Mercy is central to the fifth Beatitude. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7, NRSV).
Mercy is a word that is sort of like meek. I thought I knew what it meant until I started digging into it. As it turns out, mercy means far more than I realized. Typically, mercy gets lumped in with forgiveness. But there is nuance that differentiates the two.
Forgiveness vs. Mercy
Forgiveness focuses on how you as an individual choose to respond to an offense. It is a decision to not hold someone’s harmful actions against them. Forgiveness is letting go of your rightful resentful feelings. This means forgiveness centers on the person harmed. It recognizes that holding onto resentment is akin to swallowing poison and expecting someone else to die.
Mercy on the other hand, focuses the future of both the offender and the victim. The response comes in one of two forms. On one hand, mercy is a decision by someone in power, like a judge, to not administer rightful consequences. They offer mercy believing the offending party is either contrite or that the mercy will bring about contrition. Either way, this leads to change.
The other response involves a third party, like a humanitarian worker or therapist, seeking to heal to those wrongly harmed. The goal is the reduction and ultimately negation of suffering’s effects. This source of the suffering includes things like war, famine, natural disasters, or a more individualized trauma. This work recognizes that suffering has a ripple effect as people in pain are more likely to harm to others.
Retributive and Restorative Justice
What these merciful responses have in common is the idea of restorative justice. One aims to restore the life of the person that degraded to the point of harming others. The other aims to restore the life of the people harmed. Restorative justice stands in contrast to the much more common understanding that justice is retributive. At the core of the contrast is restorative justice’s rejection of the myth of redemptive violence.
Now when I say myth, I am not necessarily saying that it is something untrue. A myth is a foundational narrative that shapes how we see the world and understand our role in it. The oldest recorded narrative propagating the myth of redemptive violence dates back about four thousand years to the ancient Babylonians. But it also appeared as recently as most children’s cartoons or an advertisement for the United States military. In other words, the myth of redemptive violence is so prevalent that we just assume that is how things are.
Redemptive violence stands behind our entire criminal justice system. It is at the core of Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” approach to diplomacy. This ideal continues to guide US foreign policy. It is what makes us believe that might makes right or that peace can be achieved through war. Redemptive violence stands behind the ideology of the Pax Romana that oppressed the Jewish people in Jesus’ day. And here, in this beatitude, Jesus rejects that understanding of the world.
Is The Cross Retribution?
Now, for those who grew up in Western Christianity, this is difficult to reconcile. The Western Church’s predominant interpretation of Jesus‘ crucifixion over the last 1,000 year centers on the myth of redemptive violence. This means that if you grew up Catholic, Protestant, or American Evangelical, in the Beatitudes, Jesus rejects the god you grew up with. Why? Because the god you learned about is not merciful.
Around 1000 AD a theologian named Anselm of Canterbury wrote a book titled, “Why God Became a Man.” In it, he interpreted the nature of God through the lens of feudal culture. He put god at the lord and humanity as surfs. Then he described sin as a surf dishonoring the lord.
Based on feudal social practices, the surf needed to offer tribute to regain a right relationship with the lord. However, imperfect people cannot offer a worthy tribute to a perfect god. Therefore Anselm pointed to the crucifixion of Jesus as the necessary tribute. That is fundamentally contradictory to mercy.
Five hundred years later, Luther and Calvin adapted this analogy by moving it into a courtroom. But again, the myth of redemptive violence is the foundation of our legal system and contradictory to mercy. After another two hundred and fifty years, the American theologian Charles Hodges further adapted the analogy. He turned god from a judge balancing the scales of justice into a vengeful tyrant. This is the god so many American Christians believe in today.
The Cross As Restorative Justice
So how might your life look different if you rejected the myth of redemptive violence? How would the world look if we, as Jesus’ invites, look at the world through the lens of mercy. How do things change when we focus on restorative justice?
For starters, you might discover, as theologian Walter Wink did, that “the myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known.” Or perhaps you would resonate more with Gandhi who exposed the myth for what it is in his simple line, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Then again, it might further root you in the terminology I use. You will see that retribution flows out of a spirit of power while restoration comes from a spirit of love.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.