Justice and Mercy

For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.  —G.K. Chesterton


Many years ago, a man in a sports car was behind me and my young family as we were driving home from the grocery store. He was clearly in a hurry, was following too closely, and even honked a couple of times to indicate his disapproval of my speed. Finally, my anger flared and I jerked our car to a stop and jumped out to…well, I’m not exactly sure what I planned to do. That’s the thing about anger, it generally isn’t attached to logic or reason. Fortunately, I did not walk back to his car and he did not get out to confront me. Feeling slightly vindicated that I dealt with the situation, I climbed back into the car and fumed at his audacity while wishing there was some way to punish him for being such a jerk.

And there it was. Punishment. I wanted him to pay. Looking back, I see this pattern repeated in many ways throughout my life. Small or large slights, an angry response, and finally, no justice. We all experience it, the indignity of injustice. Even the most mild and patient among us feels it. Don’t believe me? Driving is the easiest example and we are all guilty. The kindest, most gentle person can turn into a raving lunatic behind the wheel of a car. People cut us off. They don’t use their turn signal. They speed. They accelerate into lanes that end to edge us out in the last 50 feet. My favorite new injustice: messing with the phone while driving. Are we warranted in our frustration with the selfishness and inconsideration of other? Yes! It is unsafe. It is rude. They deserve to be punished, right?

For me, I saw the pattern repeat in many, many places. Sports are another domain in which our sense of justice rears its head in potentially ugly ways. I used to play pick-up basketball – frequently. I loved playing basketball. The competition. The comradery. Pushing myself to my limits and giving everything I had for a few minutes. I finally had to stop. Bad knees? Health issues? Nope. I noticed a disturbing pattern on my part: increasing frustration and my rising temper. The fouls and poor behavior I continually encountered really, really annoyed me. I always rationalized my irritation by saying that “someone was going to get hurt.” However, the bottom line was that it was a sense of injustice that fueled my temper. The game was meant to be played in a certain way and my competitors wouldn’t comply. Their unwillingness (at least by my measure) to follow rules or play with courtesy and respect offended my sense of justice.

Injustice and Expectations

We see it at all levels. In some places, like athletic contests, injustice is readily apparent. Referees are a great source of injustice. Anywhere we have officials, we find injustice. Is is because they are “bad” people? I suppose some might be. But more often than not, it is because they are human and humans make mistakes. As I considered this, I realized that most of the time, my sense of injustice was born of an expectation of perfect or near-perfect behavior. The fact that the other person did not live up to my expectation was really not his fault. My anger was often fueled by my disappointment in the behavior of others – a fabrication of my own expectations and a true recipe for frustration.

Often, our sense of injustice is magnified by external levers. In my road-rage story above, my reaction to the guy behind me was magnified by the fact that I was in my car – I felt safe, insulated, and empowered to react to the faceless ugliness of that little red sports car. A more recent version of this phenomenon is fueled by email and social media. The anonymity and indirect aspects of these media give a sense of distance and safety while fueling our sense of injustice and our boldness in overreacting. I have often counseled employees and friends on angrily written emails or other electronic communication. The question is simple: what do you want to accomplish? Does your text, email, tweet, or post bring you closer to your goal? If not, what does it accomplish?

If much of our sense of injustice stems from our expectations of the behavior of others, then how do we reconcile the disappointment in a more constructive way? The answer is mercy. Mercy can be a very challenging concept, particularly when we feel that we’ve been wronged. Mercy is forgiveness but it is not easy to get there. One way to approach it is to “will the good of the other.” This is  simply seeing another person in the light of compassion and hoping for their well-being. Another way to approach mercy is to assume good intent on the part of the other. I completely understand the difficulty of both of these concepts when we’ve been harmed. What about all of the other little annoyances that plague us?

Mercy Changes Everything

Walking back through my examples above, mercy changes everything. The man in a hurry wasn’t harming me – he was annoying me. Perhaps he was trying to get to the hospital. Maybe he had a call from a sick child. I have no idea why he was in a hurry and it makes absolutely no difference. His “why” could have been anything. What would have happened if I sincerely wanted his well-being? What if I assumed that he was a good person and his behavior was the result of other factors? What if I knew him personally? Would I have behaved differently? In that moment, I had the power to forgive the small indignity of this man honking at me – the power to show mercy. I chose instead to escalate it and try to yell louder than him. I succumbed to my own anger over absolutely nothing of importance.

This post has focused on balancing justice with mercy – primarily because of my personal inclination toward the justice end of the spectrum. What about those who are more mercy than justice? When we favor mercy, we tend to lose sight of accountability. We can often see the results of too much mercy in our children. Mercy tells us to forgive and our natural love for our kids often drives us to forgive before holding them accountable. When children don’t feel the effects of their decisions and behavior in the form of consequences, they feel insulated and become entitled, spoiled. Too much mercy ultimately harms them because they miss critical lessons needed to become the best versions of themselves. We know this intuitively but it can very difficult to embrace, particularly in the moment.

Finding the Balance

As with most things, balance is the key. To be our best self, we need a healthy sense of justice and an equally healthy sense of mercy. Most of us are inclined more in one direction than the other but we must be mindful of the balance. There is a time for both and it is our humanity that hangs in the balance. Are you more justice or more mercy? What can you do today to bring the weaker side closer to equilibrium? Remember that our sense of justice is often predicated on our own expectations, not a higher moral or ethical code. Be intentional in discerning the difference. We must have justice if we are to maintain order and accountability. We must have mercy if we are to maintain our humanity. At the heart rests our perspective on others and our expectations. What will you do today to reconcile your expectations with your sense of justice and/or mercy?


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