Perspectives: Is justice about vengeance or mercy?

OPINION – She caught him red-handed with her wallet. He knew he was busted; he even fessed up that he’d stolen it. Justice was going to be certain and swift.

But the victim of this very real crime did the unthinkable. She paid for his groceries. And then she forgave him and let him walk away.

Was she wrong to show kindness to the man who had stolen from her? How we answer that question says a lot about how we, as individuals, view the concept of justice.

Victor Hugo’s classic novel “Les Miserable” offers a clear and powerful depiction of the inner battle waged within each human heart between vengeance and mercy.

Deep inside each of us lurks an Inspector Javert that, once offended, will hound the wrongdoer to the ends of the earth to exact retribution. Likewise, there also is a Bishop of Digne who by offering forgiveness inspires heartfelt and lasting change in the life of the transgressor.

But mercy is often viewed as weakness or somehow enabling of bad behavior. Our culture increasingly seems to thrive on blood lust and revenge. Vengeance, in the pursuit of justice, is among the most common plot lines found in popular TV shows and movies. So which stance requires the greater strength?

Consider the case of 11-year-old Jeralee Underwood who was abducted and murdered in Southeast Idaho in 1993. Her murderer confessed to the ghastly crime shortly after being arrested. Her parents, while thanking the thousands of people who had helped search for her, offered forgiveness to the man who had killed her.

Jeralee’s killer did not escape justice. He later died in prison while awaiting execution. But her grieving parents freed themselves from a lifetime of torment by refusing to harbor hatred toward the man who had caused them so much pain.

Many of us have heard the story of Chris Miller whose wife and two children were killed by a drunk teenage driver in 2007. In the moments after the crash, Miller made a conscious decision to forgive whoever had caused the wreck. His loss was no less horrific, but the choice to forgive brought peace.

It also wrought a change in Cameron White, the young man who had extinguished three innocent lives by his decision to drink and drive. White still had to face the consequences of his actions, but did so with the support and love of the man most deeply affected by his choices.

These examples illustrate that true justice does not require a choice between punishment and mercy but can contain elements of both. It would have been entirely understandable for the Underwood and Miller families to hate those who had wronged them. But their forgiveness not only transformed their own hearts, their examples have touched the lives of thousands of others.

They demonstrate the reality of Shakespeare’s words in “The Merchant of Venice”:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

It may not be unspeakable crimes that test our resolve to forgive, but each of us suffers wrongs at the hands of others throughout our lives. When dealing with minor annoyances or calculated offenses, we can choose to seek vengeance or to forgive. Forgiveness is not about becoming a doormat for others, it’s about choosing to let go of destructive negativity rather than nurturing it.

It takes far more strength and emotional maturity to let go of our anger than it does to indulge it. Unfortunately, this is something that must be personally experienced to be fully understood.

Charles Featherstone wrote:

Justice without the possibility of mercy is simply vengeance. There may be a place for vengeance. But there is also a place for mercy. State-sponsored “justice” is not merciful, and can never be. Only when individual human beings become involved as thinking and feeling individuals can there ever be any mercy.

Those who would criticize the woman who refused to call the police on the thief who stole her wallet as being a pushover are suffering from tunnel vision. Her mercy was a reminder that we can choose to see others as a prize to be won rather than as opponents to be crushed.

The Beatitudes teach: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” The vengeful will have their reward too, but they will not have peace.

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Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives talk show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.


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  • My Evil Twin October 31, 2013 at 10:44 am

    First off, we do not have a “Justice System.” Yes, we do have a “Legal System,” but there is no way it should be confused with justice. Anyone who has worked in the system for any length of time, has to realize that. Also, the purpose of jail, prison, death penalty and all that goes with it, has nothing to do with either justice, or vengeance, but has everything to do with trying to protect the public.
    The bleeding heart liberals have tried to “reform” criminals, they have pushed their hair brained ideas through, spent billions of taxpayer money but to no avail. There will always be a “criminal element” within society.
    We waste so much money on the so called “War Against Drugs,” that it is pitiful. We have people in prison, serving harsh sentences for drug offenses, that shouldn’t even BE offenses. There are alternatives, and they are proven in other countries.
    This entire “Criminal Justice” system is broken.

    • Ken October 31, 2013 at 11:19 am

      The “war on drugs” was started by conservatives, yet your slamming liberals about the “system”. Me thinks your chest thumping is confusing!

      • My Evil Twin October 31, 2013 at 2:20 pm

        Kenny, you poor confused soul you. I’m not slamming liberals any more than I am conservatives. Both sides are equally screwed up. And there are so many people who are making a very good living on the war on drugs, be they liberal, conservative or neutral. And the criminals are the ones making the most money because of it.
        You might try to get your pea brain out of your particular political rut and look at the “Big Picture.”

        • NO_SIX November 1, 2013 at 9:11 am

          Many in the anti-drug side of the justice system also make a good living from the war on drugs

      • Most historians agree that American drug prohibition originated in 1875 when (the anti-Chinese) elected officials in San Francisco passed an ordinance outlawing public opium dens.

        Although a Democrat who later aligned with the Republican Party during the Civil War, San Francisco Mayor Andrew Jackson Bryant was nominated by and elected with the support of the Democratic Party in 1875. His predessor, George Hewston, was also allied with the Democratic Party, the People’s Party, and the Anti-Monopoly Party. There were three San Francisco mayors in 1875; the first one, James Otis, was a member of the Populist Party.

        Modern liberals still favor drug prohibition as a jobs program for government employees who populate the unions that provide organizational and financial backing to the U.S. Democratic Party.

        But cultural conservatives are also to blame for the continuation of the failed War on Drugs.

  • Gary October 31, 2013 at 11:04 am

    And to take it one step further; at what point are those who have done wrong and have paid the price be it jail, fines, restitution etc, at what point are they quote forgiven unquote and accepted back into society, allowed to get a job to support their family just as an example. I had a conversation with a man who needs a job but is having enormous difficulties obtaining one because he has a record. He told me he felt many employers were missing an opportunity. He knows he would work harder, be more determined and dedicated because of his record but no one will look past a 12 year old crime and give him a chance.

    • My Evil Twin October 31, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      Gary, it does put a person in a tough spot. I don’t know the answer to that. Of course the MOST OBVIOUS answer is to never screw up in the first place, so that you wind up in jail. But the fact is that human beings make mistakes. You’d have to find someone a whole lot smarter than I’ve ever claimed to be, to get an answer to your questions.

  • Roy J October 31, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    This is a good article, and I think Gary is also spot on to bring up the problems that every felonious person faces trying to make it with a record on the outside. I also like how Bryan points out the often private nature of mercy and the usually public nature of punishment. It made me immediately think of a contrast, the beginning of the Godfather where Bonasera begs the Don to ‘give him justice’! That seems to be the demand for a private justice as a result of a weakminded or bigoted public mercy. That having been said, I think that justice is really about justice; that it is neither vengeance nor mercy. Justice seems to be a return to a social equilibrium, either as defined by an existing legal system or a code of morals, through some means of expiation or punishment. It may also be an internal return to a spiritual equilibrium within a human being. Vengeance, generally speaking, is considered as operating outside the existing legal system or popular moral code, a personal vendetta. Mercy on the other hand, appears to be an explicitly Christian perfection of justice, but in a very specific sense. In so far as Jesus Christ is a perfect sacrifice and atones for all sins, His sacrifice satisfies the Divine Justice; and in so far as we do as is recommended in the Lord’s Prayer we are participate in His sacrife; that is, we may have Him for a Savior Whom we cannot hope to face as a Judge. And those activities which generally go under the title of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are how we get there, and you gave some truly excellent examples. Nice work.

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