It took my breath away last month to read “mercy” in the headlines of the Cincinnati Enquirer’s mostly right-wing editorial page. Twice in a week’s time, too! The plea was to get over punishing addicts, and give them real help.
It seems mercy is finally coming out of the closet. It has been in hiding a long time, in fact forever–in church, in state, in schools, in courts. Pope Francis has proclaimed this the jubilee year of mercy. Meanwhile even in our perennially merciless nation, the only thing the Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that our criminal justice system needs a major overhaul. They don’t yet dare use the word “mercy,” but mercy’s in the air…way, way overdue.
I’ve had this thing for mercy since I was very young. It’s caused me no end of problems, this constant desire to get everybody off the hook. I’ve been accused quite recently by a lawyer in our family of not believing in evil. I never quite know what to do with such accusations. Certainly I recognize evil when I see it, and it’s rampant, and it makes me weep. But my confusion lies in holding individuals accountable for it.
This is probably related to my ongoing arguments with my husband over free will. I have never been convinced in my gut that it exists. It seems to me that everyone is thoroughly shaped by the energies of their family system and the events of their lives. The very fact that I can see clearly enough to make morally wise choices is through no particular virtue of my own.
Nor is my longing for mercy in the world something I have chosen and cultivated. I really believe, with all my heart, that this troublesome fixation was planted in me by divine grace, and nurtured by circumstance. It was probably fed most by survivor guilt after my siblings’ deaths. Even though I was consistently “good” growing up, I always secretly felt guilty. So I identified privately with perpetrators. Victims didn’t need my love — they had everyone else’s. But who would love the guilty one? Even God was planning on abandoning them in hell. Being more merciful than God himself, as others defined him, made me very lonely.
My inability to violate the call of mercy deep within my being caused me heart-wrenching confusion when I struggled to give my growing children consequences for their misbehaviors. I could never feel at home in the acts of tough love required of me as a parent. Disciplining the kids felt so hopelessly difficult and unnatural, all this bracing of the will, shutting off of the heart, holding in of the breath. How did it all come so easily to other parents?
On a miserable stint as a classroom teacher in a local boys’ high school many years ago, I found myself unable to dole out detentions for misbehaviors. They called these “j.u.g.,” standing for “justice under God,” and somehow it seemed all the male teachers enjoyed handing them out. I kept getting inside the boys’ heads, imagining their point of view, minimalizing their transgressions.
They walked all over me, of course. I kept groping my way in the dark towards a more humane, cooperative system. I was told I was trying to “feminize” the classroom, that boys could not respond to my attempts at community. Counselors and teachers, with their hard-ass energy, tried to toughen me up, reminding me this was for the good of the whole class (which I didn’t doubt) but in each act of heart-tightening, I felt I was violating something sacred in my own nature.
I am plagued by compassion for even the most “hardened” criminal. I shield my eyes from stories in the paper about people getting sentenced for crimes that, it seemed to me, were almost accidents. While involving myself in movements for social justice, whenever the call turns from reform of racist practices to seeking guilty verdicts for individuals, I can’t participate. I turn off public radio in the midst of stories that pit my endless sorrow for the victims with my anguish for the perpetrator. Within me there’s just a huge, global pity for the whole human race.
I place my hope in the budding movement toward mercy. It is fundamentally a great shift in our societal energy field. One outcome could be the blossoming of “restorative justice.” Instead of the time-honored retributive justice system that fills our prisons to overflowing, this new vision holds people responsible for their actions while finding ways to restore dignity to their lives. This I might be able to deal with.
So this is the year of mercy. But maybe we are meant to go beyond the moral dualism that mercy implies. Maybe the insight we are slowly gaining as a society is that a moralistic lens is not helpful. Labeling those who struggle as “less-than” will not cleanse society of its impurities. Our age-old, knee-jerk, ego-protective closing of the heart to one another’s wounds, sorrows, limitations, and failures will not lead us into a better world. What is helpful, and real, I think, is to recognize that we are all in this together.
to see more on the theme of “mercy” in my life, see chapter 19 in my book: http://www.amazon.com/Ollie-Come-Free-Memoir-Swallowed/dp/162652968X