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.
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.
- Into the Light Concert moves a packed house with forgiveness; STGnews Photo Gallery
- On the EDge: Pope Francis: ‘Who am I to judge?’
- ON Kilter: Mormon mavericks: Juanita Brooks, filmmakers kickstarting her story
- The Narrows: A church and the pastor who hadn’t planned on starting one
- Perspectives: An older man with a faded tattoo
Now available from STGnews.com
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.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.