishment agrees with their circumstance; and when you spare the wicked, it is also just; since mercy befits your goodness.”
I have to say, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard mercy connected with justice in a way that makes sense to me. Justice means doing what’s right by the established rules, giving people what they deserve (for better or for worse). I can get behind that. Forgiveness frees the one who has been wronged to show love to the one who wronged them, and it doesn’t preclude punishment. I can also get behind that. Mercy is where justice meets love. It’s the encouragement to do what’s right without compromising on “right.”
Bishop Conley goes on to say that both writers, Shakespeare and St. Anselm, “knew that justice and mercy are inextricably related to one another. … If God did not expect us to keep his commandments, we would not need his help or forgiveness. Unless it is predicated on justice, mercy doesn’t really make sense.”
That’s another thing I haven’t heard much during this Year of Mercy. I hear plenty about forgiveness. I hear tons of shaming, finger-wagging comments about justice (as if our country doesn’t have a whole branch of government based on that very principle). I don’t hear anything about where mercy and justice meet.
What I generally hear is “mercy” used as a code word for “letting people get away with things.” It’s suggested that, in being merciful to people trapped in patterns of sin or disobedience, we should basically let them keep on doing more of the same. Not so, writes the bishop:
God doesn’t look at us with pity and excuse us from our moral obligations. God doesn’t pretend that we are perfect when we are not, that we are holy when we are not, or that the truth about our
lives doesn’t matter. God’s mercy does not ignore reality.
Mercy, if it is real, doesn’t excuse immorality. Instead, mercy enables us to act rightly, to choose goodness, to be just. And mercy calls us, in word, and deed, and witness, to live well—to reject sin, to love as God loves, and to call others to conversion and communion with almighty God.
That’s more like it. Mercy gives us a second chance. It’s not quite like forgiving and forgetting, saying that what you did doesn’t matter anymore. It’s more like giving us another chance to do the right thing. “The right thing” doesn’t change.
It also doesn’t change based on “following your conscience.” That doesn’t mean doing whatever feels right to you. As Bishop Conley notes, any conscience worth following must be formed in the truth, so that when you follow it, you’re ultimately following the truth. I agree; “follow your conscience” has become the religious version of “if it feels good, do it” and “you’re fine as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” The wrong thing can feel good. (Often, it does. In hindsight, we call that “sin.”) You can feel good about doing the wrong thing. (We call that a criminal mind.) And you can hurt someone in a lot of ways, including morally and spiritually.
The good news about mercy is that, like God’s love, it knows no bounds. For God, mercy is inexhaustible. Mercy constantly calls us back to the truth.
The only true kind of mercy is predicated on truth. God’s mercy is operative when it makes us better men and women, not when it makes excuses for depravity. God’s mercy gives the capacity for goodness, and justice, and heroic virtue. Heroism, dear brothers, is the ordinary consequence of mercy in the life of the ordinary Christian.
Justice says, “You made a choice. Here is the consequence.”
Forgiveness says, “Your wrong has been made right.”
Mercy says, “Here is the truth that you missed. Try again.”