When Justice Demands Mercy

Christian love demands that we wish and pray for the eternal salvation of every human soul, however improbable. That includes the souls of men like Kermit Gosnell, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, and the Nazis justly hanged at Nuremburg. This wholesome wish has nothing to do with whether or not we favor their deaths.

— John Zmirak, “When Justice Demands the Hangman” (First Things)

I just love this quote. It has untold depths of hatred within it — layer after layer of worldly wisdom that cover a core of human folly. Let me dissect it:

. . . that we wish and pray

What is the difference between a wish and a prayer? A wish is a half-hearted prayer, backed up not by substance and action, but by sentiment. We need not work toward a wish. We need not let it inform our lives. But a prayer? A prayer graces us with the divine power to vanquish evil. Prayer leads to action.

Wishes don’t.

. . . that we wish and pray for the eternal salvation of every human soul, however improbable . . . This wholesome wish has nothing to do with whether or not we favor their deaths.

John, through the conflation of wishes with prayer, has disassociated grace from mission. It’s an old story — the division between love in dreams and love in action. It is so easy to love in our imaginations. It is so hard to love in reality, where love exacts a cost that we aren’t always prepared to pay.

Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.

One does not love with wishes. One loves with a prayer-infused life of grace, a life that means doing good to the very people who do evil. The great revelation of Christ is that such love is the basis of any lasting justice. Only merciful love can restore a shattered creation. Anything less is merely an empty wish.

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  • T J Hostek

    Well done! I have a friend who refers to “First Things” as “False Things”

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

    I’m not a fan of Zmirak at all, but I still think this is a highly uncharitable reading of his claim. To say that we should wish and pray, as he does, is not the same as saying that one should wish rather than pray, nor is it the same as ‘conflating wishes and prayer’. Consider the result of saying that one should not wish but pray in such cases: a prayer for eternal salvation in which one does not also actually wish for their eternal salvation is fake. Thus there’s a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the phrase: that one should both wish and pray for their eternal salvation. There’s simply no need for such a strained interpretation as you are making here.

    Your entire interpretation reads very much like there’s a conclusion you want to draw about Zmirak on this point, and you just read into his words what would fit that conclusion. Nothing of what you quote actually implies any of the interpretation you give to it. Whatever the case of his larger argument, it’s simple nonsense to claim that this particular quote has “untold depths of hatred within it”, and equally nonsense to take the phrase “wish and pray” to mean “wish rather than pray” or to conflate wishing and praying.

    • Nate Wildermuth

      John wants to have an abortionist killed. I do call that hatred, even if it hides behind a self-righteous veneer of prayer.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Reading the whole post by Zmirak, in which he compares replacing the death penalty with life in prison to shuffling pedophile priests off to unsuspecting parishes, gives a great deal of credence to Nate’s reading.

  • Mark VA

    I have read the piece by Mr. Zmirak in First Things, and disagree with this post’s conclusion that:

    “It has untold depths of hatred within it — layer after layer of worldly wisdom that cover a core of human folly”.

    While I disagree with Mr. Zmirak’s sentiments regarding capital punishment (I favor its near abolition, under the conditions specified by Pope John Paul II), Mr. Zmirak’s opinions, in my opinion, do not spring from a well laced with malice.

    Perhaps you, Mr. Wildermuth, could try to qualify your opinions, and appear to be less aggressive with divining the motives of those who you disagree with.

    This seems to be, by the way, a recurring dissonant note with some of the Vox Nova contributors. The habit of qualifying one’s opinions appears a yet to be acquired taste for some of us – no?

    • Nate Wildermuth

      Sentiments do not determine love or hatred. Love and hatred are defined by action — to do good or to do evil. It is an act of hatred to work for another man’s death, regardless of sentiment.

      But what makes Zmirak’s work especially hateful is the justification for murder. The justification is a perverted form of justice that denies the power of God’s love, replacing it with the weapons of Satan — death and despair.

      Zmirak isn’t my target. The hateful promotion of state-sponsored murder is.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. Wildermuth:

        Seems that you have no problems expressing opinions in very strongly worded statements – “hatred”, “evil”, “hateful”, “murder”, “perverted”, “weapons of Satan”. In seven sentences you used variations on the root “hate” five times.

        Perhaps a less aggressive, more pacific, approach, would be better suited to a dialogue.

        • Nate Wildermuth

          You’re probably right.

      • Floridian

        And yet Catholics are allowed to support the death penalty, so you’re basically accusing the Church of allowing people to support “murder.” Very very dangerous line of thought you’re taking.

        • Nate Wildermuth

          Less dangerous than the Church sponsoring murder in the name of Christ, as it once did with torture.

          As far as I know, the Church’s teaching on the death penalty has not been defined infallibly.

          • T J Hostek

            St John Paul made it very clear that support for death penalties is antithetical to the Gospel of Life
            , the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because something is not declared “ex cathedra” doesn’t give anybody license to ignore the teaching. He taught that only in the case in which it would be possible for the convicted criminal to be able to kill or cause violence from within prison would death be justifiable.

          • T J Hostek

            It would also be good to keep in mind that the Church is both “sinful & holy” (Lumen Gentium) and that St John Paul asked forgiveness on the Holy Year MM for its sins, including murder.

        • http://twitter.com/FriarRJohn Robert Lennon

          “As far as I know, the Church’s teaching on the death penalty has not been defined infallibly.”
          I want to frame this statement and hang it up on my wall, so that I’ll always have a reminder of how not to read the teachings of Christ’s church. The social teachings of the Church have not been infallibly defined (though they have been *explicated* in various encyclicals), but I hold that defrauding a laborer of his wages is one of the sins that cry out to Heaven, along with oppression of the poor, willful murder, and sodomy, as that has been the teaching of the Church. Saints have taught that capital punishment may be necessary, and saints have stopped the headman’s axe, the one does not negate the other. The Church is larger than any particular time period or society, especially our own.

  • Ronald King

    I just wanted to add an opinion about this statement, “Christian love demands…”. Love does not “demand”. To demand is something other than Love. Both, Mr. Zmirak’s title for his article “When Justice Demands the Hangman” and your counter opinion entitled “When Justice Demands Mercy” emphasize the word “Demands” which I interpret to be a command originating from human perceptions and projections of love and justice rather than the existence of both contained in the purity of “I Am”. Love attracts and draws us to its infinite beauty as we are drawn to our Mothers’ love by our connection to being a creation of Love, if we have been blessed in that way. However, since we have not received the purity of Love for which we have been created, there exists within each of us a sense of an absence or loss of Love which “Demands” justice or love with the passion equivalent to the pain of that loss. Mr. Zmirak’s article influenced me to investigate the pain/”sadness” he expresses but does not explore in depth. Our “Demands” for love and justice seem to symptoms “…Of the pain which just won’t heal…”. I think that last line came from Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John when I first listened to it in 1971. Who knows?

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    To me, the most disturbing comment is to be found in the comments about the piece. Jere Joiner says, and I quote, “I cannot believe Dr. Gosnell was created in the image and likeness of God.”

    Troubling. Very troubling.

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    The most insightful comment was Aaron Ramussen, who said, “If the decision to forego the death penalty involved mercy at all, it was not mercy for Mr. Gosnell. It was mercy for the taxpayers who would have funded the endless process with no hope of the death sentence ever being carried out.”

    The DA’s who accepted the deal were not thinking of justice and mercy in theological terms, they were thinking in American legal terms. It is common (more than common) to cut deals with defendants in order to guarantee a guilty verdict and some kind of punishment. It saves the taxpayers money and the prosecutors time so that they can move onto the next While John Zmirak may view this as misguided compassion, the justice system doesn’t work that way.