Our cathedral recently installed an outdoor exhibit highlighting gun violence. Its appearance eerily coincided with last week’s sad events. Like everyone, I’ve been reflecting on the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and then the five policemen in Dallas: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa. It is relentlessly being brought home to us that as a nation we are being crushed by gun violence, ongoing racism, and seemingly intractable divisions. The root of bitterness goes deep. How can we proceed in such an atmosphere without giving way to it ourselves?
On Sunday many of us heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I was particularly struck this time around by the lawyer’s answer to Jesus’ question, who was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves? “The one who showed him mercy.” His response, however reluctant, suggests a way forward for people of faith.
The key word here is mercy. It is hard to pin down what mercy means. Sometimes it looks like compassion, but it is possible for mercy to be quite cool and distant. Sometimes it looks like justice, but mercy can throw justice overboard and pardon those who have done great wrongs. Sometimes mercy looks like forgiveness, but it need not entail it: when we are not yet prepared to forgive yet still spare the one who has hurt us, we are showing mercy.
So what is mercy, when we peel away compassion, justice and forgiveness? Isn’t it our sheer willingness, when we have the moral, physical, institutional or cultural upper hand, to give someone who is “beneath” us a break? This may seem like just another exercise of power, but I don’t think so. Mercy is about power containing itself in the face of the infinite worth of the neighbor, quite apart from what the neighbor deserves or has earned. When I have the better of you, yet have regard for you as equal in God’s sight and treat you as best I can accordingly, that’s mercy.
Obviously, there is a deficit of mercy in the world today. We see it in our national discourse, in our rejection of immigrants worldwide, and in the atrocities of terrorism. Yet since mercy doesn’t depend on compassion, justice or forgiveness, it’s an attitude we can take up freely. This was Archbishop Tutu’s guiding insight following the breakdown of Apartheid. Under his oversight the Truth and Reconciliation process gave victims a way to release perpetrators without having to forgive them, and perpetrators a way to acknowledge their guilt without going so far as to request forgiveness. Not a perfect result, but enough to make national life possible. At the heart of this process was mercy, pure and simple.
This is precisely how God engages us. God acknowledges us as family, holds us to account for what we have done wrong, and offers us a way forward in truth. God’s mercy also has little to do with compassion, forgiveness, or justice. In the biblical narrative, God simply recognizes the mess the human race is in, and intervenes to help. We like to think God acts on our behalf because we deserve it or are approved of, but if we generalize from the story of God’s dealings with Israel, it’s not about approval but regard. To regard someone means to keep looking at him or her. In the Bible, God keeps regarding Israel, despite all her failures. That doesn’t mean that God always likes her, or forgives her, or thinks she is right. But God’s mercy is never withdrawn, because the connection of Creator to creature is never broken. Likewise, God demands that we practice mercy in our relation to one another. As Jesus says to the religious leaders of his day, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”? (Matthew 9:13)
Nothing stands between us and being merciful. We need not pretend to be compassionate or forgiving when we are not. Nor do we need to shrink from judging wrong where wrongdoing has been done. Nevertheless, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to recognize every victim and every perpetrator as someone for whom Christ died. No easy task this, especially if it means blessing those who curse or abuse us. But blessing doesn’t always mean approval. It means acknowledging a child of God, so that we may move forward together in dignity and truth. That’s where we must start. Mercy is a habit long in the making, but it is crucial for our witness as Christians in such times as these.
Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.
— The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal is the Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio.