Saturday, April 26, 2014

Living Without Mercy

The present-day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and the concept of "mercy" seem to cause uneasiness in man, who, thanks to the enormous development of science and technology, never before known in history, has become the master of the earth and has subdued and dominated it.

This dominion over the earth, sometimes understood in a one-sided and superficial way, seems to have no room for mercy. However, in this regard we can profitably refer to the picture of "man's situation in the world today" as described at the beginning of the Constitution Gaudium et spes. Here we read the following sentences: "In the light of the foregoing factors there appears the dichotomy of a world that is at once powerful and weak, capable of doing what is noble and what is base, disposed to freedom and slavery, progress and decline, brotherhood and hatred. Man is growing conscious that the forces he has unleashed are in his own hands and that it is up to him to control them or be enslaved by them."

The situation of the world today not only displays transformations that give grounds for hope in a better future for man on earth, but also reveals a multitude of threats, far surpassing those known up till now. Without ceasing to point out these threats on various occasions, the Church must at the same time examine them in the light of the truth received from God.

The truth, revealed in Christ, about God the "Father of mercies," enables us to "see" Him as particularly close to man especially when man is suffering, when he is under threat at the very heart of his existence and dignity. And this is why, in the situation of the Church and the world today, many individuals and groups guided by a lively sense of faith are turning, I would say almost spontaneously, to the mercy of God. They are certainly being moved to do this by Christ Himself, who through His Spirit works within human hearts. For the mystery of God the "Father of mercies" revealed by Christ becomes, in the context of today's threats to man, as it were a unique appeal addressed to the Church.
Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia 1

Reflection – Another great installment from this encyclical. I may end up sticking with this on the blog for a little while longer, in honor of Pope St. John Paul II and his legacy to the Church. After all, the theme of mercy has loomed rather large in my own writings, too. And as much as people associate this pope with the theology of the body and its creating re-stating of the Church’s sexual morality in positive visionary terms, I believe his presentation of the mercy of God as the defining reality of the human person is even more fundamental a legacy.

Here, we address the resistance to mercy that is a very real aspect of humanity. I believe it is something that goes very deep in us, something that is not particularly connected with any religious world view or philosophical stance. There is something in the human person that does not want to have ‘mercy’ be the defining reality of our lives.

Instead, we take other paths. There is the way of power, for example. There are winners and losers in life. It is good to win and lousy to lose, and that’s all there is to say about the matter. Try to be a winner, and if you don’t make it, tough. The law of the jungle, the rat race, the Machiavellian-Art-of-War tough guy thing. There is no opening for mercy in this, of course. And many live this way, or perhaps embrace it in more subtle forms. There are so many ways to be a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’ in our human variations—it’s not always a question of the corner office and the fashionable address. But whenever life is defined in terms of ‘doing it right’ and ‘not doing it right’, and there is no reference to any deeper reality, anything richer and more beautiful than that—mercy is no longer what it should be in us.

And then there is the whole matter of the denial of sin. Because of course mercy as the defining reality of our humanity at least implies that we live in a fairly wretched state. And that ultimately the successful outcome of our lives rests entirely on whether or not God is gracious to us. This is… a bit scary, right? 

Much better to just deny the whole sin business and proclaim that everyone is good (except those nasty ugly people who still talk about sin and the moral law—they’re bad!) and everything is good (except saying that there is an unchanging and binding moral law – that’s bad!) and everyone goes to heaven (except… well, you get the drift). Then there’s no need for mercy – we deserve heaven, cuz we’re all so darned nice!

But God is merciful, you know, nonetheless. So we can talk about sin and the fact that we’re all sinners, and that nobody gets to heaven at all on any ticket except the one stamped ‘forgiven’, and that meanwhile in all our struggles with sin God comes and meets us daily with his merciful bountiful love. 

We don’t have to deny anything—I am a sinner!—or be afraid of the moral law and its unchanging rigors. God is merciful, and it is this, not the moral law, that is the defining reality of our lives. We cannot and must not deny or rewrite the moral law which has come down to us from millennia of human reflection and divine revelation, but it is not the last and ultimate word.

The struggle with mercy is a deep and abiding one, and nobody is entirely free from it. But meanwhile, and this too is mercy, God stands before us, the merciful one, never giving up, always offering Himself to us, and this is the true hope and true joy of Easter in our lives.

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