No Mercy

Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog, writing in response to something that transpired on a segment of Dr. Laura Schleisinger’s radio show, has this to say about the nature of mercy, justice, and the state:

Government’s divinely ordained vocation for justice and order prioritizes public order, safety, and protection for the innocent. The sexual abusers of minors, along with violent thieves, drug dealers, robbers, and rapists, with other dangerous miscreants, are to be vigorously prosecuted and incarcerated. Murderers are to face the possibility of execution. These punishments are firstly for the common good, and secondly for the correction of the offender.

It is not the state’s prerogative to offer forgiveness per se. Victims of crime may offer it, and the church can point malefactors to a God who forgives the truly penitent. Government, as it administers its punitive responsibilities, can only defer to and stay out of the way, to the extent possible, of actors in civil society, like prison ministries, that seek the moral and spiritual reform of criminal inmates.

Tooley’s basically correct about this in so far as this is the historic teaching of the church about the state and about state justice. He even quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church to support what is essential and formal church teaching both for the Roman confession as well as nearly every liturgical church that arose from the Reformation:

The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. (¶2266)

Tooley is a great deal more interested in order than I am, and it shows. I get that this is the historic teaching of the church (some low-church protestants call this biblical), but it’s one of those teachings I find grounded far more in speculative philosophy and buttressed by scripture passages than any fundamental understanding of the state that can be derived from scripture. The Bible isn’t anywhere near this systematic about government, or order, or the common good.

What bothers me most with what Tooley writes here about mercy — that it not the state’s place to forgive or to be merciful.

One of the things modernity has attempted to do is turn governance into an impersonal mechanism in which all are treated equally and which is indifferent to personality. “A government of laws, and not men!” I believe this is because modernity seeks perfect justice, and therefore the creation of a world in which mercy is absolutely unnecessary. This is an impossibility, of course, since even in a law and order based world, person and personality — who is judged, and who does the judging — matter.

This church teaching Tooley cites doesn’t really ameliorate this fraudulent promise of modernity. in fact, I think it contributes to the merciless nature of governing and government, since an abstract order and common good become more important than any concrete good delivered to a specific person or people.

But it also misses something that was true of government before modernity — that person and position could not easily be separated. The king, the prince, the duke, the magistrate, wasn’t just an office defined and bounded by rules and laws, but was also a man who was accountable to custom and culture. There were times when the king was expected, in the pursuit of justice, to be merciful. As king. As ruler. As the sovereign who governed.

Personal government can bear the catechism’s understanding of “the state” because it is also understood that the ruler himself was a Christian with obligations not only to grand abstractions — public order, common good — but to real flesh-and-bone people who came before him. Government may not have an obligation to be merciful, but the king does.

To speak of government’s “divinely ordained vocation for justice and order” that has little or no room for forgiveness or mercy without acknowledging that governing is done through and by human agents who do have a calling to mercy and forgiveness is to turn government into something inhuman. Which, of course, is exactly what modernity aims at.

in fact, part of the crisis of modernity is its very inhumanity, demanding human beings become widgets and cogs in the mighty machines that are state and society. Human beings are adaptable, and many can bend themselves to form and function, but many cannot, and are broken and discarded, or bent beyond their ability to bear it. Their humanity bent and warped too.

I have sympathy with the position Tooley takes in his essay. I do ministry with abused and exploited young people, I’ve seen the damage done by those who molest and rape. Personally, I don’t believe in mercy for those who hurt kids. But I can’t translate that into a general faith in government mercilessness.

The problem is, modernity cannot bear the specific, cannot bear the common law, cannot bear custom or culture. Modernity demands the universal, confesses it confidently, and then seeks to bend the world to that universal. All become the same under one law, ruled by one ecumenical, impersonal apparatus that shows no mercy because none is needed.

Tooley, who has a problem with where the culture has carried the law — gay marriage, for example — needs to appreciate that this government which cannot forgive, this deeply impersonal state which can account for nothing save the words of the law itself, is part of the problem he laments. There is no fixing this problem now — we are too far along and law itself has been too mercilessly applied and enforced.

Because the law — and the state — are all we really share anymore.

One thought on “No Mercy

  1. This is profound.

    One reason for the jury system was to keep the human element functioning even at the human level — well below kings. Likewise the discretion of the judge, who could weigh extenuating circumstances and many other intangible things, and make, as they say, a judgment call.

    Can juries function in the old way in our more impersonal society? Who would a “jury of my peers” be? People who read the same websites I do?

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