Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.—Leonard Cohen, Sisters of Mercy
The Pharisees asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”–Matthew 9:11-13
The Government reserves for itself the right to kill people to show that killing people is against the Law. At the sentencing, the black-robed judge pronounces the ultimate penalty adding: “And may God have mercy upon your soul.” Thus mercy lives only in the presence of non-mercy. Capital punishment depends upon a system where mercy is meted out only by God. Mere humans are bound by law to be merciless. The Law is the Law.
A society which believes that it must be merciless in sentencing criminals has produced a massive incarceration culture. In the U.S.A., which has less than 5% of the world’s population, but where nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners live behind barbed wire, high walls and bars set into concrete window sills, there is a mercy deficit. It has devastated our inner cities, laying waste to families, futures and civil society. We have been coarsened it. Our prisoners, in addition to having their freedoms taken away, are herded into cages and stripped of their humanity along with their street clothes. The American public believes that even the smallest mercies are indulgent. Convicts must be made to suffer.
The Bible says that mercy for the wicked will be withheld even beyond the grave: the wicked will tortured “in fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb, and the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever,” as the Apocalypse of St. John says.
Nice. It sure makes you want to go to church every Sunday and worship a merciful God like that, doesn’t it?
The human desire for vengeance coarsens us. it causes us to see those who have committed crimes as less than human. We don’t even think about the contradiction of a “God of mercy” who torments his own children for all eternity. Under human law, we would sentence that God to a long prison term, if not death, for child abuse. But somehow, the idea of Hell is considered is a mark of God’s love. “God’s ways are higher than man’s ways,” we are reminded, as if torturing people eternally is a higher form of morality.
We have it all wrong. Mercy is the highest form of human moral behavior. Mercy for those who suffer now, even if their suffering is self-inflicted. Mercy for those who have acted unmercifully towards others. Mercy for the sick, mercy for the suffering, mercy for the poor, mercy for the oppressed—these are our call, our service, the markers of our humanity.
Does that mean that humans are setting themselves up as a higher authority than God? If God really is intent on torturing some of us forever, then yes, we must tell God that we will not accept that kind of behavior from Him. Most likely though, we created a sort of Biblical revenge porn, that delights in the death and torment of those we believe have sinned against us.
Lent is a time to re-learn the meaning of “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Even if it means talking back to God.