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“You value justice higher than mercy.” This sentence, at once both question and accusation, glared at me as I took the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, a test that measures psychological tendencies in how a person perceives the world around them and makes decisions. I sat for a while, staring at the words and considering my response and its implications. I answered no, propelled by nagging thoughts not only of Jordan Davis, a black teen recently slain, unarmed, in the passenger seat of a friend’s SUV, but also of Michael Dunn, a 45-year old software developer and Davis’s killer. In that moment I decided that, as a Christian, I should be more concerned with mercy and love–not so as to forfeit justice, but in order to balance the scales. My thoughts rested on how we pursue justice AND mercy, particularly when the former pursuit appears hopeless.
Weeks ago I saw Jordan Davis’s face flash across my computer screen. I read the headline indicating he was shot and killed by a white man while sitting in a vehicle with his friends playing loud music. After that, I read no further. It’s a story I’ve seen before and I knew how it would end. I never expected that justice would be served. So I went on about my weekend, unfettered by the anticipation of a verdict that would inevitably disappoint me. But this case wouldn’t let me go. When I met a friend at the movies on Saturday evening she told me that she just got off the phone with her mother who was waiting by the television for the verdict. And when I left the movie theatre and checked Facebook, my timeline was flooded with cries of “No Justice, No Peace” and expletive-laced statements about how Florida did it again. None of this came as a surprise and I didn’t join in the chorus because I had nothing new to add. But by Sunday I wondered if our cries for justice are made hollow–and if we are made numb–because we lack a concern for mercy and love.
W.E.B DuBois asked, “How does it feel to be a problem?” We seek justice on behalf of young black boys whose lives are marked by that question. They walk out of their homes and are considered a threat even when they are just walking down the street with a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles, asking for help after their car breaks down, or in a convenient store parking lot in their car with their friends and their music turned up. These young men weren’t armed with anything more dangerous than the color of their skin. That color is enough. As the verdicts are rendered it feels like the moral arc of the universe that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of is too long, like it will never really bend all the way toward justice. And so our cries for justice continue and crescendo, though muffled by a system that is not interested in the rights of all individuals to equal protection, but that protects some individuals while flatly denying the worth of others. Every time the blood of one of our own is shed, we know shout “No justice, no peace” in the streets. Yet at the same time, we should question whether our one-sided pursuit for justice aligns with divine justice. We are always concerned about our own—the ones whom look like us, but should our concern be so limited? What of the mercy and love of which our sacred text speaks? In light of that what are we to do with our justice? Do we cry out for justice alone or should we always be crying out for mercy in the pursuit of justice?
Every Sunday I stand at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and sing “Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison” Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy. I know how to do this well for myself among my brothers and sisters in Christ. But I don’t know how to cry out for mercy in the public square. I have learned to cry “No Justice! No Peace!” but I struggle with what it looks like to be concerned about mercy in the midst of what appears to be injustice. Alongside our cries for justice we must cry out for mercy for our young black men because of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, and Jordan Davis–that much is a given. But I believe that mercy requires us to care for both the victim and the offender, which, in turn, requires us to let go of our thirst for retribution. We fail to cry out for mercy in cases like these precisely because to do so forces us either to care about our enemies, or to admit the fact that Christ commands it and we simply won’t obey.
Valuing mercy in the case of Michael Dunn is to remove him from our system of justice–one dependent upon the keeping of contracts and rewarding of merits—and to consider him a person still in the midst of becoming. It doesn’t excuse him from his actions, which denied Jordan Davis any mercy. But it reminds us–and perhaps Dunn himself–that he is human. From the moment that offense is committed, we seek to dehumanize persons such as Michael Dunn. We strip them of any trace back to God and blame their actions on their individual depravity without concern for how they may be in need of mercy. But we forget that we are inextricably linked together by our humanity and our shared lot in falling short of the glory of God. The white supremacism of this society is an ugly thing, but we should not fail to recognize that its greatest perpetrators are also some of its greatest victims, for they lose not simply their lives, but their humanity as well.
On Agapic Love and Justice
W.H. Auden wrote, “Evil is always unspectacular, and always human, it shares our bed and eats at our table.” Auden finds the face of evil in the face of everyday people. And if we dare to consider how our own faces can be evil, we will not hesitate to cry out for mercy. This challenges us to ask if we are any different from Michael Dunn, Randall Kerrick, George Zimmerman and others, particularly when our pursuit of justice finds us exalting ourselves above them just as their pursuit of power found them exalting their humanity above another. Jesus touched on this in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 when he said:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all of my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Through this parable Jesus shows how justice and mercy works. It is like the old church mothers who remind us that “favor ain’t fair.” It isn’t always in the favor of the people who consider themselves most worthy of it. The text shows the sinner asking for mercy and being justified but, at its core, it is a cautionary tale for those who trust too much in their own righteousness. This may be hard to swallow because we live in a time when we watch our brothers and sisters of all stripes commit all manner of offense. We don’t want to align ourselves with them but we need to because we are all connected and made in the image of the same God. As much as we claim being made in God’s image for ourselves, we must also claim it for those who have forgotten. We remember difference, but without being connected to a larger community that difference would be perpetual alienation: an option that is neither practically possible nor theologically acceptable. And this is what impresses upon us the universal need for mercy: it is how we must live together. Such a consideration of mercy depends on love–specifically, agapic love.
As Christians we have a particular command to love not just our neighbors but also our enemies. Jesus declares this in Matthew 5: 43-48 when he says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
If you blink you will miss the fact that Jesus is deconstructing Israelite law and radicalizing it every time he says, “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…” Here he is changing things, upending assumptions and moving people to let go of personal agendas and preferential love. Therefore, Jesus’ living presence in our lives should challenge the way we love. In his book “The Priority of Love,” ethicist Timothy Jackson argues that, “A strict legalistic justice based on contract or merit falls short of God’s spontaneous agape. This is not to say that God, and therefore ethics, are arbitrary. It does suggest, however, that God’s own holiness is the key to integrating questions of character, action, and consequence into a coherent picture of biblical justice.” Jackson goes on to suggest that if justice is concerned with keeping contracts and giving no less than what is deserved, agape is incompatible with it because agape pushes us to bestow value beyond what is required and in this we see God.
We who follow this God must unbind our theories of right in order to let a fuller vision of justice and mercy come forth. This refusal to seek a justice bereft of mercy may require us to live in tension between what we prefer and what God may inevitably desire, but we are not without examples. Perhaps the party least expected to show mercy, Jordan Davis’s parents have, despite their disappointment in the verdict, shown the path to grace and mercy in their recent interviews. “God is the ultimate justice and so justice on Earth is one justice,” his mother explains, “but always look to God to be the ultimate justice.”