The Quality of Mercy

lady-justice-677945_1920

The text of an address given during the Newcastle Law Term Service held at Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday 3rd February 2016:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, …
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

(William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)

These words, which Shakespeare places in the mouth of Portia in The Merchant of Venice are a powerful reminder to us that mercy, while a valuable and worthy attribute, is not something that can simply be demanded of another. Portia is urging Shylock to be merciful to the title character, knowing at some level that she cannot demand it of him. Mercy, indeed, cannot be forced or constrained. For mercy to truly be mercy it must be freely given from one person unto another.

But this same soliloquy highlights for us that mercy, freely given from one person unto another, blesses both the one who gives it and the one who receives it. And when mercy seasons justice, true justice is to be found for both the giver and the receiver. When justice is applied with mercy both victim and perpetrator retain something of their primary humanity.

For justice meted out without mercy is not true justice. Justice without mercy has descended into revenge and retribution. And a descent to revenge and retribution lessens both the one who delivers it and the one upon whom it is visited. Revenge and retribution are characteristics that deny our humanity and slowly strangle it.

As we mark the beginning of the Newcastle Law Term for 2016 it is timely to reflect upon what will take place in the courts of this city. It is also appropriate, I would add, that those who profess belief in God gather together to pray for those who have been charged with the administration and delivery of justice through those courts. It is the reason why we are gathered here in this place this morning.

In April 2015, Pope Francis promulgated the need for a Year of Mercy, a chance for the Church and the whole world to reflect upon this characteristic of the Divine which Christians believe has been made known in Jesus Christ. In the document establishing this Year of Mercy, appropriately entitled Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis reminds the Church and the world that mercy is not opposed to justice (no 21), that they are, in fact, “not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love” (no 20).

Pope Francis goes on to say that:

…mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, … (Misericordiae Vultus, 21)

And here the value of mercy, and merciful justice, rubs up against the oft-expressed ‘values’ of the society in which we live, and in which the administration of justice is carried out.

All too often in this day and age, we hear cries for justice. All too often we hear those responsible for the administration of justice deemed to be ‘out of touch’ with ‘societal expectations’ and with a need to ‘get with the program’ and deliver justice as expressed by this crowd, or this lobby group, or this individual commentator. The way in which those charged with the administration of justice because of the office they hold or the profession they practice are lampooned and denigrated can, at times, be both vicious and vociferous. Yet often the justice being demanded in such circumstances is not truly justice.

It is not truly justice because justice without mercy can never be true justice.

When attempts are made to remove authority and power from those who administer justice on behalf of the community, with such things as

  • the increasing call for mandatory sentences,
  • the seeking of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to justice,
  • the erosion and curtailing of civil and legal rights for some,
  • the ‘law and order’ auction that never fails to appear during political elections,
  • the restriction of resources, including legal aid funding, so that more has to be done with less,

there is no respect for true justice being displayed. There is no possibility of mercy being offered in such displays, only the possibility of being “led to legalism by distorting the original meaning of justice and obscuring its profound value” (Misericordiae Vultus, no 20).

Because justice without mercy can never be true justice.

For those with ears to hear, the reading from 1 Kings we have heard today, appropriately proclaimed by His Honour, reminds us that the delivery of justice can never be just about the blind application of laws and regulations. To arrive at true justice requires not only the knowledge of the law but also the use of great wisdom in the application of law, the discovery of fact, and the discernment of obfuscation and misdirection. Those who occupy the Bench will know better than most the need for the wisdom of Solomon in the exercise of their Office.

Our second reading from Matthew’s Gospel could be seen as a direct challenge to the more traditional revenue model for the legal profession, yet here too is more wisdom. The preference for dialogue and discussion, for mediation and agreement as opposed to the immediate resort to litigation and dispute is clear; the implication that the too ready embracing of the latter already counts as a loss for everyone concerned is hard to miss. The challenge for those who are called to assist others in the pursuit of justice – justice that has embraced mercy – is a difficult one and not for the faint-hearted. It is, however, a necessary and important part of the administration of justice, a noble calling which we remember here today.

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice contains a cautionary tale for those who unnecessarily deny mercy to others. At the end, such a one can little expect to receive the mercy they themselves have refused. Those entrusted with the administration of justice because of their office or profession proceed well when they remember that justice without mercy is not true justice.

Share This Story:

Article by Andrew Doohan

no replies

Leave a Reply