Thursday, March 13, 2003

Perfect Justice and Mercy

Are mercy and justice, love and the law, at odds?

That's the question I pose, and I hope to get some feedback. But first, some thoughts.

Any mother or father knows that treating all of one's children alike is unjust--the three-year-old girl needs to be treated one way and the seventeen-year-old young man another. If both punched their best friends, the one should be sent to the corner while the other might be grounded for a time. It would silly to argue that since both have committed the same act, they should be punished similarly, that to punish the little girl lightly would be to frustrate justice. We don't expect children to control their anger as well as adults, and so it would be insane to hold the toddler to the moral standard of an adult. To reward and punish each child individually would be both merciful and just.

To treat everyone the same, i.e., to treat everyone as other than the individual that he or she is, would be unjust. Yet human laws are applied without regard to the personal history and capabilities of each person subject to those laws. So it would seem that every human law is unjust.

The idea that every human law is imperfectly just, and therefore unjust to some extent, makes sense because we can imagine a perfectly just judge who administers perfect justice-- who assesses a person's talents, motives, opportunities, weaknesses, ideals, history, and everything else about him, and then judges all his actions against the standard of what he is able to do.

The perfect judge would need to apply an infinitely complex law, so that each person under the law would be held to a standard that is individually tailored to his situation. Such a judge would need to be omniscient to know an infinitely complex law, and to know men's hearts, evaluating them in the mysterious intimacy of their free choices. He would have to care enough about the law and the people to administer the law perfectly. The perfect judge would also have to be the perfect lawgiver, whose laws are not only infinitely complex but also ordered toward a perfectly just society.

This judge, king, and lawgiver would have laws that are dynamic, so that they constantly adjust to reflect what a person could be expected to achieve at any given moment, and his sentences would have to be therapeutic, so that when a person fails to uphold his personal law he is rehabilitated and even strengthened because of the punishment.

It should be obvious that only God could be this perfect judge, lawgiver, and king. And if such a God exists, then all human laws are imperfectly just, which is to say unjust. It should also be clear that this perfect justice is no different than perfect mercy. Each law is tailored to the individual person, so that what he is expected to do is always within his reach. As Jesus said, the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. If an individual meets one set of expectations he is presented with new demands, so that he journeys uphill until he is at all times living up to his full potential. Jesus taught that whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. The journey is either uphill or downhill, there can be no stagnation. If he fails to meet one set of expectations, he is given another chance to conform to a new set, and to continue, step by step, uphill to become all he can be. There is no distinction here between strictness and leniency, the impersonal and the personal. God's justice is completely personal, and is therefore neither strict nor lenient.

Pope John Paul II reminds us that Jesus is both judge and healer. It is the nature of divine justice that it is identical with mercy. Both can be explained in terms of helping each person be all that God intended him to be. The difference between divine and human justice is clear--nowhere is man's justice proportionate to God's; nowhere are his tribunals as fair, nor anywhere his sentences as wise.

But being aware of this, we should aspire to human justice that is related to the perfect justice and mercy of God. Christians cannot be satisfied with the cruelties of human justice, despite the temptation to do so. Jesus warns, For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged. But also, Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. The heart of the gospel ethic is to treat others with the love and mercy characteristic of God.

Sometimes, love of one's neighbor compels one to act in his defense. The Pope declares, in a message given on World Peace Day in 2001, "There exists. . .a right to defend oneself against terrorism," and the struggle against terrorists "must be exercised with respect for moral and legal limits." Far-flung military operations with unknown consequences are not necessarily the demands of perfect justice. Not is pacifism the necessary consequence of the imitation of God's mercy.

Having noted this, we need to stop and ask ourselves Quo vadis?, or Where do we go from here?


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