I want to remove the word mercy from my vocabulary, or at least when I am talking about spiritual things or about God and religious things. I was a pastor and when we referred to mercy, we meant that it was not getting what I deserved. Because we saw God as retributive, mercy was like a pardon and helped us escape God’s retributive justice. Most people even if they are not religious, see this word as something along those lines. The word, in modern language, implies that we get a different result than what should naturally occur or what is prescribed by our society or laws or God.
An example of this would be Donald Trump. He has committed some crimes–one side wants justice and they mean retributive justice–the other side wants mercy or a pardon for what he has done. Several problems arise from this including we disagree on what appropriate justice is, and we always seek mercy from that retribution for ourselves and the people on our side.
I believe it is almost impossible to use the word mercy and not have in mind the retributive ideas we have about God and how things should work. But the dilemma for religious people is that mercy is written in all their creeds and prayers and liturgies, so they cling to it like a life preserver from their sinking ship. What would they do without using grace and mercy in almost every prayer? It seems foundational, but maybe we misinterpreted it from the beginning.
First, retributive justice never solved anything. Most of the desert religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, favor this idea even though many are moving away from it in their deconstruction. We talk about restorative justice, and I think we’re still struggling to understand what that means. Our DNA contains the idea that we must barter for our deliverance from the God who overreacts to our shortcomings. We know we can’t justify our actions, so we beg for mercy.
When Jesus talked about mercy, he was likely speaking Aramaic. I am not a theologian anymore, but I understand the Aramaic and Hebrew words for mercy to be a verb form of the root word which means, “womb.” I’ll let you look it up for clarification. But this root word in both languages implies the mother-child relationship of care, protection, nurturing, and nourishment. That sounds much better, but we still must explain this when we say mercy.
What if there were a better English word that described this concept of mercy? I think there is!
It’s compassion! As we interviewed people on The Desert Sanctuary Podcast and discussed how people have found healing, time and time again they explained how they went inside and had compassion for their inner child and that was what brought healing. We know from experience that when we have compassion for other people, we can also show empathy and help them heal, as we also recover from our wounds.
If there is a God, I would like to imagine that it would not be retributive, but also that it wouldn’t just give us loopholes for justice. When Martin Luther King Jr. said peace is the presence of justice, I think he was talking about the restorative kind.
So, if God is restorative and for justice, the best way forward would be for all of us to be compassionate for others and still believe that there are consequences to our actions. We don’t have to administer our brand of retribution and hope they’ll beg for mercy. We simply must be compassionate, like the mother for her child.
While mercy may get us off the hook for the consequences of what we did, compassion can actually heal us and restore us to care for others, no matter what happens next.
Be where you are,
Be who you are,
Be at peace.