Last week we talked about forgiveness. During our Sharing Circle, someone commented that we often forgive not for the one who harmed us, but rather to set ourselves free of hatred and resentment. This week, we look at an idea akin to forgiveness: mercy. Unlike forgiveness, which we can offer without the other person ever knowing, when we grant mercy, such as by pardoning the wrongs of a criminal, the one who has done those wrongs must realize it. Then, within that realization, if she is open and receptive to it, she might find the blessing of grace.
In this way, forgiveness, mercy, and grace are connected.
Yet in another way, mercy and grace are not so easily intertwined. Mercy pardons one who has done wrong; grace gives a gift we cannot foresee and have not earned. We can beg for mercy. To beg for grace is a little harder. We hardly know what to ask for.
Nonetheless, all of us have, at one time or another, received grace. For some of us, grace has filled our entire lives. Yet that does not make us better than the broken, the empty, or the destitute.
There But for Grace
Consider the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
It does not mean that I’m somehow superior to that poor sucker over there, nor does it mean God loves me best. Rather, it means that no matter how hard we try to keep ourselves and our families safe, terrible things can happen even to us. If we never leave our homes, still we will experience some tragedy or disaster. Yet if we know little of suffering and misery, we can thank grace. Being born to white, educated, middle class parents in the United States is an example of a grace we Americans often overlook, yet how many of us earned the right to be born with so many advantages?
That is grace, and by definition, grace is undeserved. To some degree, mercy is also undeserved. Yet unlike grace, the idea of mercy raises the question of justice.
In last week’s column, I talked about the boy whose errant fireworks set the Columbia Gorge ablaze. I suggested that forgiveness was not only more humane in this circumstance, but also more just. Though some people demand harsh punishment for the boy and his parents, is this really? , Recompense is important, yet what would that look like? Jail time? Enormous fines? Or something else, something more creative, perhaps?
What is reasonable? By how much mercy should we temper punishment to make it look more like justice?
Tempering Mercy, Finding Justice
Your answer to that question will depend in part on how comfortable you are with uncertainty, how well you remember your own adolescence, how righteously you see yourself, how much you long for a world in which bad things don’t happen to those you love, and how much you fear being cheated or harmed by life’s vagaries. When we believe the world is ordered and just, when acknowledging life’s randomness scares us more than we can bear, then, when things go wrong, we must find someone to blame, and we must punish him. That way, we can rest peacefully in our beds at night, knowing that the world has been returned to its proper order.
Perhaps that’s why, when I searched for a folk tale or myth about mercy, I had a hard time finding one. Many stories show people being punished for things they did wrong or rewarded for things they did right, but very few grant wrong-doers mercy
One Native American tale reflects a kind of mercy. The animals are angry at humans for killing so many of them, so they devise a punishment. Whenever a human takes an animal without first asking permission and apologizing, the human becomes ill with one of the many diseases the animals have invented. Taking pity on people, plants devise medication within their leaves and bark that will heal the diseases. Though they cannot stop the sickness entirely, the plants can offer a mercy that will make the sickness less serious.
Making Amends Before Receiving Mercy
The Hassidic leader, the Baal Shem Tov, told the story of a bishop who oversaw the killing of Jews in his city. One night, the Baal Shem Tov requested a hearing with the bishop. Afterwards, the man gave up his rank, stopped the murders, and withdrew into his home. He started giving away his money to good causes, then paid storytellers to tell him any story they knew of the Baal Shem Tov. Eventually, one storyteller found his way to the bishop’s house and told him of a Jew who converted to Christianity and then started persecuting his own people. It turned out, this was the bishop’s own story, and when he heard it, he knew he had been forgiven.
Having committed atrocities, the bishop could expect imprisonment, if not death. Instead, he was shown mercy, but not until he had repented and given away much of his wealth.
Where are the stories of unearned mercy? Of grace that falls like rain?
Even in the Bible, the Prodigal Son doesn’t receive mercy until he repents. A Buddhist tale shows Buddha forgiving a man who has gleefully murdered nearly fifty people, yet far from punishing him, Buddha makes him a disciple. Yet here, too, the man first repents, promises to change his ways, and asks to follow the Buddha and learn from him. To further earn his forgiveness, the man experiences months of tormenting accidents as if to make up for the harm he has done. Mercy does not come cheaply.
Mercy for Those We Don’t Like
Yet I want mercy for the teenager who set fire to Eagle Creek, and also for his parents. I want mercy for drug addicts, and thieves, and strippers, and children who can’t keep their rooms clean.
What about mercy for Neo-Nazis? Do I want that? How about Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Arpaio? This act frightens me. Flying in the face of justice, it makes a mockery of our courts and condones the persecution of people of color. I think pardoning Arpaio is wrong.
But if I believe in forgiveness, mercy, and grace for prostitutes, alcoholics, and thoughtless children, why not for “good old boy” sheriffs, for those who hate and spurn and abuse the poor, the women, the children, the stranger? Which crimes are forgivable, and which are not? Which ones deserve mercy, and which harsh justice?
In his book, I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett suggests that some things are beyond mercy. He describes a prison on his fantastical DiscWorld in which each prisoner has a canary he must tend. One of the criminals, a man who did horrific things to others, is taken over by a demonic force that makes him kill his bird. This seems to be more terrible than all his other crimes combined. The “crushing of the little songbird” seems like “a crime beyond mercy. There will be no mercy for a song now silenced,” Pratchett writes, “no redemption for killing hope in the darkness.”  Some things cannot be forgiven.
It seems that our human sense of decency requires that we temper our mercy with justice. Some wrong-doers have been abused themselves. Others were raised with false ideas of privilege that puff them up without the sense of worth that true achievements bring, thus making them prone to take offense. So perhaps we feel sorry for them. Perhaps we should forgive them because we understand their wounds.
But mercy? Shall they not be held accountable?
Yet it is not either-or. We can combine mercy and justice is through Restorative Circles, or Peacemaking Circles, or Circles for Reconciliation. These all help bring wrong-doers back into right relationship with the community. They help create understanding between groups who do not get along. Some circles encourage restoration for wrongs done to an entire people, such as Native or African Americans.
Grace Falls Where It Will
What, then, of grace?
We don’t earn it, or course. Grace falls where it will, when it will, haphazardly. We hope grace touches when we lead circles of restoration. I pray grace heals the patients with whom I meet. Is it mercy that saves a young woman whose organs have shut down, who came close to dying, yet somehow revived, only to discover she had gangrene in both feet and must lose them? Is she touched by grace or not?
What of the girl with Guillain Barre syndrome, who trembles with sadness and anxiety, not knowing if her paralyzed limbs will recover, nor how much? Does mercy bring her friends to visit and give her hope? Does grace touch her when she learns to walk again, or when she finds joy even though she lives in a wheel chair?
When we suffer a serious illness and get better, instead of cursing our luck for getting sick in the first place, we often feel as if we were given a reprieve. How delightful. Perhaps that twist of memory that allows us to feel grateful rather than resentful is a grace all its own. Or is it a mercy?
Desperate for Grace
Two of my recent clients are addicted to methamphetamine. One currently uses. The other does not. Both feel desperate, terrified of losing their minds and lives to the drug. They fear permanent homelessness, sickness, loss of friends and dignity and hope, and eventually an early death. Yet they do not know how to be free, how to live a life without the sweet mercy of forgetfulness, of numbness. They long for the touch of grace, some unseen hand that will take their compulsion from them, will make them whole again. One believes fervently in such a Christian God. The other is too muddled to believe in anything.
Do they deserve mercy? They have done cruel things to maintain their habit. Are there amends enough to make up for what they have done? Like the Jew turned bishop, can they earn forgiveness by giving and giving and giving even more? Who decides? And who forgives?
Bestowing Mercy and Grace
All I know is that I am blessed beyond deserving, showered with grace I couldn’t begin to earn. Yet others are tormented beyond conscience, beyond reason. How can any god justify such a world?
We are God’s hands. As such, we are responsible for the suffering of the abused, the misery of the traumatized. We are responsible for bringing mercy and grace to comfort them and to bless their lives. Especially we who have done nothing to merit our riches of body, spirit, and heart, who have been born in luxury and privilege, we owe a debt of understanding, forgiveness, mercy, and grace to the world.
Hopefully, this does not feel like a burden, but more like blessing in itself. For how wonderful to have the ability to offer grace, healing, forgiveness, and mercy to those who desperately need the tenderness of our touch. To receive mercy is lovely; to offer it is divine.
In faith and fondness,
- Prachett, Terry, I Shall Wear Midnight, San Francisco: HarperCollins, Audiobook, Part 10, chapter 14.