Wow. What a week it has been. I had been prepping to write something on Zika virus, which, as you can imagine, is hard to put a theologic spin to…but I feel overwhelmingly obligated to discuss the newsworthy yet tragic events of the last few days and weeks. Unless you don’t do the internet…which means you wouldn’t be reading this blog, you know that former Stanford student and swimmer Brock Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman and then only sentenced to 6 months in jail, of which it seems he will likely serve 3. If you haven’t read the victims 12 page letter, please do. Your eyes will well with tears, your insides will hurt, your ears will sting and you will have some tiny insight in what it means to be victimized and humiliated. If you haven’t a clue about the prevalence of sexual assault, you can read this blog post and get just a bit of insight. The outcry against this young man’s sentence has been appropriately broad and loud.
There won’t be much medicine in this post. Instead, my mind has been brewing over the question…what does it mean to be merciful? When I read about tragedy or see it lived out before my own eyes the word that comes to the forefront of my mind is mercy. A word that conjures many emotions but I find difficult to define. So, like any gal in this decade, I texted my church girls and asked what they though it mean to be merciful. Here’s what they said.
“Good ole’ Webster: compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” (of course from an educator). The other answers were some variation on this. Interestingly this followed a lengthy “discussion” (via text) on power previously in the day. So I asked myself, what does it mean to be merciful in the Stanford assault case? Where does compassion lie when someone has no remorse, no awareness of what they have done and what they have destroyed? What does it mean to be merciful to the victim? To her sister?
And then today 50 people were murdered and another 50 plus were injured in Orlando by a man with an agenda of hate. We can all speculate on who and what that hate was about but I think it would be hard to argue that this wasn’t motivated by hate. Is there a place for mercy in this situation?
You see, we all hold positions of power at some point in our lives. We might have authority at our job, with our children, or something as simple as being waited on in a place of service such as a restaurant. I think how we hold that power is key. We can clutch it tightly and find the best way to punish our enemies and fuel fear and hatred or we can hold it gently in our outstretched palm and exercise a judgement that is fueled by compassion and forgiveness. Sounds easy, right? (kidding.) I believe we can be merciful without sacrificing justice for the victims around us. DISCLAIMER: I don’t excel at mercy. I’m pretty good at judgement. Professionally, I try hard each day to ensure I give power back to people. That patients feel like they have a voice and that what they say matters and I see them as an individual who matters. I’m certainly not perfect at it. Personally, I find it much easier to judge the people in my social circles than to extend mercy. I want to be confessional so you’ll understand I find this as difficult as you.
So what does that look like? For the Stanford assault case, I think mercy for the victim is a prayer that says she will forgive herself each time she has a passing thought that maybe she deserves some blame. For the young man I think a place of mercy is much more difficult to find. Maybe it’s a prayer that instead of absolving him of responsibility and judgement, his eyes will be open to the breadth of damage he has caused with the crime he has committed. Where is mercy in Orlando? I believe it’s compassion for groups of people who have been victimized over and over again and often have no power in our culture. In both circumstances I think mercy is finding a way to ensure that we know and understand how best to gently handle a position of power and to teach those around us that same meaning.
The truth is I really don’t know in these tragic situations and others like it how to find myself on the side of mercy. The quote at the top of this blog from Pope Francis is overwhelming to me. But it is the truth. May we learn to extend mercy to our enemies. Maybe then they will do the same and the world will have a smidgen less hate in it. May we teach our sons (and our daughters) about mercy so that they will know how gently power is to be held. Maybe then when a young man sees a vulnerable young lady he will think protection instead of victimization. I don’t think mercy is about protecting ourselves, I think mercy is about protecting others from the harm we and others around us might do to them. Not with raised fists and weapons but with love and forgiveness for others. To strive to understand the other, our enemy, our opposite and to teach those around us to do the same. To give the nameless and faceless victim a voice.
I know it’s a long shot, but I am convinced that if we experienced mercy and showed it to others then maybe we would understand what it means to lay down power. We might see less guns and more reading programs. We might see safer college campuses. We might lower our voices during the political season to listen and learn. You see, extending mercy means you understand the person standing across from, whom you have power over, not as object but as subject. Someone who deserves to be extended compassion and forgiveness. I wonder if Brock Turner understood mercy he would have seen his victim as a person instead of an object to be owned and used. Finally, may we be merciful with ourselves when we find no capacity to think of forgiveness when confronted with hate-filled crimes and injustices that we see in the world around us. May we ask for mercy from those who we have exercised power against wrongly. We should exercise forgiveness continually and may it spur us to practice a prayer my dear friend sent to me today. “Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on me.”
(top photo credit to catholic.org who has an entire website dedicated to memes…who knew? The other two images are from the Instagram account of the official Nazarene church)