On November 20, 2016, Catholics celebrated the close of the recent Jubilee Year of Mercy. Based on the Jewish tradition of jubilee years in which debts were forgiven, prisoners freed, and fields left fallow (see Leviticus 25), this past year has sought to make manifest God’s love and mercy in our suffering world. As Pope Francis declared, “The Church… is called to offer more evident signs of God’s presence and closeness… [This year] is the favorable time to heal wounds, a time not to be weary of meeting all those who are waiting to see and to touch with their hands the signs of the closeness of God, a time to offer everyone, everyone, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
In the United States, this year has concluded with the Cubs’ win in the World Series—an act of mercy, perhaps, for all but Cleveland fans—followed by Donald Trump’s win in the presidential election. This divisive latter event, an antithesis of mercy in the eyes of many, has deeply shaken my sense of community. I reserve the rest of my thoughts about the election and the president-elect for an addendum below, as my purpose here is to discuss mercy, not politics. Suffice it to say, with the breaches between us laid bare in a way I have not perceived during previous political disagreements, I have felt tempted to withdraw, to retreat from the mirage of human solidarity. Yet, mercy impels us to reach out to others and to allow others to reach out to us.
What is mercy? First, there is the mercy that God shows humanity through Jesus’ sacrifice and death; this mercy continues to enter and shape our lives every day. For those interested in Divine Mercy, I highly recommend 33 Days to Merciful Love and Daily Reflections on Divine Mercy. These works, based respectively on the writings of St. Therese of the Little Flower and St. Faustina, offer daily reflections on how God reaches out to us in daily life. But here I would like to discuss the mercy that we, as humans, show one another (and ourselves). Human mercy is connected to, but not dependent on, belief in a divine being.
Traditionally, merciful actions have been categorized as a series of corporal and spiritual works. The seven corporal works of mercy are: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the captive, and burying the dead. The seven spiritual works are: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the sorrowful, and praying for the living and the dead. We can loosely place most merciful acts within these categories, but the concrete actions of mercy take many different forms because mercy is a mindset, not a to-do list.
In this context, mercy is perhaps best defined as a kindness toward another, without expecting anything in return. In essence, mercy is love. Mercy is also responding to others’ love toward us, even when we are tired, annoyed, or hurting.
In all of its manifestations, mercy directs our desires toward others. Rather than prioritizing ourselves, our pride, or our own interests, we instead share, serve, and humbly receive what others offer us. Most of all, we strive to see others in themselves, and not just in how they relate to us. Psychologists have demonstrated that we tend to discriminate against outsiders while favoring those whom we perceive as being in the same group with us. Mercy brings all humanity into this close group of friends and allies.
Mercy also encourages us to think in terms of abundance, rather than scarcity. When my brother and I walked the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route across northern Spain, I felt friendly toward the other pilgrims, but also anxious. It was June, and the popular pilgrimage attracted enough walkers that pilgrim hostels could fill up; we might have to walk further than planned, or miss out on staying at particularly unique hostels housed in old church belfries or Romanesque chapels. If other pilgrims passed us, I feared that they would take beds that we wanted. These uncharitable feelings bothered me, yet I could not let go of my concerns. Finally, toward the end of the pilgrimage, I resolved to greet each pilgrim as an individual fully loved by God, and for whom God had special plans. All were my brothers and sisters, and I needed to genuinely treat them as such in my thoughts. From that moment on, I didn’t worry about how many pilgrims might be ahead of us, or planning to stay where we wanted; I wished everyone well, and trusted that we would all end up where we needed to be.
Of course, whole-hearted sharing and trust in abundance is not easy when, in practice, resources do seem very limited. (I speak from the perspective of someone on the job market, in which I compete with hundreds of applicants for each tenure-track job.) Our desires are not always realized, especially in the way we prefer. Yet I believe that if we genuinely orient our desires around others, not ourselves, ourselves, we will find that we have that which is sufficient.
In this way, mercy heals the rifts between us. We view others as our family, members of ‘our’ group. Mercy will not necessarily reconcile differences, but it will build bridges over the chasms that separate us.
Mercy also reveals our vulnerabilities. The spiritual works of mercy in particular demonstrate our own weakness. When we perform a corporal work of mercy—feeding the hungry, or visiting the imprisoned, for example—in most cases we ourselves are not literally in need of the same mercy. We are in a position to be charitable toward others. In contrast, most of the spiritual works of mercy (instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the sorrowful, and praying for others) remind us of our own need for mercy. If we are honest with ourselves, when we bear wrongs patiently, forgive, and counsel, we realize that we are equally in need of these merciful acts from others. We need comforting, admonishing, and instructing; we need prayers and forgiveness.
Recognizing our imperfections before God may not be particularly difficult—it is not hard to accept second place when you are competing against an invincible opponent–but to admit our shortcomings before other imperfect humans, and receive their mercy, requires much more humility. Receiving mercy also brings joy, however, once we realize we need it.
How can we show mercy in the face of serious wrong-doing and injustice? Mercy obliges us to recognize perpetrators as brothers and sisters whom we should love even as they are held accountable for their deeds. We can imagine Adam and Eve’s consternation when they realized one son had killed the other, yet God spared the murderer’s life (see Genesis 4 for the story of Cain and Abel). After the crucifixion, we can imagine Mary holding Jesus’s lifeless body, mourning his death, perhaps wrestling with the temptation to curse those who unjustly tortured and murdered her beloved son. Yet she was asked to show mercy to his persecutors, in imitation of her Son who pleaded “forgive them” (Luke 23:34). In our own time, the Amish famously forgave the man who shot ten children, killing five. We, like Jesus and Mary, like the Amish, are compelled to let go of bitterness and anger.
Mercy reminds us that in difficult situations, we exercise forgiveness and love as acts of obedience or will, independent of personal ‘feeling.’ “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart,” writes Corrie ten Boom, who forgave a prison guard from the concentration camp where she had been imprisoned. We can train ourselves, even when we don’t feel merciful, to act and think mercifully. After all, from a religious perspective, God’s mercy pours over us all. Recognizing that we are all in need, we should give and receive mercy liberally. As we act more intentionally, we can internalize a merciful mindset.
In a more present-day example, Immaculée Ilibagiza writes about forgiving those who killed her family during the Rwandan genocide. When visiting a prison, she personally forgave the man responsible for her mother’s and brother’s deaths. At a later date, Immaculée visited her former village and encountered one of her mother’s old friends, Mushaha, now shunned by the villagers because she and her husband contributed to some of the killing. Old and sick, Mushaha mourned her own two children, who had died of cholera in the aftermath of the genocide. To her also Immaculée showed mercy, rather than vengeance.
Mercy does not erase nor deny the suffering and tragedy occurring in this world, but it mitigates the despair, anger, and sorrow that pursue us. Mercy also encourages us to continue building up the world, regardless of the many events and actions that simultaneously pull it apart. Our broken world is a brokenness we all share; mercy allows us to endure it together.
It is important to note that mercy is not relativism, passivity, or fatalism. Not everyone is equally right, and we must protest and use all the activism available to us to address unjust situations. We can—and must—condemn the Rwandan genocide, for example. But, as Immaculée has shown by example, we must avoid condemning our fellow human brothers and sisters; they may deserve punishment, but they undoubtedly need mercy. In all situations, most of which are much more nuanced and debatable than the Rwandan genocide, we must remember first and foremost that we are dealing with people, individual human beings like ourselves.
In the end, mercy is openness to others: to trusting, to helping, to listening, to reconciling, and to opening ourselves to others’ mercy and forgiveness toward us. Mercy is a continual reaching out, a continual willingness to start anew.
Of course, I do not really attribute the Cubs’ triumph to divine mercy (unless my grandmother, who had a successful career as a secretary, slipped the World Series onto God’s to-do list), but their long-awaited success shows how an act of ‘mercy’ leads to shared joy and unity between people. In the context of a sporting event, these feelings are fleeting and superficial, but in our own lives we can nurture genuine, abiding joy and unity in our relationships with others, even with strangers. This past election and its political consequences are an opportunity for us, on all points of the political spectrum, to show and receive mercy. And mercy leads us to look beyond differing opinions to instead embrace one another and rejoice in our common humanity.
(For anyone who would like to know my thoughts on the election; these are the thoughts and feelings that led to my previous reflections on mercy):
Why am I so shaken by this presidential election? Not because Clinton lost, even though I did vote for her. Not because I consider conservative policies to be inherently flawed—I might have voted Republican had they offered a candidate whom I could support. My unease does not even stem primarily from Trump’s victory. I can think of at least two scenarios by which I would not be particularly upset about the election (though perhaps still concerned about the next four years): Trump wins a small portion of the vote (25-30%), with the rest divided equally between the other three candidates. Or, most people choose not to vote, and Trump wins with extremely low voter turn-out.
In both of these scenarios, as a country we are still rejecting the hateful overtones of Trump’s campaign. We are not actively overlooking the veiled allusions to, or at least complicity with, armed uprising should the ‘rigged’ election not go his way. We are standing against his blatant disregard for facts and evidence. We are not endorsing for president a man who might base policy on fabricated information, a man who might endanger our democratic institutions, a man who might blame our country’s difficulties on religious or ethnic scapegoats. In fact, however, nearly half of voters chose precisely this candidate. As a result, I have found it difficult to take communion at church, participate in public events, and interact with others in the tasks of daily living, when I know that some of them must have voted for a person who seems to betray values that I thought most of us held dear, regardless of political preference.
The sadness and anger that I have struggled to let go, therefore, come from knowing that many, many people implicitly sanctioned Trump’s campaign style and rhetoric by voting for him, even though they opposed such rhetoric and were motivated by other reasons. In effect, as a nation, we declared that our motivation for voting—desire for a conservative Supreme Court / frustration with current politics / dislike of Clinton / gun rights / or x reason for supporting Trump—was more important than standing united against incendiary, hateful speech. I am sympathetic only to voters who chose Trump because they are genuinely struggling to support their families.
I cannot even be hopeful about prospects for the pro-life movement, a part of the Republican platform that I actively embrace. I fear that any gains made against abortion will only inspire backlash, for legislative or judicial action alone will not counter our society’s tendency to see an unborn child first and foremost as part of a woman’s body, rather than as an individual human being. Any measures limiting abortion must be accompanied by compassionate programs to assist women in difficult situations, as well as genuine recognition of unborn babies as human life worthy of protection. A pro-life mindset is not so much about abortion itself; it is first and foremost about defending life—all life.
All life, of course, includes people with whom I strongly disagree. “I want justice, but I’ll settle for some mercy,” sings Kris Kristofferson in his song “Pilgrim’s Progress.” I may still feel anxious and ill thinking about the election and what, in my mind, it represented, but I will continue to reach out to others. May they continue to reach out to me, and may I be receptive to the mercy they offer. In the end, hope does not come from policy or righteousness, but from our mercy toward one another.