Recently, I got into a conversation concerning the trumping of Justice by Mercy. Now, while most Christians would not argue this point, as the Bible explicitly says as much, few American Christians actually practice this. What I’ve realized though is that the most contentious point between Justice and Mercy consists not of God’s Mercy versus God’s Justice, nor of man’s mercy versus man’s justice (intentionally lower-cased, which will be explained at length), but of God’s Mercy versus man’s justice.
There is perhaps no bounds to the amazement I find that Christians place God’s Mercy beneath man’s justice. Consider that Christians are called to forgiveness and our two commanding principles are “love God” and “love man”, and you must be left a bit stupefied. Love and forgiveness do not preclude justice to Justice, but certainly mercy to Mercy must be given precedence.
What does loving another mean aside from putting their best interests ahead of our own? In any form, love may be so defined. Tell me then how capital punishment should ever serve the purposes of Christ.
I will use the particular example that was raised in my conversation for the purpose of illustrating this argument with a touch more clarity. Edward Snowden was who we spoke of and particularly his action in releasing sensitive information, with the other party advocating his execution. So what did he do that is morally wrong (in this particular sense)? He is accused of betraying the country of the United States. He has not, however, done anything by this action to violate the laws of God. So by the justice of man, he is condemned to death, but by the Mercy of God exonerated. And yet this is not accepted.
Here, I pause to explain the differences between man’s mercy and justice, and God’s Mercy and Justice. As alluded to previously, man’s justice pertains to his own laws and judgements of morality therein (I must note that these may not necessarily be codified by a state, but may also pertain to such things as exist within ourselves as individuals). So as an extension of such a definition, man’s mercy is the forbearance of man pertaining to man’s justice. Likewise, God’s Justice pertains to the laws of God and His judgements of morality. And so Mercy is mirrored in God’s forbearance pertaining to the laws of God. It must be said that in all things, for any Christian, that God is preeminent in all things such that we find a hierarchy of law descending from God’s Mercy to God’s Justice to man’s mercy to man’s justice, in that particular order.
There is also the matter of what may seem the trivial capitalization of Mercy and Justice. I choose to capitalize them to distinguish that in their enactment by God, being perfect, they too are perfect. Man, being imperfect, can never attain such fullness of mercy and certainly never of justice. This is perhaps the reason we are told not to judge another, but still counseled to be merciful. We can never meet the measure of true justice and by so falling short create further injustice. Justice must be left to God to mete out, while we seek to embody the love He showed us by being merciful, the constitution of which is formed by love and forgiveness of wrongs.
Our justice must be looked upon through two lenses. First, we, as with the transgressor, fall short of being good. If we too are not good, who are we to cast judgement of any sort? Can not the transgressor also condemn the transgressee? If we, however, move to the notion that some people are more good than others, which is true but cannot be judged by man but by God alone, we usurp the mantle of God as Judge.
Second, if God offers Mercy over our justice, can we truly choose our justice? Doing so infringes upon God’s Justice. All this can be seen in the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. Though he himself is shown forgiveness for his debt, in our case the wrongs we do, he in turn refuses to be merciful to those indebted to him, the wrongs done to him. Colossians says succinctly that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us.
Christians, we must forget this notion of being right in our own minds, of seeking justice in this world. We have created so much injustice in our pursuit of these things and grieved God who asks us to be loving, not right. To be measured just in God’s eyes is not to avenge wrongs nor to punish villains, but to love the wicked and lay down our own ‘rights’ for the sake of loving as God loved us. In this love, we will find an insatiable desire for mercy and Mercy over any dream of justice to which we cling. Jesus tells us not to judge, and relays in this a truth unseen: we cannot judge others not solely because we are imperfect as well, but also because we cannot love when we are judging others.
A small addendum: I by no means declare Mr. Snowden a decent man. I simply mean that he has done wrong only in the eyes of man in the particular instance mentioned.