OF MERCY AND TERRORISM by Rev. Monsignor Fernando Ferrarese
On December 8th we not only celebrate our Patronal Feast Day but Pope Francis, on that day, will inaugurate a new jubilee year of Grace: The Year of Mercy. Mercy has consistently been the theme that our Holy Father has emphasized in his addresses and writing. Whether speaking about what is happening in the community of humankind or when writing about the way we treat creation itself, mercy has been the consistent harmonic background to the various melodic passages of his theological thought.
But what is Mercy really? And what is the purpose of a Jubilee Year?
In the Oxford English Dictionary, Mercy is defined in this way: ‘Forbearance and compassion shown to a powerless person especially to an offender or to one with no claim to receive kindness; kindness and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected.’ Also: ‘Disposition to forgive or show compassion’. Later in the article, the Dictionary expands the meaning to include: ‘an act of compassion to a suffering fellow creature’.
First off, one notices that the meaning of mercy is more robust than simply being nice. Mercy in this way of understanding is a surprising virtue. Its action is called upon when it is not merited. For instance, when an offender is proved guilty in a court of law, he or she has the option of ‘throwing themselves on the mercy of the court’. That is to say that they realize that they are guilty and that they deserve punishment for their crime but because their realization has made them see the error of their ways and inspired a desire for conversion and change, they dare to ask the judge to factor all those facts into the equation when passing judgment on the extent of the punishment envisioned. They do not deserve kindness in judgment so they ask for mercy, i.e. an undeserved kindness.
We all remember the beautiful life-changing scene when in ‘Les Miserables’ the escaped convict steals the silver from the kind bishop and then is caught by the police with the silve in possession. Instead of thanking the police and taking back the silver, the Bishop pretends that he gave it to him and says to the convict: you forgot the candlesticks! This merciful action changes the convict and sets him on the right road to goodness and even sanctity. It was undeserved and yet transformative.
Or an even better known example from the Gospels: Jesus on the cross and the two thieves. One man has nothing but anger toward Jesus and is looking for his own rescue. But the good thief realizes that they have been punished justly for their crimes but Jesus was innocent. In a sense, the thief has mercy on Jesus and even makes an act of faith (whether truly believing or just trying to be kind to the innocent Jesus) and asks Jesus to remember him when He enters into His kingdom. Such an act of mercy, from one tortured man to another, elicits a reciprocal act of mercy as Jesus assures him that he will today be in paradise. The only person canonized by the words of Jesus Himself was this criminal! This is the essence of mercy.
While we think of ourselves as the ones called upon to be merciful, that is not the real starting point of our assigned struggle during this year. We have to begin with the fact that we are the ones who need to have mercy shown us. A strong understanding of the fact that mercy is central to the Christian Gospel is realization that, as Nathan the prophet tells the adulterous and murderous David: “You are that man”. In a world where everyone thinks they are ok or even more that everyone is great and can accomplish their ‘dream’ whatever it may be, it is next to impossible to consider ourselves as candidates for such a ‘demeaning’ grace.
In the parable of the unjust debtor, Jesus gives the example of the man who has been forgiven a ‘huge amount’ and who attacks a fellow servant who owes him a mere fraction of what he was forgiven in mercy.
The modern person simply does not feel that they need anyone’s ‘mercy’ since they do not feel that they are guilty in any sense before God. As a reaction to previous ages overemphasis on guilt, the modern age has banished even merited guilt into the dust heap of history. While it is important to guard against freefloating neurotic guilt (with no real reason for it), one cannot disregard the guilt we should feel at our cavalier disregard of God’s presence and authority in the world. While we may not have broken a major commandment, have we done all we could to positively accomplish God’s will in the world? In the whole area of sins of omission, are we sure that we have faithfully done all that we could to honor God and to serve humankind? An honest answer must be: I don’t think so. So a proper guilt before God and a humble admission of our weak response to the call of God in this world is something very basic. Even a venial sin before the immensity of God’s goodness and the majesty of His will is a very terrible thing.
Once we see this and we know that God forgives us of this, then who are we to refuse mercy to one another?
It is at this point that I want to contrast what was just explained about the very concept of mercy with it’s opposite. The opposite of mercy is merciless terrorism that seeks to harm innocent people in a merciless way. What did those people in Paris do to deserve such a horrible end to their lives? The very nature of terrorism is to deny a merciful God who loves His creatures, with a proud unfeeling god who demands absolute obedience or else. Never was the true nature of God more evident when we contrast it to this idol worshiped by some in this world that would put in God’s mouth words of hate and accept as valid the disregard of the sacredness of God’s creation. For the terrorist god has no mercy and human beings, created by this god, have no intrinsic worth but are merely errant puppets of the devil that have no right to exist anymore. The greatest sin of the terrorist is their sin against the true God. It is a direct blasphemy and a sacrilegious action against the all loving and all just God. The violence of the terrorist is the direct result of this sin again the Almighty.
In contract to this we worship the God of mercy and love who is now more than ever needed in this wayward and sacrilegious world.