Oh Mercy

“We live in a political world,” Bob Dylan once sang, “Where mercy walks the plank.”

It’s a world, after all, where even a democratic socialist promises a “merciless” response to a vicious attack. Where a leading Republican presidential candidate can be criticized by a leading conservative columnist for engaging in a kind of discourse “marked by what you might call pagan brutalism. There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy.”

But is it just me, or is an old-fashioned virtue — vastly more popular with writers of the 19th century than the 20th — making a comeback early in the 21st century?

Google Ngram of "mercy" (1800-2008)
Yes, Google Ngram is a flawed way to judge such things… but still, interesting

Even more famously than David Brooks’ much-shared (in my social media circles, at least) critique of Ted Cruz’ “pagan brutalism“…

Pope Francis has called “an extraordinary Jubilee that is to have the mercy of God at its center. It shall be a Holy Year of Mercy. We want to live this Year in the light of the Lord’s words: ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (cf. Lk 6:36).'” The pope’s conversation with Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli has been published as The Name of God is Mercy, the title inspired by Walter Kasper’s Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to the Christian Life (which the German cardinal gave to Francis during the meeting that led to his election as pope).

What exactly is mercy? First and foremost, for Francis, it is an attribute of God. In the homily that proclaimed this jubilee, the pope preached that

No one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it and the Church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one. Its doors remain wide open, so that those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness. The greater the sin, so much the greater must be the love that the Church expresses toward those who convert.

Gehring, The Francis EffectWhat does this mean for people who are made in God’s image, but are not God? “The call of Jesus,” exhorted Francis, “pushes each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we are dealing with a person. We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart to see how much generosity everyone is capable.” With God’s mercy, “all of us are called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.” As John Gehring notes, Francis “even coined a new word in Spanish – misercordiando. Mercy-ing in English. In this way, mercy is not just an object, a static noun, but an active verb signifying motion. Mercy requires leaving the safe place, confronting complexity, even facing evil.”

(Of course, such an emphasis on mercy is not entirely new in the Catholic tradition. While Thomas Aquinas concluded that charity was even more significant to our relationship with God, he nonetheless decided that “of all the virtues which relate to our neighbor, mercy is the greatest.”)

Not all Catholics have been satisfied by Francis’ talk of mercy. Recently, National Catholic Reporter books editor Jamie Simpson worried about what this means for the papacy’s view of one particular group:

Year of Mercy logo
According to the Vatican, the logo for this Year of Mercy “has been designed in such a way so as to express the profound way in which the Good Shepherd touches the flesh of humanity and does so with a love with the power to change one’s life. One particular feature worthy of note is that while the Good Shepherd, in his great mercy, takes humanity upon himself, his eyes are merged with those of man. “

…mercy, it seems to me, is not the door that LGBTQ people need opened to them. Mercy is an act of love, compassion or service given to those who sin or are afflicted in some way. LGBTQ people, same-sex relationships, and transgender persons are not sins or afflictions….

LGBTQ persons do not need mercy from the church. We need justice. We need an institutional church that has the courage to admit that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, relationship status, or gender identity, have the same potential for goodness, wholeness and a sacramental life. Until that day comes, we will not achieve true dignity and full equality in our church.

My own denomination (whose view of human sexuality would no doubt disappoint Simpson) understands mercy as interrelated with not only compassion, but justice:

Mercy is our recognition of God’s grace given to us while we were yet sinners. Mercy is expressed as we extend compassion, forgiveness, and care to others as God extends mercy to us, undeserved and without limits. Mercy is seeing ourselves in the brokenness of others, and leads us to a compassionate and just response. In mercy we ask, “Who is broken? Who is in need? Who is my neighbor?”

The authors of the Covenant Church’s resource paper on Compassion, Mercy, and Justice acknowledge that it has generally been easier for Covenanters to follow the prophetic call to “love mercy” than the one to “do justice.” But I appreciate that there’s also an understanding that it’s possible to do justice mercilessly, and without compassion.

Past that, I don’t have a lot to add here. I’m mainly curious whether I’m alone in noticing a resurgence in the language of mercy — and what you all think of that term and its place in Christianity.


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