Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A serious post: justice and mercy

Perhaps my favorite journalist today is Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post. He writes a humor column for the Post Magazine each week, writes much longer feature stories a few times a year, has some books out, and hosts an absolutely incredible chat each Tuesday at noon Eastern Time. Each week, the chat begins with a poll, sometimes more than one, and they can be on anything from buffet shame to analyzing poems to, this week, a man who has been convicted of possessing child pornography. Here's a link to this week's chat, which had some excellent discussion and very good points brought up about the poll and the ways different people answered the questions.

This poll stimulated a very intense and interesting discussion between my best friend and me, and several important things came out of it. But one of the things that we discussed is something I've come to feel more strongly about, especially the way I saw the words tossed around in today's chat - it is the words justice and mercy.

I believe that justice and mercy are two completely different things, totally different ideas. They are related, and they do co-exist and interact - and this is important - but they are different. Mercy is not some lesser degree on the Spectrum of Justice. Mercy is not justice that has not been fully applied. I also believe that justice and punishment are two completely different things. We tend to equate justice with punishing someone, but I think that is a grave misunderstanding.

Justice is a big deal. It is important. We need to know that we live in a just and fair society, where people are treated the way they should be treated, the way we would like to be treated ourselves. And justice is every bit as much about encouraging positive norms as it is about discouraging negative ones. I forget now where I read it, but I remember encountering a science fiction novel in my teens where a character said that the law should not be Don't hit people, but that the law should say, If you hit someone, this is the consequence that will happen to you. I found this both powerful and liberating. I'm not being told what to do or what not to do. I'm simply being presented with the consequences of my actions, and offered a choice. And I'm sure that any group of people could come together and debate whether the consequence of hitting someone is a just or unjust one; however, I do not think they would disagree that, if John Doe hits someone and has the prescribed consequence called out upon him, justice has been done. Justice is the prerogative of our government, whom we elect and delegate the responsibility and authority for setting and enforcing these laws. (And, by the way, these laws could be positive, too. If you serve the community by helping paint the walls of your neighborhood school - to pull an example out of thin air - then this positive consequence will happen to you.)

So if justice is having a stated law and applying it when it gets invoked - when John Doe hits someone, or when he paints the walls of his neighborhood school - then it is mostly a head thing. It takes only brainpower to discern that the law applies and then to initiate the prescribed consequences. Mercy, however, is like faith - it engages one's whole being. Mercy takes head, and it takes heart, and it takes spirit, and it takes body. All of these inform mercy. Mercy is a gift, a grace. It is not earned, and it is not deserved. Mercy is like a butterfly that alights on your hand, or a cat that jumps unbidden into your lap for snuggles. Mercy can be asked for, but is most meaningful when it is not, and mercy can be given and withheld. But mercy is not the same as justice, nor is it the flip side of the justice coin. Mercy is a concept that should go hand-in-hand with justice, but that does not all the time in practice.

In this case, what is justice and what is mercy? I am conflicted. I am very thankful that I did not have to serve on a jury in a case like this. I have the utmost respect for a group of people who could come to a consensus on this very difficult subject. And as tough as this poll was to take, and as tough as the discussions of it during the chat were to read, I am very much looking forward to reading Mr. Weingarten's story when it is published.

And now, I will go a step farther. I believe that justice is our responsibility as a society. As a group living together in community, we are responsible for ensuring that our community members are treated with justice - in the US, by electing a government to which we delegate this responsibility. And mercy is our responsibility as individual humans, and most especially for those of us who are Christians. (This applies to other faiths as well, but I will not presume to speak for them.) As Christians, we are taught to love and forgive, and we are also given some very practical advice on dealing with someone who refuses to follow the norms of our community. While the just action - according to the written laws (and assuming that they are good and fair laws, which I know may very well be a stretch) - may be to lock someone up for committing an act that is contrary to our society's norms, the merciful action may be to look deeper, to identify an underlying brokenness, and to address that. I do not say that the just and the merciful actions cannot be the same thing, or that they cannot both be taken at the same time. In fact, the most loving choice for all concerned may very well be to separate the offender (ugh - I hate that word!) from the society for a time so that the mercy of helping him or her to heal that underlying brokenness can take place.

There is enough, just, stuff to these ideas to write books and books and books - and they already exist out there. I'm just doing some thinking out loud for the moment, trying to figure out what I believe and why. There is great work being done in restorative justice, and I'd like to learn more about it. But it is very important to me to be clear and precise in how we use words, especially weighty words like justice and mercy. And I'm interested to hear from others who have thought about these things, too.

Peace be with you today. May you continue on your journey, disturbed perhaps, but unhurt by the ideas that you've encountered here. And may God watch over you, creating Father and Mother, loving Christ, and inspiring Holy Spirit.