Blending mercy and justice
This is a big challenge for all of us. And I believe that no matter what effort we put into tackling this challenge, we cannot avoid having to contend with a mystery that only faith, hope and love can somehow resolve as we go through the many enigmatic and baffling situations of our life where the requirements of both mercy and justice have to be satisfied.
Thus, more than anything else, we need to pray and to be truly united with God to be able to successfully cruise the ocean of life's mysteries. We should be wary when we rely only on our human opinions and estimations, or even on some public consensus and popular ideology. They can be helpful to a certain extent, but they definitely do not have the last word. Only God has it, but, yes, it is shrouded in mystery.
We can always try to see how we can put mercy and justice together, long considered to be always at odds with each other. Perhaps to help us in this effort, we can get some light from St. John Paul's 1980encyclical, “Dives in misericordia” (Rich in mercy).
I believe the encyclical gives basic truths about the relationship of mercy and justice whose concrete ways of living it out may vary from person to person, and from one circumstance to another. But the fundamental principles should be clear in our mind, so we can have the proper attitude.
In its point 14, entitled, “The Church seeks to put mercy into practice,” it openly declares that true mercy “is the most profound source of justice.” It proceeds to say that “if justice is in itself suitable for ‘arbitration' between people concerning the reciprocal distribution of objective goods in an equitable manner, love and only love (including that kindly love that we call ‘mercy') is capable of restoring man to Himself (read, God)”.
In other words, it's mercy, not just any human form of justice, that gives us what we most need, that is, God. It's a point worth meditating on deeply because we have to arrive at the conclusion that in spite of our unavoidable errors, offenses, inequalities and injustices that we commit in this world, we should manage to arrive at that justice where everyone gets what he most needs — God.
And that ultimate form or stage of justice cannot but be thoroughly infused with mercy—God's mercy before it can be our mercy. Remember what Christ himself said in the Lord's prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
As if to underscore the importance of this point, Christ reiterated:“For if you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences. But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences.” (Mt 6,14-15) It's clear therefore that we can only be forgiven if we also forgive others.
We have to be clear that this injunction is meant for everyone and for all occasions, and not only for a few whom we may consider to be religiously inclined, and for some special occasions. That's why when asked how many times we should forgive, he said not only seven times, but seventy times seven, meaning always.
That's also why he easily forgave the woman caught in adultery. And to those whom he cured of their illnesses, it was actually the forgiveness of their sins that he was more interested in.
To top it all, Christ allowed himself to die on the cross as a way to forgive all of our sins, and to convert our sins through his resurrection as a way to our own redemption. What he did for us he also expects, nay, commands that we also do for everybody else.
The encyclical further explains that “mercy that is truly Christian is also, in a certain sense, the most perfect incarnation of ‘equality' between people, and therefore also the most perfect incarnation of justice as well, insofar as justice aims at the same result in its own sphere.”
The distinction of mercy over justice is that “the equality brought by justice is limited to the realm of objective and extrinsic goods, while love and mercy bring it about that people meet one another in that value which is man himself, with the dignity that is proper to him.”
The differences among the people are not taken away by the “equality” that is brought about by justice infused with mercy. But both, the giver and the receiver of mercy, are benefited in their own way, and thus contribute to uniting themselves in a more profound manner.*
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