Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Should Mercy Play a Role in Modern Politics?

8 Apr 2016

It’s not just me then. In a letter to the Catholic Weekly The Tablet (16th January 2016) Steve Wilson wrote,

 “I have asked friends for a definition of this word. We have consulted dictionaries and trawled the internet. So far not one of us has found a meaningful contemporary understanding of the word mercy.  It does not speak in a relevant way to any of us…”

It’s Pope Francis favourite word, of course. His Jubilee Year of Mercy aims to focus the mind of the church on God’s mercy. With his global reach if anyone can bring the word back into popular usage it is him. But what’s the value of the word beyond God-talk? Is it a useful concept in secular public discourse or is hampered by its religious associations? Can it be broadened in such a way as to positively inform society’s attitudes to vulnerable groups and individuals?

What would it mean for a discussion of the refugee crisis, for example, if mercy was considered a public virtue? Imagine if you will a U.S. presidential race in which the candidates’ policies towards migrants were subject to a mercy-audit. For Donald Trump the word doesn’t appear to exist without a “No” in front of it. He wants Muslims kept out of the USA and a wall built along the thousand-mile border with Mexico.  On the other hand, when Barbara Walters asked Bernie Sanders what he would want to be remembered for were he to become President, he simply said “Compassion.”

A close match. Both compassion and mercy involve responding to the needs of people over whom one has power. But mercy carries the connotation that the response is one that the recipient doesn’t strictly deserve. That’s because of its religious usage and legacy; God’s mercy, being more than we can earn or hope for, in some sense goes against the grain of justice. So if we hear the word at all today it’s in the area of the criminal justice system where a Judge may be said to show mercy to an offender by imposing a lesser sentence than the crime warranted. It’s also used in respect of assisted dying – a “mercy killing” – where the terrible wrong of taking a life is mitigated by the easing of suffering. In both cases there’s the idea that mercy is at odds with what human instinct, reason or natural justice tells us should be the case; namely that offenders owe a debt to society that should be paid, and that life should be preserved at all costs.

So if we don’t hear the word it’s because there’s something not quite right about showing mercy. It does someone else out of justice. “Going soft” on criminals may mean victims’ demands are ignored. Granting refugees asylum and citizenship raises the fears that other people will lose the jobs and housing to which they are entitled by dint of nationality or payment of taxes. If mercy is to be practiced at all it has to be strictly rationed.

The idea of mercy declined in public discourse with the arrival of the Enlightenment and its ideas about democracy and rights. It’s all very well to speak of mercy in a society in which monarchy and hierarchy are part of the given order, but once everyone is equal, doesn’t the virtue of mercy itself become suspect – at least as a public value? Equality and Justice should surely suffice.

But – this side of the Kingdom –  as the Pope says, mercy is what you need to make justice truly just. U.S. Scholar James Gilman agrees. In his book Christian Faith, Justice and a Politics of Mercy he argues that justice, as commonly perceived in liberal societies, only goes so far. We can enshrine peoples’ human rights in international and national law but those don’t of themselves deliver equality of opportunity and sustainable livelihoods. A move from liberal justice to what Gilman calls “egalitarian justice” requires “policies of mercy” which prioritise the needs of the most disadvantaged. And since the idea of mercy acknowledges the unequal relationship between those that bestow it and those that receive it, its policies must go beyond charitable hand outs. They must empower its beneficiaries in such a way that the power structures which created that inequality in the first place are disrupted.

So a question to ask of a mercy-audit is what it means for the relationship between the powerful and powerless. It can be seen early in the first instance in the symbolic actions and gestures governments make towards refugees. There’s no misreading the message of the power- boats sent out from the Greek coastline to force fragile dinghies packed with people back to Turkey, or of the Danish proposal to dispossess new arrivals of any valuables they have managed to hang onto during their journey. By contrast, put yourself in the shoes of the refugee arriving in Canada to find him/herself greeted by the Prime Minister. Or listen to the song which went viral, of Canadian children singing a traditional song first sung, it is said, by residents of Medina to welcome refugees from Mecca.

It does lift the heart to hear it. But of course the real challenge is to move beyond the symbolic expression of mercy to action. “Policies of mercy” taken seriously may lead to a profound unease (more honestly owned up to by the anti-refugee lobby) on the part of even the most generous. As the anonymous quote currently doing the rounds says, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality (justice – and even mercy) can feel like oppression.”

Rosie Dawson is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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