Justice or Mercy? What if You Had to Pick One?

Last night Jay and I watched a Dateline program about Brooks Douglass, the son of a Baptist preacher, and his long road to forgiveness. Douglass has produced a movie about the journey that started with the murder of his parents and near-fatal injuries inflicted on him and his sister.

The title of the movie, "Heaven's Rain," is taken from one of my favorite passages of Shakespeare, a section from "Merchant of Venice," a play that is seldom studied or performed because some consider it anti-Semitic.
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.
'T is 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, Jew,
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.
When I was searching for the Shakespeare quotation on my computer, I came across an article written shortly after 9/11. I am using the quote without attribution because some consider the author to be anti-Islamic.* In it he says,
Judaism integrates the qualities of strict justice and mercy, in harmony and in proper measure. Christianity took only the quality of mercy while Islam took the quality of strict justice.
I am a Christian, yet I do not consider the comment anti-Christian. I don't take offense at it because it's a position worth considering. Is it true? Is he correct? Is this what Christians have done? Is this what Christians should do?

He's right in claiming that Judaism requires both justice and mercy:
Execute true justice, Show mercy and compassion. (Zechariah 7:9)
But is he right in claiming that Christians practice only mercy?

I have trouble finding evidence to support that.

But how about the question, Should Christians always choose mercy?

This question leads to one of my favorite Bible verses. In the words of the half-brother of Jesus,
[J]udgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:13)
According to this, mercy does have a superior position in the Christian faith. But the Christian Bible does not negate the importance of justice. Jesus said,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matthew 23:23)
The truth is, none of us can practice our faith perfectly, but I can't imagine anyone surviving in a "pick-one" society. To separate justice from mercy is like using the sword on the baby brought to Solomon's court. Death is the only possible outcome.

Justice or mercy? Perhaps the problem is not that we practice one and not the other but that we have a warped concept of both and thus practice neither one well.

To figure out the proper balance, we can't rely on either emotion or intelligence. Only as we increase in love for God (with heart, soul, mind, and strength) and for one another will we gain the wisdom to balance mercy and justice.


*Those who want to know the author's identity should be able to find it easily enough. I just don't want certain other things he has said to detract from this statement, which I think raises a question worth considering.

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