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Begging Your Pardon: A musing on mercy

 
Our outgoing president is handing out pardons to the denizens of the very “swamp” that he swore to empty in Washington.  The list is a rogue’s gallery worth studying: it will erase any lingering doubt about the spectacular venality of this administration.

But it’s worth pondering for a more enduring reason.  It begs the question:  what is the place of mercy in a system of justice?

The Christian tradition has much to contribute to this conversation.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  Matthew 23:23-24

Not just justice, but mercy and faith also were matters of the law for Jesus.  His view was echoed by the prophet:

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.”
  Isaiah 30:18

One way to summarize the entire Christian Bible is this:  it is a series of mythical stories about how people violated the laws and commands of God, over and over again, and suffered his enforcement of justice – but over and over again, God showed mercy.  God punished Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit by casting them out of the garden, but God still dropped rain on their hard-tilled soil.  God punished humanity for all manner of prideful sins by flooding the earth, but held back from complete annihilation by ordering Noah to build the ark.  And God had his son die on a cross as the final sacrifice, to pardon us all of our sins.  Divine justice included divine mercy, for the sake of the survival and ultimate well-being of people.

Justice without mercy is just a soul-less machine that crushes people without consideration for circumstances and consequences for individuals and society.  That is why the Constitution allows the President to issue pardons for federal crimes.  And governors for state crimes.  That is why, at least in some cases, judges have discretion in the length and nature of sentences for convicts.

Mercy’s place in justice is humane and divine.  To keep the social fabric intact, the law must be honored, and its violation must have consequences.  But merciful exceptions and adjustments must sometimes be made in the conduct of justice, or else the law becomes an instrument of cruelty – the enemy of the people and not its protector.

At the end of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford gave amnesty, and later President Carter gave pardons, to young men who had resisted or refused the draft.  Whether the men should have been drafted to fight in Vietnam at all was a fraught political question.  But maintaining the integrity of the draft law during the war was perceived by most people to serve the national interest.  So the men who were prosecuted for the crime were sentenced accordingly.

But after the war ended, the situation reversed.  To keep people in jail for refusing to fight in an unpopular war that was over would have further threatened respect for the draft law itself, as well as exacerbating social unrest.

For the sake not only of the young men caught in the conundrum of obeying the law or their consciences, for the sake of encouraging respect for the law, and for the sake of healing the nation after an unpopular war, the two presidents wisely showed mercy with their power of the pardon. Ford said “reconciliation calls for an act of mercy to bind the nation’s wounds and to heal the scars of divisiveness.”

Turn Gerald Ford’s intentions upside down to see what the current president is doing.  He is pardoning people who lack conscience, eroding respect for the laws they blatantly violated, and outraging the people of the country in the process.

Mercy benefits the people, but these pardons do not.  Roger Stone is not a better person because he got away with witness tampering.  The people of the country were not served in any way by the pardon he received.

It appears that when the current president leaves office, he may be tried and convicted for any of a number of crimes himself.  He probably does not deserve mercy.  The nature and circumstances of his crimes, and the need to maintain the integrity of the laws he broke, suggest that imprisonment may be appropriate.  Pardoning him due to his personal circumstances would be wrong.  But to show mercy on the American people, who are suffering from a period of painful contention, the power of the pardon may be rightly exercised by President Biden or Governor Cuomo.  Putting a former president behind bars, for any reason, is a sorry spectacle that does not serve the well-being of a democracy.  Tens of millions of people voted for him.  The current president’s campaign rallying cry against Hillary Clinton, “lock her up”, was outrageously offensive for exactly this reason.

So as this nightmarish era in American politics comes to an end, let us get spiritually prepared to temper justice with mercy – for the sake of the Love who is God, for the sake of democracy, and for the sake of us all.

JIM BURKLO
Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, University of Southern California
Blog: MUSINGS

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