Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Justice and mercy in tension (2016 Term 1 Week 10)

The great ethical quandaries in life come when two good things are in tension. Children encounter the tensions just like the rest of us. If you are asked about a friend's wrongdoing, do you tell the truth, or do you remain silent for the sake of loyalty. If you nick the ball to the wicket-keeper and are given 'Not out', do you walk or not? Is it better to be generous towards others or to save for the future? However, in my experience, the hardest tension to resolve has to do with the relationship between justice and mercy.

These are both good things. Justice demands that good is rewarded and evil punished; mercy recognizes our frailty and fallibility, allowing us not to be treated as we deserve. 

In Christian thinking, both justice and mercy are central. Christians believe that “the judge of all the earth will do what is right” and that this justice will be seen on the judgment day. Our confidence that justice will be done enables us to persevere in the face of both rampant evil and frustratingly banal misdemeanors. Right and wrong matter and God will ensure that it is so. However, at the same time, we desperately want God to be merciful. If he is not, who can stand? None of us can have a clear conscience in the face of God's justice.

Our speakers at the various mission week events touched on the tensions between justice and mercy. We heard the inside story of Andrew Chan, who fell foul of Indonesian justice as one of the Bali Nine and did not receive mercy, being executed last year. We also heard the testimony of Dan Smith, an Australian representative swimmer who dragged himself into a mess of drugs and crime and was shown mercy by the courts.In both cases, we heard their deeper story of the justice and mercy of God.

How then do we think of mercy and justice in the here and now, particularly at a school? 

The reality is that our stance regarding justice and mercy varies, usually depending on our circumstances. Young people frequently have a highly-charged sense of justice and fairness; anyone who has seen students playing handball knows how important fairness is to them. However, young people are also prone to significant blind-spots when it comes to their own culpability. My observation is that parents can also be very quick to demand justice when their child is wronged, but they can also swing to an expectation of mercy when judgment seems imminent. I think we all find ourselves shifting to one side or the other of the justice-mercy dichotomy, whether this reflects personality or worldview or life experience or other factors.

A big part of the challenge is that we also suffer from the limitations of our own knowledge. I am acutely conscious when making the sort of decisions that fall to me, that I am not all-seeing and all-knowing. We make decisions and take actions that hopefully reflect the knowledge that we have, but we never know everything that may be relevant. In particular, we do not know the consequences of our decisions. To exercise justice in a particular circumstance may prove to be the corrective experience of discipline that is needed or it may crush an already faltering spirit. To choose mercy may provide an individual with a tangible and transformative experience of grace or it may embolden transgression by removing the fear of consequences. This uncertainty of outcomes must drive us to humility as we negotiate the tension between justice and mercy.

All of us at Inaburra work with this tension between justice and mercy on a daily basis. It is seen in the way that classes are conducted, supervision of students takes place, staffroom discussions unfold and the overall way that we relate to the students and each other. It is particularly in tension as we engage in the discipline of the students. As the one who is both responsible for the whole system of discipline in the school and the one who ultimately has to adjudicate in the trickier matters, I really appreciate the prayers of the community for my wisdom, as well as for the students and other staff involved. My particular prayer is that, in and through our efforts, God will work for good in the lives of all concerned.

Over the Easter weekend, as I reflected again on the great tension between justice and mercy, I was thankful for the cross of Christ. In the crucifixion of Jesus we see God's resolute opposition to evil in all its forms and his judgement upon it. We also see the mercy of God demonstrated as he who had no sin became sin for us. If you feel the tension between the demands of justice and the need for mercy, it may be that the Christian faith has something for you.


  1. I have read Supreme Court judgements with less insight than this article. It is said that the good are innocent, that's why they invented justice and the evil are guilty, that's why they invented mercy. However, all of us that live at the point where the fallen Angel meets the rising ape contain a little of the good and a little of the evil so we need both justice and mercy. Jesus said "Judge not lest Ye be judged", however, I this imperfect world it falls to all of us to both sit in judgement and be judged from time to time; and all this before facing the ultimate Judge. In both dispensing and relieving judgement we can only look to the Golden Rule for guidance, treat others as you want them to treat you: so, justice tempered by mercy it is.

  2. One of the things that has always deeply impressed me is the way that God can be both perfectly just and perfectly loving at the same time: the cross is the way those two things come together perfectly. I always knew I deserved God's justice, but while I knew intellectually that God loved me as well, I didn't think I could love him back the way He deserves. The thing that changed it for me was when I realised that Jesus knew this already, and died for me anyway. He knew I can't love him and follow him as I ought to, and yet he went to the cross anyway. When I saw the scale of his sacrifice on the one hand and at the life I was holding on to in the other, the ridiculousness of continuing to hang onto it was overwhelming. Jesus knew what a poor life it was & was going to be, and yet he died & asked for it anyway, so I gave it to him. Although I'm still a long way from the person I ought to be - and will be, one day - that's ok, because of Jesus and the cross. My life is immeasurably richer for it, absolutely in the future but also in the here & now: I would encourage everyone to reflect on that key question: What is your relationship with Jesus like? I'm thankful that my son's school is helping him ask and explore that question.