Blessed are the Merciful

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I was asked to share some thoughts about Mercy today at church as part of looking at the 8 blessings of Jesus at the Start of The Sermon on the Mount. Here, more or less, is what I said….

“When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult” proverbs 24,17

Blessed are the Merciful for they shall receive Mercy.

This Blessing from Jesus is different from all the rest.

It’s different because the outcome is the same as the characteristic. You get the same thing you give, for want of a better phrase. It’s also different because where the other blessings are spoken to the marginalised, the outsider, the hurt; to the last and least – this is directed to the powerful and privileged. It’s Jesus, right in the middle, flipping our expectations and saying that yes, my Kingdom is for the powerful as well as the weak, those in the centre as well as those on the edges. Where his manifesto has been all about flipping expectations by including those on the margins, by declaring He is on the side of those society would not have expected, here he flips our expectations again; carrying out a Crazy Ivan to keep us on our toes and challenge us again.

Why do I say it’s addressed to the powerful? Because only the powerful can bestow Mercy. Only the strong who have the power to crush and dominate can refrain from doing so. You can only let someone off the hook if you’re the one who has them dangling there in the first place.

Jesus flips expectations in a double way with this blessing. Yes he addresses it to the powerful, but subverts their expectations by challenging them to direct themselves in a way completely other than how they have been socially programmed to by “Empire”.

Empire tells the powerful to be ruthless, to exact vengeance. Empire expects the powerful to use violence, manipulation and punishment to keep their perceived opponents and the marginalised in their place. Empire promotes its position of power through the lie of Karma. That what goes around comes around. That your “lessers” hold on to the age old idea of the wheel of fortune and when they are on the top they’re going to make you pay – so you must keep them where they are without mercy. You must not give them an inch, or they will turn on you. I saw a post recently that said “You will never understand the damage you did to someone until the same thing is done to you. That’s why I am here – Signed Karma”. And it’s that fear that drives some in power, it’s what drives some who benefit from privilege from sharing that privilege or power. “If we free the slaves, they will take revenge on us; If we give equality or power to women, they will treat us the same way we’ve treated them; If we let disabled people skip the queue, we will have to wait longer”. So the Powerful have to be ruthless in putting down opposition, in punishing dissent and executing pre-emtive strikes.

The way of Empire is personified well in the person of Michael Corleone who systematically eliminates his opponents. When he could logically and legitimately stop, His Consigliere Tom Hagan says to him “You’ve won, do you have to kill everybody?” Michael’s answer? “I don’t want to have to kill everyone, just my enemies.” But the point is, in a world of mercilessness eventually everyone becomes your enemy and so everyone needs to be punished somehow.

And here comes Jesus and brilliantly cuts through all that.

Blessed are the Merciful for they shall receive Mercy. I think a better phrasing would be Blessed are the Merciful for they shall experience Mercy.

I used to be brilliant at the game Mercy. Because to be good at it, ironically you need to not have any. You need to be okay with using your power to cause pain to another person. You need to go in for the kill from the start. The irony of the game is that you win by not showing a hair of vulnerability or compassion or hesitation. The breaking off just because the weak one says “Mercy” is just a technicality – you have already broken them, you have already been merciless. And even when I used to play my sister who was probably the only one who could overpower me, she used to hate it because no matter how much pain I was in, I would NOT say Mercy. So she had to relent without me admitting weakness or vulnerability. Thank God he has softened my heart! I’m rubbish at the game now, because I’m not willing to cause another person the amount of pain it would require for me to win. So, we both win by not playing in the first place.

We both experience mercy by me not exerting my power over them in the first place.

We both experience mercy by me not exerting my power over them in the first place.

There’s often a question of how compatible Mercy is with Justice – how can I, a person who has been called to pursue Justice also advocate Mercy? Easy, Mercy and Justice are not extended to the same kinds of people. If you look at it in the context of the Privileged and Powerful as opposed to the Harmed and Marginalised, it makes more sense. If Justice is levelling the playing field, if Justice is lifting up the fallen, if Justice is righting situations where the powerful have NOT shown Mercy, righting situations where the privileged have exploited their power over the weak, then Mercy and Justice don’t contradict each other, they compliment each other.

And I find that there are situations that I have come across where the call to forgive and be merciful has been exploited to protect the powerful from facing justice for the mercilessness they have shown. Let me be more specific – when powerful men are applauded on church stages for “confessing and repenting” of sexual abuse, that is not mercy, that is privilege. When a white gunman is afforded the time for a cheeseburger before being taken into custody, that is not mercy, it is privilege. When the focus is on a rapist’s potential future swimming career over the unmerciful action he committed to someone less powerful, that is not mercy – it is privilege. There’s not much that makes me angrier.

If we see Justice less as punishment and more as balance for the powerless, ensuring the powerful are characterised by Mercy makes more sense.

If we see Justice less as punishment and more as balance for the powerless, ensuring the powerful are characterised by Mercy makes more sense.

Justice and Mercy also compliment each other in that Justice can sometimes require a level of punishment, but Mercy is required to temper that. The negative consequences of Justice must never be undertaken with glee or schadenfreude and must remain limited to be true justice. This is what eye for eye means – only take an eye for an eye, no more. That’s why it’s both Just and Merciful to ensure once someone has served their time in prison that they should get a fresh start. Punishment beyond that is revenge and malice, not justice.

Being glad that justice is being served is not the same as delighting in their misery..

I’m minded to talk about a merciless act from just a few days ago. 49 Muslim worshippers at Friday Prayer in a mosque in Christchurch were shot and killed. A number of others were injured. Those who carry out such acts are members of a privileged class, the ones with power, ones who see themselves as superior. The “Supremacy” in White Supremacy is not an accident. They see themselves as above. And those they commit violence against? – they are “other”, outsiders, property, objects, cockroaches, an infestation to be culled. They have convinced themselves they are the ones hard done by, who are going to be supplanted.

But I’m more encouraged by the actions of a Christchurch woman at the scene. A woman who hid one of the muslim worshippers in her car whilst staunching his bleeding. A woman who calmed him by using his own ‘phone to contact his wife to tell her not to come down to the mosque. A woman who wept that this happened in her city.

What makes this woman different? What makes Mercy possible? What is the engine that enables the powerful to let someone off the hook, to lift the weak, to refuse to cause pain and harm?

She saw them as people.

Instead of seeing what they might have deserved as “immigrants here to steal our jobs and exploit our benefit system” or what they deserved as a member of a faith that has been described by some Christians (NOT me I might add!) as “demonic”, she saw a person in need. She did not see an enemy to be finished off, but a brother to be protected. She saw a history and a pain and a need.

She saw a person.

Mercy is refusing to see your enemy as an enemy. Mercy is a refusal to cause pain in the first place. Mercy is leveraging your privilege for someone weaker than yourself, rather than protecting yourself from the consequences of justice. Mercy is not glorying in the suffering of another. Mercy is seeing a person, not a stereotype. Mercy is seeing a person, not What they did.

We’ve been using the phrase “God is on your side” for much of these blessings. But like Jesus flips the script just this once, I want to flip this around, just this once. In the parallel passage in Luke Jesus says “Be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful”. We are called to Mercy because it is a defining characteristic of the one we follow; we are called to mercy because that’s what allegiance to God’s Kingdom as opposed to allegiance to the Empire looks like.

So while God IS on your side…

You show you’re on God’s side when you are Merciful and you will experience the Kingdom of Mercy.

You show you’re on God’s side when you have the power to exact revenge and withhold it instead

You show you’re on God’s side when you have the strength to commit a pre-emptive strike and do not.

You show you’re on God’s side when you see a person instead of an error.

You show you’re on God’s side when you are privileged and use it to lift up the voices of the weak.

You show you’re on God’s side when you are privileged and share it at your own expense.

(There’s an old post on Justice that can serve as a companion piece to this – “Fairness, Justice and all that Jazz“)

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