Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Our priest said something interesting in Sunday's homily. He said we have lost the notion of mercy as part of our system of crime and punishment. We used to have kings. Kings had absolute power. If he pointed at you and said, "Off with his head!" then you were executed. That was just something society accepted for a long time. When democracy came along it was considered a big step forward in no small part because that was no longer possible. Of course, we are bringing that back. We are going back to executing people without due process of law. Part of the war on terror. So the gains we made when we brought in democracy are being rolled back. That is not the point.

The point is that the king's absolute power could be a good thing. He could take a person justly sentenced for a crime and pardon him. St Louis who was also King Louis IX of France was famous for doing that. He would take people facing death and pardon them. Give them a second chance.

In our modern justice system there are plenty of guilty people who go free but that is not because of mercy. It is because the system fails. When the system works it punishes the guilty and exonerates the innocent. It can deliver justice on a good day. It can never deliver mercy. Mercy means you are properly found guilty but then you are pardoned.

I know technically pardons exist in out system. There is even special power to pardon for the president written into the US constitution. I just don't think that is part of our consciousness. Presidential pardons are typically associated with corruption and not with mercy. I think the founders wanted the presidential pardon power to work that way. It may in some cases but every time it gets in the public eye it is being used in a self-serving way. A way to put the presidents friends above the law which is not what was intended.

People forget that the best form of government is a benevolent monarchy. A king that puts his own interests aside and serves the people. The thought was democracy would force rulers to serve the people.  It turns out that getting re-elected has just been added to the list of a ruler's self interests.  Guess what? Serving the people with justice and mercy is not the best way to do it. Raising money and buying TV ads works better.

So we have lost the sense of mercy that was associated with good kings. We don't have a good sense of judgement either. We think it can only be bad. A good judge would be merciful some of the time. He would not simply let everything go. He would also be predictable. He would not be merciful according to criteria that are known only to him. That would be scary.

What you really want is a just king that will distinguish between the good people who just messed up from the people who have no interest in being good. How did kings make that call? If they had a personal history with the person that would typically be the basis. That is why what Jesus says He will do is so perfect. I was hungry and you fed me, etc. That is basing his judgement on his first hand knowledge of your character. Exactly what a good king would do. It is just . Yet it is not self-serving because it is based on the least of these.

I do think the final judgement will be that way. People will see that the judgements are what they must be.  They will marvel at the wisdom and the fairness of the judge. Every decision will be right. Sure many will go to hell but it will be clear that they simply cannot or will not be in heaven. Once the beauty and goodness of heaven is made clear we will be surprised that anyone goes there. We will be amazed at His mercy. It won't be the caricature of mercy that involves simply ignoring what anyone has done.

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