A Time for Mercy

I’ve been reading John Grisham‘s latest novel, A Time for Mercy,” this past week in the midst of an unusually frigid winter storm named Uri that rarely ever hits this part of the USA. We’ve had rolling blackouts, freezing water pipes and single digit temperatures along with snow and ice which has kept me indoors for a week until it finally warmed up enough yesterday to go out and buy some groceries. I haven’t experienced this type of winter weather since I left the Midwest back in the early 1990’s, and I never expected to experience it where I currently live which is less than an hour’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, the worst of it has now passed through our area and the current temperature outside as I am writing this blog post is 57 degrees.

As I was reading Grisham’s novel with a battery powered reading light during the first power outage this past Monday, I kept thinking about the topic of mercy. I published a blog post a few months ago on August 7, 2020, titled Agents of Mercy,” after the tumultuous summer of rioting we encountered here in America in the midst of the Covid pandemic that is still ongoing, and which was followed by a very contentious and divisive presidential election that didn’t seem to end but lingered on long after election day was over in early November.

In our world today it seems that mercy is in very short supply. Whether it’s the presidential election or racial injustice or the current cancel culture movement or even a personal wrong done to us by others, we seek out justice that too often centers on revenge.

In an article published on February 6, 2014, in Psychology Today titled, Don’t Confuse Revenge With Justice: Five Key Differences,” by Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., he clearly shows the distinctions between justice and revenge:

The terms “revenge” and “justice” often get muddled. And that’s hardly surprising. In the course of history, the two have been frequently used interchangeably. You may even be familiar with the phrase “just revenge.” Still, as meanings alter and evolve over time, the connotations of these two words have increasingly diverged. It’s now uncommon to see them used synonymously. And doubtless, revenge has borne the brunt of the various semantic changes that have transpired.

Yet certain overlaps between—and ambiguities within—the two terms do exist. Before delineating the chief distinctions that can usefully be made to separate them, let me at least hint at what some of these inconsistencies might be.

It would be convenient to advance the claim that justice is fair and revenge is not. But as the words “just revenge” suggest, revenge—depending on its underlying conditions, motivations, and execution—might be either just or unjust, fair or (frankly) outrageously out of proportion to the wrong originally done. There seems to be equivocality tightly woven into the term that’s less perceptible in the related concept of justice. All the same, the well-known phrase “miscarriage of justice” warns us to be careful about distinguishing between concepts that, finally, must be understood as both relative and subjective.

Although I believe that the differences between revenge and justice enumerated below generally hold true, I’d emphasize that they are generalizations, so you’ll probably be able to think of some exceptions. There are instances when revenge can legitimately be understood as a type of justice, and justice a kind of revenge. Moreover, as discrete as I’ve tried to make each of the five categories below, a certain amount of resemblance and repetition has been unavoidable. That is, my “dividing lines” may at times seem a bit arbitrary. 

1. Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice primarily rational. Revenge is mostly about “acting out” (typically through violence) markedly negative emotions. At its worst, it expresses a hot, overwhelming desire for bloodshed. As perverse as it may seem, there’s actual pleasure experienced in causing others to suffer for the hurt they’ve caused the avenger, or self-perceived victim (cf. the less personal Schadenfreude).

Justice—as logically, legally, and ethically defined—isn’t really about “getting even” or experiencing a spiteful joy in retaliation. Instead, it’s about righting a wrong that most members of society (as opposed to simply the alleged victim) would agree is morally culpable. And the presumably unbiased (i.e., unemotional) moral rightness of such justice is based on cultural or community standards of fairness and equity. Whereas revenge has a certain selfish quality to it, “cool” justice is selfless in that it relies on non-self-interested, established law.

2. Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon. The driving impetus behind revenge is to get even, to carry out a private vendetta, or to achieve what, subjectively, might be described as a personal justice. If successful, the party perceiving itself as gravely injured experiences considerable gratification: their retaliatory goal has been achieved—the other side vanquished, or brought to its knees. Just or not, the avenger feels justified. Their quest for revenge has “re-empowered” them and, from their biased viewpoint, it’s something they’re fully entitled to.

On the other hand, social justice is impersonal. It revolves around moral correction in situations where certain ethical and culturally vital principles have been violated. When justice is successfully meted out, the particular retribution benefits or protects both the individual and society—which can operate effectively only when certain acceptable behavioral guidelines are followed.

3. Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication. The intense effort to avenge oneself or others can easily become corrupting, morally reducing the avenger’s status to that of the perpetrator. Two wrongs do not make a right and (ethically speaking) never can. Degrading another only ends up further degrading oneself. Even if a kind of justice might be served through an act of revenge, it could still be argued that there’s nothing particularly admirable or evolved in retaliating against a wrong by committing a “like” wrong. Or to behave vengefully is, at best, to take the low road to justice.

In opposition, justice is grounded in assumptions, conventions, and doctrines having to do with honor, fairness, and virtue. Its purpose really isn’t vindictive. That is, bloodthirstiness has no part—or should have no part—in precepts of justice, at least not in the way the term is presently employed. It’s based on established law, and its proceedings are designed to dispense to individuals precisely what is deserved: nothing more, and nothing less.

4. Revenge is about cycles; justice is about closure. Revenge has a way of relentlessly repeating itself (as in interminable feuds, such as the Hatfields and McCoys)—and ever more maliciously. Revenge typically begets more revenge. Whether it’s an individual or an entire nation, it takes place within a closed system that seems able to feed on itself indefinitely. Unlike tic-tac-toe, tit for tat is a game without end. One side gets satisfaction, then the other is driven to get its satisfaction, and then, theoretically, ad infinitum. There can be no resolution, no compromise. Each faction (say, Israel and Palestine) has its own agenda, its own sense of right and wrong. And the righteous rigidity of each side usually demands that some trusted outsider intervene if matters are ever to be settled.

Justice, in contrast, is designed (by individuals or officials generally not linked to the two opposing camps) to offer a resolution far more likely to eventuate in closure—especially if, in fact, it is just (equitable). And when justice is done so is the conflict that led up to it. Beyond that, punishments for wrongdoing carry an agreed-upon authority lacking in personal vengeful acts, which are calculated solely to “get back” at the assumed perpetrator. Technically speaking, so-called “vigilante justice” isn’t really justice, or social justice, at all—though at times it may appear to be. Taking matters into one’s own hands may sometimes seem justified, but it hardly meets the more rigorous criteria for consensual, or community, justice.

5. Revenge is about retaliation; justice is about restoring balance. The motive of revenge has mostly to do with expressing rage, hatred, or spite. It’s a protest or payback, and its foremost intent is to harm. In and of itself, it’s not primarily about justice but about victims’ affirming their inborn (but non-legal) right to retaliate against some wrong done to them.

And because it’s so impassioned, it’s typically disproportionate to the original injury—meaning that it usually can’t be viewed as just. The punishment may fit the crime, but it’s often an exaggerated response to another’s perceived offense.

On the contrary, justice is concerned with dispassionately restoring balance by bringing about equality—or better, equity. It centers on proportion as it equates to fairness. Not driven by emotion, restorative justice—meted out by a court of law—seeks to be as objective and evenhanded as possible. It’s not, as is so much of revenge, about doing the other side “one better” but about equitably—or properly—punishing wrongdoing. In fact, the ancient “law of the ‘talion’” (an ethical standard originating in Babylonian law and present as well in the Bible and early Roman law) focuses on what is commonly known (but, hopefully, only metaphorically!) as the “eye for an eye” conception of justice. In brief, the kind or magnitude of justice meted out is contrived to “correspond” as exactly as possible to the gravity of the original injury. (Quote source here.)

In a devotion published on November 25, 2017, titled, Don’t Confuse Mercy and Justice,” on DJamesKennedy.org (author’s name not mentioned), the devotion states the following:

This world does not operate on grace; it operates on the basis of merit, on the basis of justice. Quid pro quo, this for that; you do this, you get that. That is the way the entire world operates—on the basis of justice or equity.

Early in my ministry, I went to preach in a jail, and a man snapped at me that all he demanded was justice. I said if he got justice, the floor would open up and send him to hell.

What we need is mercy, not justice.

Consider the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the famous couple accused of being Soviet spies who gave away our atomic secrets. They were convicted of espionage by the jury and were sentenced to death. Their lawyers said to Judge Kaufman, “Your honor, all my clients ask for is justice.”

Judge Kaufman replied, “What your clients have asked for, this court has given them. What you really mean, is what they want is mercy, and that, this court is not empowered to give.”

But that is precisely what our God—the Judge of all of the earth—is able to do: grant us mercy. That is the wondrous news of the Gospel.

While none of us is perfect, and none of us has lived up to God’s standard, and all of us have fallen short, Jesus Christ came to do what we are unable to do. In His mercy, He saved us by His blood. (Quote source here.)

And in another article published on May 14, 2019, titled, Feeling Vengeful?” by Marc Massery, contributor at thedivinemercy.org, he writes:

It’s inevitable. People in our lives, even people we love, will wrong us in one way or another. Look at Jesus. He never did anything wrong. Still, He was gravely wronged, to the point of death.

When someone wrongs us, often we have the natural urge to want to harm them back…. We’re all susceptible to giving in to the spirit of revenge. But we must try our best not to give in. Though exacting revenge may feel like it will relieve us and set things right, it never does. In fact, trying to get revenge only ever makes things worse.

It says in Scripture, “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.'” (Rom 12:19-20). It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK, even good when appropriate, to express feelings and emotions. But to channel our anger into exacting vengeance only breeds more hurt. We must replace desire for revenge with mercy, as Jesus did.

Scripture commentator Scott Hahn says of this Scripture passage, “Heaping coals of kindness on one who has wronged you can cure him of vices, burn away his malice, and move him to repentance.”

Love and mercy can bring healing into just about any situation. God, of course, transformed the death of His innocent Son into the saving act of Redemption.

On the other hand, prudence requires us, in certain situations, to take reasonable steps to protect ourselves from harm. For example, avoiding someone who has shown they mean you harm is not revenge so much as mercifully protecting the innocent.

Though we should not seek revenge, this does not mean that God is unfair. Hahn continues, “God overlooks no evil or wrongdoing but will exact justice on the Day of Judgment.” The Lord will set everything right at the end of time. For now, we can trust that God can bring forth a greater good from our suffering if we let Him.

In the end, God is the only one whom we can count on to never hurt us. No matter how much we might harm Him, He is all-merciful. He merely asks us to treat our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in the same way. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 12 from the J.B. Phillips translation of the New Testament:

With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers [and sisters], as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

As your spiritual teacher I give this piece of advice to each one of you. Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all. For just as you have many members in one physical body and those members differ in their functions, so we, though many in number, compose one body in Christ and are all members of one another. Through the grace of God we have different gifts. If our gift is preaching, let us preach to the limit of our vision. If it is serving others let us concentrate on our service; if it is teaching let us give all we have to our teaching; and if our gift be the stimulating of the faith of others let us set ourselves to it. Let the man who is called to give, give freely; let the man who wields authority think of his responsibility; and let the man who feels sympathy for his fellows act cheerfully.

Let us have no imitation Christian love. Let us have a genuine break with evil and a real devotion to good.

Let us have real warm affection for one another as between brothers [and sisters], and a willingness to let the other man have the credit.

Let us not allow slackness to spoil our work and let us keep the fires of the spirit burning, as we do our work for God.

Base your happiness on your hope in Christ. When trials come endure them patiently, steadfastly maintain the habit of prayer.

Give freely to fellow-Christians in want, never grudging a meal or a bed to those who need them.

And as for those who try to make your life a misery, bless them. Don’t curse, bless.

Share the happiness of those who are happy, the sorrow of those who are sad.

Live in harmony with each other. Don’t become snobbish but take a real interest in ordinary people. Don’t become set in your own opinions.

Don’t pay back a bad turn by a bad turn, to anyone. Don’t say “it doesn’t matter what people think”, but see that your public behavior is above criticism.

As far as your responsibility goes, live at peace with everyone.

Never take vengeance into your own hands, my dear friends: stand back and let God punish if he will. For it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’.

These are God’s words: ‘Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head’. Don’t allow yourself to be overpowered with evil…

Take the offensive . . .

Overpower evil . . .

By good . . . .

YouTube Video: “Mercy Came Running” by Phillips, Craig & Dean:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

When Silence Is Not Golden

I’ve been weeding through several boxes of books this afternoon that I have stored under the stairway leading out of my apartment as I’ve managed to accumulate, once again in my life, too many books (it’s my only fetish–see definition #2–at least that I am aware of). They are weighing me down in more ways than one and it’s time to lighten the load (also in more ways than one).

While tossing them into three different piles (those to keep, those to get rid of, and those I’m not sure of yet), one book really caught my eye, and when I felt the need for a break, I brought it back upstairs (where it is considerably cooler then the stairwell area) and started reading it. Let’s just say there is not a person in the world who couldn’t relate to the topic which is a universal problem–overcoming betrayal and dealing with revenge.

Intrigued? I found the book on a discount table for only $3.97 last fall (and didn’t read it back then). You’ll recognize the author’s name right away–Dr. Laura Schlessinger (e.g., Dr. Laura). The title of the book caught my eye and the price made it hard to resist. It’s titled, Surviving a Shark Attack (On Land)(2011).

There is no better way to describe an initial and sudden betrayal then a shark attack. It’s brutal and it rips apart the life of the betrayed. At this point I want to quote several paragraphs from Dr. Laura’s book on pages 17-20 which describes the cast of characters in all betrayals (the betrayed, the betrayer, and the “others”):

No matter what type of person you are, there are really bad people out there who are ready to disrupt your world and well-being to a magnitude you never imagined. If you don’t know or believe that, you are dangerously naïve. If you believe that all the people out there are bad, you are dangerously paranoid. In between those two extremes is the truth of the sad nature of human beings with which we must all contend: betrayals are commonplace.

Betrayals are a breach of trust to a code or a person, including acts of dishonesty, lying, cheating, or stealing, double-crossing, deception, gossiping, duplicity, unfaithfulness, treason, leading astray, undermining, selling out . . . to name only a few faces of betrayal.

Every single human being on the face of the earth has been betrayed, back-stabbed, undermined, screwed over, or had their reputation attacked at least once in their lives. It’s a horrible experience, leaving you stunned, scared, sad, and very, very angry; and sometimes you become so cynical that it changes fundamental ways you think and react to people for a long, long time . . . .

When you are attacked, the first reaction is shock and disbelief. Next you try to shut down what is happening. When that doesn’t work, you strike back–which usually makes the situation worse. After a while you turn to others for solace, emotional support, and assistance in getting the betrayer to back off.

You probably found that most people were sympathetic at first, and then they didn’t want to hear about it anymore. You also probably found that not too many people would step up to the plate and speak up for you. Why? Because they don’t want a bull’s-eye pasted onto their backs next. People who betray are very powerful because “good people” are more than willing to stand by and do nothing to avoid discomfort in their own lives.

That means that adding insult (no valiant supporters rushing to your side) to injury (the betrayal) becomes your personal reality. Expecting rallying support from people becomes a huge disappointment added on to the original betrayal. In fact, the whole battalion taking a step back when you ask for volunteers to help you fight your battle can be a more devastating experience than the original betrayal. You end up being not only victimized but abandoned to fight your fight alone. It makes you wonder what friends are for. It makes you also doubt the legal and social systems that appear to lean way over backward to protect the perps (perpetrators).”

“People who betray are very powerful because ‘good people’ are more than willing to stand by and do nothing to avoid discomfort in their own lives . . .” Dr. Laura goes on to describe one of her own personal stories of betrayal and how a friend, who was among the betrayers but not one of them when the verbal attack took place, just stood in silence and said nothing in her defense. Nothing at all. And he didn’t even offer any support the next day after it happened, either. He remained silent.

Dr. Laura states these “stand by” folks will try (if they try at all) to defend their inaction by minimizing the betrayal. But she adds a big “however” to the equation when she states:

You [the betrayed] are usually wise enough–especially after a night of sleeping on it–to know the difference between a glitch in communication and a frank betrayal of your trust, faith, privacy, truth, status, reputation, relationship, and so forth (p. 23). 

She goes on to state on the same page regarding folks who betray others that it is the “everyday” people (and not just sociopaths) that should worry us the most as they are capable of hurting us in the most extraordinary ways. She states the following:

It is the everyday people, in service to their own egos, social status, financial opportunities, envy, and petty meanness, you have to worry about the most, as they are likely to pop up from the most unlikely places: school, church, family, neighborhood, circle of friends, work . . . anywhere you interact with people.

Do these people know that they are “bad” or have done something “bad”? I talk to people every day who have performed the most egregious acts of hurt and betrayal, yet deny that their behaviors weren’t righteous. Righteous! They try to give examples of what was done to them (usually innocuous) and convince me that their actions were necessary or justified. These “everyday” folks often just don’t think about the humanity of their victims at all, and in fact would deny that their targets even are victims” (pp. 23-24).

Einstein quote - those how watch and do nothingThere is not a person on the planet who hasn’t hurt someone by actions or attitudes and who felt justified in doing so or denied that it was done with any intent to hurt or inflict harm on that person. We are all guilty of that, folks. And while sociopaths absolutely don’t care what anyone else thinks and they like inflicting pain on others, “everyday” folks will justify their actions of betrayal or deny them to the nth degree. And when “everyday” people keep silence in the midst of the betrayal being done to others to protect themselves or keep out of the line of fire, it is just as Edmund Burke stated, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” (quote source here). Silence is not golden.

While I haven’t read the rest of the book yet (and just in case you’re wondering), Dr. Laura never, ever encourages revenge. She does deal with the topic in a couple of chapters. Also, from a Biblical perspective, the apostle Paul states in Romans 12:17-21:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

My long term unemployment started from an act of betrayal that just keeps on giving after four plus years and sometimes my anger and frustration comes out (well, I spit and cuss in the confines of my apartment). But the truth is, all the spitting and cussing hasn’t changed my situation one bit. And yes, I pray daily about it (the entire situation). But this past week I ran across a portion of Scripture that really gave me pause for thought, and if you find yourself in a situation right now that seems insurmountable (like I do), maybe it will give you some encouragement, too. It’s found in I Peter 4:12-19:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

This long term trial with unemployment has been one of the hardest and is the longest trial I have ever had to endure, and after four plus years with no light at the end of the tunnel, it’s hard to understand why the Lord hasn’t allowed me to find employment yet or at least to be able to move on with my life. It’s in times like these that I have to remember that we don’t get to see or understand what is going on in the “big picture” of our circumstances except what we go through personally on a daily basis. And the big picture really is much bigger than just “us,” and it always is.

So as Peter advises in 1 Peter 5:6-11:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

And that is very good news . . . .

YouTube video: “He’s Got It All In Control” sung by B. J. Thomas:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here