Essay / Culture

When Mercy Looks Like Justice

A friend of mine is involved in a lawsuit, alleging that she was sexually harassed at work. But she has “some extended family and close friends saying that she’s taking this too far and that justice and vengeance is for the Lord only.” She’s trying to figure out whether it is okay to sue someone – whether it is biblical. Here’s my answer.

On the one hand, someone could say: we aren’t supposed to pursue justice. We are to be merciful, forgiving, kind, loving, compassionate…. To pursue justice in such a case would be to seek that person’s harm, to wrong them, to seek revenge…. And of course, the latter seems deeply Christian, while the former seems wrong. We aren’t called to seek revenge – we are called to love and forgiveness. Seems right, doesn’t it?

But let’s look a little deeper.

The question pits justice against mercy. We are supposed to be merciful, leaving justice to God. But is that merciful? Plato’s Republic is of great value here, as it considers the nature of justice. If someone were doing something harmful to themselves, would it be merciful or just to stop them? Say, for instance, that you are an engineer, and a neighbor was building a structurally unsound addition to their house, which would likely result in the addition collapsing, potentially injuring someone. And despite your best efforts, they will not listen to your professional counsel. Would it be more merciful or more just to call the city officials, urging them to make an inspection of your neighbor’s handiwork?

On the one hand, it would be just. You would be taking the relevant laws and rules into account, holding them accountable in the process, in such a way as to make them liable to different fines and consequences. They may feel that you overemphasized justice and rule keeping, feeling angry with you for interfering in their private affairs. On the other hand, it would be merciful, for what could be kinder than to do what is necessary to protect the family and possessions of your neighbor from great danger, even in the face of their opposition?

In this case, Plato would say, it would not be merciful to leave them to their own devices, risking their lives and that of their family and guests, and neither would it be just. The only way to truly be merciful is to pursue justice, for only justice will bring about a situation which is good and safe for everyone involved.

Reframing Mercy and Justice: The Way of the Cross

The way things have been framed for my friend, she must choose between justice and mercy. Mercy is to leave well enough alone, while justice seems vindictive. But I would like to question both of these claims.

First, it is not at all merciful to leave things as they are. If someone is harming themselves or others, it is not mercy to leave them be—far from it. To leave them in such a pattern of behavior is more akin to an act of spite, of hate—of judgment. It is a way of saying: “You did this to yourself, you deserve this, and I will let you reap the consequences of your behavior. Go ahead and bring down judgment upon yourself.” But to use law, justice, and whatever other resources we may have to help hold such a person accountable to good, nurturing and loving behavior is not to exact vengeance. Far from that—it is to love them! For what is vengeance but facilitating someone reaping the full consequences of their sin? And what is love but helping someone walk in the way of goodness and truth?

The way of the cross is not a way of judging others—of leaving them in their sin. The way of the cross is a matter of loving our neighbor. And in some cases, this may well mean facing the social pressure and stigma that comes with calling them to a way of goodness, truth, and love which they reject, to their own detriment and that of others.

Closing Thoughts

In the case of sexual harassment, it seems a grave danger to pit mercy and justice against each other. To allow such a person to continue in a course of action so destructive to self and others may prove to be nothing but an act of hand-washing vengeance. But to hold them accountable to the law, inviting them away from such a horrific way of life, and into a richer, better and more loving way of relating to others, is simultaneously an act of justice and mercy.

I understand that these matters are immensely painful, fraught with difficulty, and not easily settled. My response to my friend was aimed only at one aspect of the situation – the way that mercy and justice were being pitted against each other. As to the specifics of the situation, the legal and relational aspects, their need for counsel and the support of a broader community… such matters are vital, but well beyond the scope of my response.

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