“I’m not quite sure how to say this, but I think you’re crazy.” These words were directed to me by a friend I hold in high esteem.
“I respect your right to your own thoughts,” he continued, “but if you ask me, the man’s a serial offender. What he did is unforgivable.”
He was expressing his sincere bafflement at the fact that I have taken upon myself the task of corresponding with and evangelizing the man who murdered my sister more than 20 years ago.
I’d heard similar criticisms before, and I’m not wholly unsympathetic to such views. However, I’m more deeply convinced that, in light of Christian revelation, we must practice unconditional mercy, even in cases of extreme and seemingly unforgivable offenses.
Mercy: Controversy and Promise
The injunction to practice unconditional mercy has been unpopular since Jesus Christ first commanded it of his disciples. And yet this same mercy has already deeply impacted our world and holds within itself further transformative power — for individuals and for society at large.
In what follows I want to lay out the simple “logic of mercy” that lies at the heart of my seemingly overzealous project. More than dwelling on the details of my own story, I want to reflect on the nature — and the necessity — of mercy itself and why we not only can, but must, practice this sublime virtue.
Nonnegotiable Christian Love
Every good argument begins with definitions, so if I am to succeed in convincing you that mercy is not only possible but morally obligatory, I must state clearly what I have in mind. My working definition of mercy is as follows:
Mercy is the form that love takes when it suffers some evil or offense; in particular, mercy seeks the healing of the offender, so that the offender may attain his true end.
Mercy is not extraneous to love or added to love from outside; it is nothing other than love itself in the worst circumstances of human life. Mercy is what love does when it suffers evil. We see this in Christ.
Throughout his teaching ministry Our Lord unambiguously exhorted his followers to be ministers of mercy and forgiveness.
“Then Peter, approaching, asked him, ’Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?’ ‘
As many as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I say to you, not seven times, but 77 times’” (Matthew 18:21-22).
In Jewish rabbinical speak “77 times” is a superlative expression meaning essentially “infinitely many times.” Hence for Christians the whole question of putting conditions on our practice of mercy is already settled; Our Lord has given us our marching orders.
But Jesus does more than teach and command us — he models his own message for us. At the horrifying climax of his passion, Christ manifested a mercy which would be unbelievable were it not for his witnessing it for us.
“When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do’” (Luke 23:33-34).
Correcting Our Aim
When Jesus said of those who were murdering him, “They know not what they do,” he expressed a most profound — and practical — insight into human psychology. When humans commit evil, “they know not what they do.” In other words, we cannot will evil for its own sake.
Even in cases when we will some act which we know is intrinsically evil, we do not will the evil for itself, but, rather, we will the evil under some aspect of good, real or perceived.
In the final analysis, most of the time we commit evil out of confusion about what is really good. Indeed, the very word “sin” is itself derived from the Old English for “wrongdoing,” and its Greek equivalent, hamartia, is derived from a Greek archery term meaning to “miss the mark.”
Take a simple example from the pantry: We don’t think, “Eating this entire bag of potato chips will make me unhealthy and less virtuous,” but rather, “Eating this entire bag of potato chips will make me happy.”
In the moment we commit some “sin,” we are seeking a genuine good — happiness — but our perceptions are shortsighted and self-centered. This is why much of our ethical maturation amounts to broadening our perception of our own happiness to include other people, both now and in the future.
Humanly speaking, this is why Jesus is able to forgive his enemies — and why we can forgive those who offend against us. Forgiveness flows naturally from the insight that the offender is fundamentally confused about what is truly good, fulfilling and satisfying of their desire for happiness.
And we can also recognize that we too have been confused in our search for happiness, and thus come to empathize with our “enemies,” with those who have hurt us.
With God’s grace, our pain can even be transformed from self-pity into pity for the one who has hurt us, recognizing that their wrongdoing was largely based on a misapprehension of reality. We want to reach out and help correct their vision, help heal their wounded heart, which cries out for love, just as our own hearts do.
The Cry of the Heart
We all have an intense ache for love, for happiness, for joy. Christianity teaches that this longing of the heart is rooted in our deepest nature and calling, the purpose of our existence, namely to be united to God, who is Love. This is, literally, at the heart of Jesus’ revelation.
Mercy recognizes that those who have hurt us are also willed and loved by God; and in union with God’s own love, mercy seeks their healing. They, too, are called to union with God in Christ. Enraptured by this vision, mercy pours itself out in love to all unconditionally, even to those who have profoundly hurt us.
The Logic of Mercy
Having defined the key terms, we can now state the logic of unconditional mercy plainly and succinctly.
Because Christ is God, and because we have been created for union with God in Christ, and because we achieve union through love, and because forgiveness is a requirement of love, it follows that — assuming we want to attain our final end — we must, in every instance and every condition, practice forgiveness toward our fellow humans, even when they have deeply hurt us.
Mercy, then, is finally a mission of the Church and of every Christian. The practice of mercy — through acts of forgiveness but also through all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy — is a handing on of what we have received from God in Christ.
Every act of mercy is a sharing of the Good News, and therefore an indispensable dimension of evangelization. St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, put it perfectly to the Corinthians:
“All this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
David A. Smither writes from Texas.