When mercy seasons justice
Under what circumstances, if any, is it appropriate for compassion to turn a blind eye in the face of real or perceived transgressing of the law?
The tragedy of Inspector Javert in the story Les Miserables is his blind pursuit of “justice” as enshrined in the legal code. This prevents him from showing appropriate mercy by bending the rigid parole law as it applied to Jean Valjean, following Valjean’s 19 years of imprisonment for stealing food to save a starving child.
Javert’s blindness to the virtue of compassion also renders him incapable of accepting the mercy of others. In one song he reveals, “I was born inside a jail”; and, in one way, he dies there too.
That which is too brittle to bend in the breeze is destined to break in the gale.
Jesus demonstrates how to temper justice with mercy in his response to the woman caught in the act of adultery (John Chapter 8). Though her accusers are, according to their law, entitled to stone her, Jesus neither condemns nor condones her action. His compassion both supports and challenges her, and offers the possibility of her transformation.
His insight could also transform her accusers, if they only have eyes to see that their failure to embrace mercy makes their sin more insidious than hers.
The principle of Jesus’ response to moral and legal misdemeanour is echoed by Shakespeare’s Portia: “…earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice.”
When environmental activist Jonathan Moylan allegedly broke the law to expose ANZ’s investment in Whitehaven’s proposed Maules Creek coalmine in the Leard State Forest near Narrabri, the majority of media opinion condemned his action and those who voiced support for him. He has been accused of moral and legal dishonesty, which potentially cost some people a lot of money.
The actual extent of financial losses is arguable, as is the appropriateness of the verbal stoning. The “law” is yet to have its say.
I would suggest that Moylan is worthy of our compassion both in spite of and because of what he did.
We may not want to condone lies or alleged transgression of the laws of the land. Nevertheless, as a church we are committed to protecting the weak and challenging the strong, as Jesus and other prophets did.
In Moylan’s case, the weak chose to confront the strong out of a conviction that the natural and human environment was going to be further exploited and damaged by the new mine.
Compassion also challenges us on where we stand regarding the common good of all creation, in the face of rampant development, which will most likely end up costing the earth if it is not halted soon.
So, before we throw stones at one who momentarily deceived the share market, it could be worth reflecting on where the greater moral misdemeanour lies: Moylan; the principals of companies that gain profit from ventures that threaten allegedly fragile and life-sustaining ecosystems; state governments that endorse the expansion of ventures that fuel climate change; or the Federal Government, which continues to support the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $12 billion a year?
To whom will compassion turn a blind eye?
To whom will Jesus say, “Go, and sin no more”?
The Rev. Dr Brian Brown is Moderator of the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.