Scripture testifies abundantly to the lavish mercies of God and to His desire for humanity to be agents of such grace. Paul describes God the Father as “rich in mercy” in his letter to the Ephesian church (2:4). In the Gospel of Luke, urges his listeners, in no uncertain terms, to “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (6:36).
In the Old Testament mercy is coupled with Yahweh’s temperate anger and His stead-fast loving kindness (Exodus 34:6, Joel 2:13). It may appear to some, an odd, even paradoxical concomitance. Can mercy coexist with anger, even a moderated kind? How can God’s love be harmonized with His righteous anger and His standard of justice? Many queries of this nature have been posed over the ages, particularly when considering where exactly mercy and justice overlap and where they diverge. However, this general concern, while understandable, severs the intrinsic link that Scripture envisions between the two. Following the wisdom of Augustine, who urged his readers to consider the two as mutually inclusive, we should remember that justice and mercy are interdependent.
Mercy is not distributed at the expense of justice, but is actually a corollary of justice. For mercy, “stands above the ironclad logic of guilt and punishment, but does not contradict justice” (Kasper, 54). In short, mercy does not compromise justice, it compliments it. The two are like essential ingredients in a meal that cannot be prepared without either one; justice or mercy. Together the two create true shalom (or harmony). But peace is unattainable if one or the other is absent. Similarly, one should not nullify the other. Instead, mercy should become the meeting place of justice and love (the synthesis of truth and compassion). Mercy incorporates what God’s love engenders and what God’s truth appoints. Mercy in practice then, is our own echo of God’s mercy. Consider Paul who was often quick to acknowledge how the mercy of God is so powerfully expressed in his own story as one who had persecuted Christ’s church. From 1 Timothy 1:13-14:
“even though I was previously a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant” (NASB).
The application of mercy is an application of grace. A gift of compassion. And while mercy and justice must cohabitate with each other, they do not entirely collapse into one another. They are signifiers of related, but distinct ideas. Some have maintained that, “In common parlance, justice and mercy are two distinct characteristics. Justice is giving each what is due whereas mercy is giving more than is due” (Siniscalchi, 154).
In divine terms, we often think of justice as retributive or punitive, but the term consequential may also be appropriate. Consider the oft-quoted scripture from Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death.” A question that a keen scholar would ask is whether the results of sin are intrinsic or extrinsic. Meaning, is the consequence (i.e. death) inherently a natural outworking of the results of sin or an external response from God as punishment for sin. Responses differ on this matter. One may point to a literal reading of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden as an example of an extrinsic (or punitive) response to sin. One could also point to the eating of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The results; pain, suffering and death, are seemingly inherent, meaning they are the natural outworking of sin’s consequences. Justice in this context could be understood as God’s protective withdrawal (for a season) as we turn away from Him, allowing us to reap the seeds that we have sown (consider Romans 1 and Hosea 5:5-7 for example). Mercy in this context is God’s choice to remain faithful in the grand schema of His relationship towards us. Faithful in spite of our unfaithfulness. This is the fundamental story of Israel. Mercy in this context is the teaching of Jesus to endlessly forgive those who sin against you (Matthew 18:22).
Our conception of justice informs our understanding of mercy and how we put it into practice. If justice is giving what is due or allowing someone to experience the natural consequences of a choice or action (or punishment, when necessary), then mercy is the act of unmerited pardon, where compassion triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). For there are times in life when we don’t get what we presumably deserve. Consider the second half of Romans 6:23. For while the wages of sin is death, there is conversely the ‘gracious gift from God of eternal life in Christ Jesus.’ The sin of humanity leads to spiritual and physical death, but the mercy of God leads to regeneration, freedom and new life.
Much of this discussion of mercy has been in the abstract. Let’s make it more concrete. One of the initial takeaways here is that we give mercy to others because God first showed mercy towards us, even while we (humanity that is) crucified the very Son of God. The second, is that mercy is not the absence of justice, but the expansion of it. This can be said because all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and thus all are in need of mercy, forgiveness and compassion. Human societies need forms of justice to maintain order and fairness and to deter harmful behavior. But secular conceptions of justice pale in comparison to the standards of God because they ignore the radical nature of His mercy and the high standard of His moral order and justice. Because human systems are a reflection of our flawed nature, we often compromise one or both of these complimentary values. This problem is summed up in the following thought:
“mercy without justice risks becoming arbitrary and disconnected from its context, whereas justice without mercy risks becoming overly rigid and devoid of the humanizing aspects of justice” (Rothchild, 419).
One task of the believer is to find equilibrium between mercy and justice, whether it be in our own personal relationships with others or in how we engage with public institutions and entities and their distribution of mercy and justice. Mercy needs to inform how we advocate for the victim/oppressed and how we interact with the oppressor/victimizer.
Incarceration has a role in prevention and deterrence and research bears this out. There is simultaneously a degree to which imprisonment becomes “criminogenic,” meaning that it can increase the potential for continued criminal behavior and eventual recidivism. This is primarily associated with the inadequacy of reintegration pathways out of prison and not with prison time itself. It is also indicative of the lack of mercy, that is to say, the lack of productive rehabilitation methods which balance retributive justice with restorative justice. Consider the findings of an important examination advocating for an substantive ethic of mercy in incarceration and reintegration policies:
In the U.S. criminal justice system, sentencing determinations are frequently divorced from the social history of the individual accused of a crime and are rarely informed by our empirical knowledge about what forces may lead an individual to desist from offending. Yet, this knowledge can help to drive key decisions to grant mercy to individuals at all stages of the criminal justice process, from plea to parole (Betts and Cox).
If an individual is simply punished, but not healed, educated, equipped and prepared for their eventual reintegration, the most likely outcome is recidivism. Justice is not served by recidivism. In fact, justice is diminished by it. This is precisely why mercy is an expansion or a corollary of justice. Mercy brings justice to its fulfillment.
In reentry services such as Damascus Way, our shift and reentry coordinators have to balance correction and grace. We are obligated to honor the responsibilities that the Department of Corrections expects us to maintain. These are standards we have committed to uphold in the process of keeping individuals reentering society accountable until they have regained full autonomy. We also have our own non-contractual expectations for residents and in this realm, there can be room for grace and mercy when mistakes are made and trust is broken. Accountability means there are unavoidable consequences in certain situations. This is the case in the secular and the spiritual spheres. Mercy, on the other hand, means that we are always attentive to an individual’s unique story, their experiences and ways in which we can be vehicles of motivation rather than shame.
In our programming, it is our desire to spark a desire in our residents to take ownership of their past and to come to terms with how they have harmed others. How they themselves have been wounded and how they gave break out of bondage to various vices. Shame is not a productive motivator. Gentle, strategic and firm correction however, can be an act of mercy.
This week a graduate spent some time sharing about his journey from prison to Damascus Way with several of our staff. With great perception, this gentleman reflected on the many doors that had opened in order for him to come to Damascus Way. While in prison he’d learned about our organization and felt a tug in his heart to make it a priority to come to us, instead of some other reentry program. He knew that our emphasis on authentic spiritual transformation would create the conditions necessary for his success. He also knew that this would not be the easy course of action. He likened it to a bicyclist who, at the divergence of two trails, chooses the uphill one, knowing that the challenge is great, but the reward is greater. The narrow road was what he needed in his life in order to break out of the habits keeping him from living the way he desired to live.
Initially, various factors made it nearly impossible for him to transfer from his county to one of our campuses. But this man did not give up hope and in time God made a way. Coming to Damascus Way meant coming to an environment that facilitated his responsible growth and success through the balance of mercy and accountability. This resident thanked us for challenging him to take advantage of this space and time and to develop daily rhythms that were based on wise and Godly decisions. His desire to change and our connections landed him a steady and profoundly meaningful job which utilized his skills in mathematics, which he had honed as a math tutor while incarcerated. As he approached graduation, he spent much time and consideration on where to live after Damascus Way. Knowing that the timing was not right to move in with his girlfriend, he chose instead to enter into a next-step housing program where he could maintain close relationships with his spiritual mentors in order to foster his continued growth. These things are facilitating the essential components needed to his prosperity post-Damascus Way. Not just for himself and his girlfriend, but also for his 26 year-old son. After we prayed over him, the resident left with tears in his eyes and God’s grace on his countenance. This is the power of reentry, of second chances and of mercy.
“Certainly His salvation is near to those who fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land. Graciousness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
Psalm 85:9-10 (NASB).
Betts, Dwayne and Alexandra L. Cox. “Mercy Oriented Reentry and Reintegration: Lessons From Policy, Research and Practice.” In Beyond Recidivism: New Approaches to Research on Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration edited by Andrea Leverentz, Elsa Y. Chen and Johnna Christian. NYU Press Scholarship Online, January 2021.
Fisher, F. Paul and His Teachings. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1974.
Gale M., Andrew. “Justice, Mercy, Truth: A Theological Concept in the Sermons of John Wesley.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 51, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 109-124.
Kasper, Walter. Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. Translated by William Madges. New York, New York: Paulist Press, 2013.
Morris, Leon. “Mercy.” In the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Siniscalchi, Giuseppe. “The Nature of God and the Universal Salvation of Humanity.” The Dunwoodie Review 31 (January 2008): 154-161.
Rothschild, Jonathan. “Guilt and Shame, Justice and Mercy: Mediating Actions and Whole Persons in Criminal Justice Processes.” Journal of Religious Ethics 48, no. 3 (September 2020): 418-435.