Judgment – Mercy: a dilemma?
The theme of this symposium is ‘Judgment – Mercy’. Does this mean ‘Judgment versus Mercy’, as though they are opposites and incompatible? Does it mean ‘Judgment or Mercy’ as though they were alternatives? Does it mean that judgment is the same as mercy, as though they are tautologies? Or are they a paradox, different yes, but reconcilable in a way beyond our understanding? There are many aspects to this topic.
What is judgment? On what basis is judgment given? Is justice only a mental construct and another name for prejudice? Who has the right to judge? Are the laws of the State any guide? Does injustice carry no consequences? What is mercy; is it the limp option? Is it a betrayal of justice? Who judges, who shows mercy? Is it God or some human being, some human authority. What if there is no God? Muslims, Buddhists and Jews and the Yoga tradition will all have different things to say on this huge topic.
It is particularly relevant today when many are taking on themselves the right to judge, namely the extremists in all traditions, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu. It is relevant to a world where litigation is so frequently used; where so many are judgmental; and where criticism is so common.
All the traditions proclaim mercy as the one of the highest expressions of the enlightened being, that immense compassion which understands and appreciates the ignorance under which all live. All traditions have a sense of justice which calls everyone to account. None of the traditions accepts relativism and indifference as a guide for living. The subject is enormous.
The theme is a rich one in the Christian tradition. I leave aside the teachings given in the Hebrew Bible which the Christian traditions claims as its own but which our Jewish speaker may allude to.
Suffice to say that judgment is the act by which justice is brought to bear on an unresolved situation. It means putting things right, putting order and balance back into a situation, so that all may flourish. Mercy means withholding the consequences of acts, out an appreciation of human frailty.
In Christian teaching, Jesus, who is the eternal Word of God, becomes incarnate and takes on human flesh so that he might know human suffering as well as human joy. He is born into a stable so as to be poor with the poor. He who knows the human condition will have an understanding heart when faced with the weakness of the human heart and the ignorance of the human mind. Out of mercy he eats with the outcaste and the sinners. By his words, he “pulls down the mighty from their thrones” because they have not shown mercy and “raises the lowly” so as to restore justice. He shows the mercy of God, just as he shows the justice of God. He is filled with compassion at the sight of the crowds who are like sheep without a shepherd. He teaches that they are to be merciful as their heavenly father is merciful, who shines his sun and sends his rain on good and bad alike. Mercy is shown to the merciful; mercy is withdrawn from those who have refused mercy. He says: “Judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned yourselves.” The human act determines the divine attitude. The Good Samarian is praised because he has mercy on the man fallen among thieves and lying wounded on the road.
Jesus preaches good news. The villages of Capernaum and Bethsaida which refused the good message will be condemned more severely than Sodom and Gomorrah because someone greater is speaking. The value of the message and the value of the messenger determine the gravity of the refusal.
Jesus is condemned by the whole world – his disciples, the leaders of his people, the Roman authorities. He is condemned but those who condemned are themselves condemned. The trial and execution of Jesus shows the sin of the world. It is the supremely dramatic moment. He was rejected by the whole world; the whole world is brought to account for this, but not only for his suffering but for the suffering of all humanity.
In Christian theology Jesus is the judge coming at the end of time to bring justice to bear. At last the human mind which suffers so deeply at the experience of injustice will say ‘God is holy, is indeed true and faithful, little did we realise.’ At the end of time God will be shown to be just and each human being will receive the reward of their good works.
Conscience is a means of judgment. The revealed Word is a double-edged sword, revealing the true intentions of the human heart. But it is above all the Spirit of freedom, which is the judge, as St Paul teaches. To act always in freedom is the most exacting of criteria.
In Christian theology Jesus alone is the judge, and this fact removes the right from anyone else to pass judgment. Ultimate judgment is removed from out of the hands of mere human beings. No one can really judge except Jesus who alone is the Truth of God. All must bring justice but none may condemn for only God knows the intentions of the heart. God has mercy on human beings; therefore they must have mercy on each other. Rather, forgiveness is required; Peter must continually forgive his brother, even if it be 77 times each day.(Mt 18.22) Jesus gives the sublime example when prays for his executioners even as they nail him to the cross. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23.34)
He points out the injustice of the executioners and at the same time pleads for mercy on them. At the moment of his crucifixion judgment and mercy coincide, infinitely so.
Paper Delivered by John Dupuche at the CIC Symposium, Thomas Carr Centre, 18 June 2006