As long as human beings attempt to administer justice, there will be a conflict between mercy and justice. I began trying to understand this concept as a high school freshman when we read “The Merchant of Venice” and we had to memorize Portia’s speech to save Antonio’s life. I could recite it well. I lived it badly. Why?
Like so many mortals I was anxious for the criminal’s “just deserts” to be doled out. I hear echoes of my adolescent self in so much of what I read today as capital punishment cases come to trial. There are always voices that want to be sure the accused pays for what he/she has done. There are less strident ones that say, “Two wrongs will not make a right” or “Will another death bring back your loved one?”
I have no easy answers to such cases. Years ago I lost a friend whose fiancé was murdered and her desire for vengeance took over her life and occupied her every thought. She had no idea who had done it; the case remains unsolved, but she was adamant. Our friendship ended when I suggested that she remember the wonderful times they had had together, so that he could be recalled positively, but she would not. Her anger was greater than her love had been.
It is so easy for vengeance to cloak itself with a cry for justice. To be free one has to find some way to forgive or one’s being can be consumed. I came across a line that puts it so well: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Graphic, isn’t it? (By the way, that line has been attributed to so many voices for Buddha to a modern poet!)
Many of us were amazed by the family members of those killed in Charleston, S. Carolina, last year who publicly forgave the suspected gunman after the killing. Their Bible studies must have been a potent factor in their being able to speak so gracefully while grief was still raw in their hearts.
I have nothing simple to say in conclusion, but I recite Psalm 51 often: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, according to thy great mercy...”
I need to be able to embrace it. Don’t we all?