Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Decline of Mercy in Public Life

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Decline of Mercy in Public Life

Article excerpt

The Decline of Mercy in Public Life BY ALEX TUCKNESS AND JOHN M. PARRISH CAMBRIDGE, 318 PAGES, $29.99

Though mercy is a Christian virtue, our post-Christian society shies away from relying on it. Lenient criminal sentences, pardons, and debt forgiveness all seem to undercut the demands of justice and public safety. We now speak the language of rights, instead of mercy, to justify helping the needy. Social programs have displaced Christian charity, and generic do-gooder benevolence has supplanted mercy. By making benevolence bureaucratic and impersonal, we have suppressed human kindness and empathy, the direct personal contact that stirs the heart. Debt relief, welfare programs, and criminal sentences become political footballs in a zero-sum game. Any show of mercy seems to sacrifice justice.

It was not always thus, as Alex Tuckness and John Parrish show in their intellectual history of the decline of mercy. Aristotle understood mercy as tailoring justice to the needs of the particular case, and

other ancients emphasized mercy as restraining one's vengeful anger. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, mercy is God's love for all of us and our active love toward one another, particularly those in need. Christ's supreme act of mercy was his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, conquering death and the devil, raising up fallen mankind, and opening the way to eternal life. The father in the parable of the prodigal son exemplifies God's mercy and paternal love for us all.

But beginning in the Middle Ages, the Western intellectual tradition put mercy on a collision course with justice, by framing strict retribution as essential to justice. Anselm understood Christ's death on the cross as satisfaction demanded by God's justice to atone for mankind's sins. Enlightenment thinkers then secularized this understanding of justice, collapsing the distinction between God's punishment and man's. By insisting upon political equality, impartiality, and universality, Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke reframed justice in terms of rights. Mercy thus seemed a relic of absolute monarchy, condescending to inferiors and smacking of arbitrariness. Care for the poor was no longer defended in terms of Christian mercy, but public justice. …

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