The Quality of Mercy–and Forgiveness–is not Strained

The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown: His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8


The title of the article might consider this a further in a series articles written about the Kavanaugh hearings. To be fair, that is the news of the day, and led to three articles, one on this site, one on a new sister site. But the quality of forgiveness and mercy, in a sense, has nothing to do with Kavanaugh; we cannot say a belief that Kavanaugh is guilty is justified, the case against him extremely thin, and if he is guilty there has been no request for forgiveness nor repentance. But, in another sense, it has everything to do with the social fabric that is revealed in  the public reactions by many in our post-Christian culture.

We live in a society that is increasingly being marked by paradoxes; we talk about the need for “rehabilitation” in criminal cases, but whatever might be the discussion, such a plan has been a total failure, creating an overcrowded penal system that seems to make people increasingly animalistic. The prison system seems to be based on the failed Platonic notions that ethical problems are rooted in ignorance, rather than in the human heart. We no longer talk of people paying their debts to society, this would be to give into the “primitive” ideas of retribution, and then we treat those same guilty persons as if they are still in debt to society. In some cases, the debt seems almost unpayable, and would seem to leave suicide as the only reasonable, honorable action for crimes long past their date of commitment. Physical punishment and quick executions are considered less humane than an extended social ostracism, decades in length. One of CS Lewis’s lesser known essay, “The Humanitarian Case for Punishment.”

Of course, we speak much of the need for societal forgiveness for those who have made “mistakes” in their lives, the need for those with felony records to be able to engage in meaningful, legal employment, usually in the form of a request for someone else to do something. Those deemed worthy of forgiveness also seem to be considered worthy of mercy because of sentiments of class and lack of privilege rather than a general principle of forgiveness. That is, we have more arguments that felons engaged in violence (unless it is violence against women and children) should receive societal mercy (whatever the endangerment this might entail to society) then arguments that white collar criminals should receive mercy, the original sin, the unforgiveable action of modern America no longer an action, but class based perceptions, based on questionable historical claims. In short, forgiveness is a political weapon for those influenced by critical theorists to use against enemies, not an ethical duty, or societal necessity.

In part, this is because a post-Christian society has no sufficient basis for forgiveness, within naturalism this makes sense. In many cases, a debt cannot be repaid, because a victim cannot actually be made whole. The PTSD of a survivor of sexual assault cannot simply be healed by an apology, nor can the mother or spouse of a murder victim have their child restored by repentance, there is a lack of wholeness, fueled by the natural human tendency to believe in the justness of our own actions.

This is a change, and is fueled by two things we have lost as a Post-Christian society. First, we have a different view of ourselves, in a personal sense. Christians believe that men are, by nature, basically evil, the modern believes, at least in practice, that man is basically good but some live in a bad system, but then also denies that the concept of good or evil have any real meaning. Determinism is the root of much current thought, we are machines, merely the biological automata, programmed by primarily by our genes and our habitat, freewill is merely an illusion, a useful fiction. This is as true in arguments for criminal actions as it is for the more well known arguments for human sexuality. The Christian knows better, and says “but by Christ, there go I.” This can descend to the paradox of pride in one’s humility, but is important in how we view others. The Christian sees the murderer, the sex offender, the addict, and, in admitting Christianity is true, must admit that the same problems that led this man or woman to their crimes, that is, we recognize our own hearts are made of the same degenerate spiritual stuff as the hearts of unbelievers. True humility is in remembering, we aren’t as good, great or righteous as we tend to think we are, and therefore by grace we extend grace to others.

The second thing that has been lost is the understanding of the atonement, that God became man, to atone for the sins of men. This means that whatever punishment for my sins, or anyone else, I can point to the sacrifice of something immeasurably greater. This combines, as well, with the above. I forgive, because I also am, by grace, a fugitive from God’s justice, and yet, I have obtained mercy, as the unjust in the transaction with the Just.