Justice or Mercy

John E. Phelan Jr is a recently retired senior professor of theological studies at North Park Seminary.

This summer a controversy raged over the White House administration’s decision to separate children from parents at border crossings from Mexico into the United States. People were outraged that young children were incarcerated, away from their parents, in circumstances characterized by some as “prisons” and others as “concentration camps.” The situation became even stranger when the US attorney general suggested that he had biblical justification for his actions in Romans 13, which reads in part: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except that which God has established.” The response was swift. People pointed out that it was dangerous to engage in such proof texting and that there were other passages
that indicated the government should be resisted, even to the point of death. For a while it was a case of dueling interpreters on the cable news shows and editorial sections of the newspapers.

A world without structures and guidelines would be chaotic. A world without mercy and generosity would be grim.

The issue is an important one. And I find this policy of separating parents and children to be an abomination. But I would make a different point. The attorney general appears to be a justice-based individual—perhaps not surprising for someone in his position. There are laws and rules, such people insist, and they should be obeyed no matter who you are. On the other side of this and many other issues are the people motivated by empathy and mercy. Certainly there are rules, they say, but there are human considerations as well. Laws are made to protect and guide, not to damage and wound. These two groups of people do not understand each other. The justice-based people see the mercy folk as weak. The mercy-based people see the justice folk as cruel. The justice-based think the mercy folk lack moral fiber; the mercy-based think the justice-based are unloving and heartless. This is an old and enduring problem.

Now justice-based people can be unloving and heartless. Mercy-based people can be spineless and weak. And both sides sometimes think the world would be better off without the other. But a world without structures and guidelines would be chaotic and terrifying, and a world without mercy and generosity would be grim and gray.

In Mark 2 Jesus famously confronts a disabled man in the synagogue on the Sabbath. When he heals the man he is attacked for violating the Sabbath. Now the rabbis permitted the violation of the Sabbath to save life, but it seemed to those present that this act of healing could have waited a few hours until the Sabbath was over. Jesus obviously disagreed. For Jesus the Sabbath was about human flourishing, human good—not simply about God’s law. “The Sabbath,” he told them, “is for people, not people for the Sabbath.” If the law gets in the way of human good, Jesus suggests, it should be set aside. Now this does not mean Jesus was an antinomian and thought all moral bets were off. A look at the Sermon on the Mount should disabuse us of that notion! But it does mean that there is something larger than the law, something more important than justice—and that is ultimate human flourishing.

It’s true that we don’t always agree about what enhances human flourishing. Should a man or woman stay in a bad or abusive marriage for the sake of the children? Should an individual stay in a soul-crushing job to support a family even if a dream job for much less money comes along? Should a person stick with a church (or the church) even though it has wounded and abused him or her? Those are tough questions. But I would argue that both strict rule orientations and strict mercy orientations are too simple. As annoying as those rule makers are, we need them. As irritating as those mercy seekers are, they are necessary. If we drive out one or the other as people, we become impoverished as a church. Though I tend to be a mercy person, I need my law-making sisters and brothers. I need to hear them and they need to hear me. Together perhaps we can enable the human flourishing we all desire.

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3 Comments

  1. Beautifully written, Jay.
    And yes, we need people of opposite styles and opposing opinions in our lives. We need to have friends who will speak truth to us, even if it’s not the truth we want to hear. And we need to listen.

    1. A wonderful article that doesn’t hurt or degrade anyone but is uplifting and affirming that we all are a nessasary piece and that together we can thrive

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