Wed | May 27, 2020

God, have mercy!

Published:Thursday | December 17, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry, Contributor
Martin Henry
Nuns of the Missionaries of Charity pray during a special Mass in Kolkata, India, last Friday. Pope Francis has signed off on the miracle needed to make Mother Teresa a saint, giving the tiny nun who cared for the poorest of the poor one of the Catholic Church’s highest honours just two decades after her death.

Gleaner Online columnist Michael Abrahams has quickly learned what will stir up mass public response and deliver a big bang for a little buck. And he's working the formula to the max. Religion is one of those things, especially broadsides against the cherished beliefs of the majority.

Michael has been quite busy provoking God and Christians, quite unnecessarily it appears, and reaping big returns of controversy for his efforts.

Two heavyweight Christian apologists, Ian Boyne, who hints rather loudly at being the country's leading philosopher, and the Rev Dr Clinton Chisholm have added their voices to the outpourings against Michael labelling God unmerciful - Boyne: 'Is God really merciful?'; Chisholm, 'Michael, be fair to God'. Both on September 13 in The Sunday Gleaner.

I do not intend to attempt to replicate their efforts. But now that the dust has settled somewhat on Abrahams' September 7 column, 'The God of the Bible is not merciful', I would like to, far more quietly, add a few comments of my own about "the quality of mercy". Not so much to fix Abrahams, enfant terrible, as to add to a larger public discussion with broad implications for human conduct, especially with respect to law.

Mercy, properly understood, is inextricably twinned to justice and rooted in law. As the legal advocate Portia is made to tell Shylock the grasping merchant in Shakespeare's 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 blessed:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,

But mercy is above this sceptred sway.

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.

It is an attribute to God himself.

And earthly power doth then show likest God's

When mercy seasons justice.

Justice requires giving people what they deserve (in law); no more and no less. Mercy can only occur in the sphere of justice, but transcends justice, by giving people a benefit they do not deserve and cannot therefore demand. Jamaicans can legitimately protest and bawl out, "We want justice!" They cannot legitimately demand mercy - even with medical doctor Abrahams as advocate.


absence of God

When it comes to God and mercy, there are not that many brilliant options for Dr Abrahams and the rest of us to pick from. There are three possibilities:

One possibility is that there is no God, and a discussion of mercy is, therefore, pointless. More substantial atheists than those proclaiming loudly locally know that in the absence of God as legal and moral centre of the cosmos, there is no reference point for human justice, or mercy. The survival of the fittest must rationally preclude mercy, which is nothing but a handicap to the efficient working of the law of survival. Mercy is not a virtue, but a vice, a liability. Although the notion of virtue and vice makes no sense outside of a moral order. The strong rule by virtue of their strength and can impose their will upon the weaker.

Another possibility is that God exists but is impotent, not all-powerful, and so cannot execute justice and therefore is really incapable of rendering mercy on a universal scale.

The third prospect is that God is omnipotent, all-powerful; and, therefore, must be merciful. His enemies live!

So Exodus chapter 34 announces: "... The LORD passed before him [Moses] and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation." It is the last bit that riles up Dr Abrahams!

Mercy can only be offered by the stronger; a gift, not a due. The strong choosing to forgo avenging himself against his enemies and those who have trespassed against him. The just judge not giving the guilty their just deserts in punishment, but instead reprieve. But there is a time when justice must be exacted! Particularly when mercy is consistently spurned.

The whole of Western jurisprudence is drifting away from the notion of 'harsh' punishment as just deserts for great wickedness. Punishment is seen as medical cure for a disease that happens to happen to unfortunate people, rather than as delivering just deserts for breach of law. Medic Abrahams has been infected. And God is left in a very challenged position! I prescribe for Michael, C.S. Lewis' celebrated critique exposing the large and looming dangers of 'The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment' as cure for disease, a theory by which Abrahams is seeking to judge God.

The weak and the unable not acting are not 'merciful', they are simply impotent and incapable.


greatest evils

Mercy presumes guilt and the justness of punishment which is then foregone. Outside of law and justice, mercy does not make any sense as a concept. Mercy cannot be demanded, it can only be pleaded for in hopeful expectation.

False mercy can be, and has been, one of the greatest evils in the world. One of the aims of mercy, certainly in its biblical variety, is to lead the beneficiary to repentance, a turning away from the condition which made the execution of justice necessary in the first place but cancelled by the offer of mercy. When mercy becomes an entitlement and itself is trespassed against with impunity, lawlessness is unleashed upon the world. And we just need to look around.

One of the most powerful arguments against the existence of God is that the atheist lives after blasphemy. During the atheistic French Revolution, a priest who had converted from Catholicism to atheism threw down this public challenge: "God, if you exist, avenge your injured name. I bid you defiance! You remain silent. You dare not launch Your thunders. Who, after this, will believe in Your existence?" That challenge has been made many times since in various ways.

But this is also one of the most powerful arguments in favour of a merciful God who is omnipotent. His enemies live! And believers all will have to make their choice.

Humans, fundamentally, are the enemies of the God of the Bible. Sin is rebellion and its just consequence is death, that is, separation from life. The extending of divine grace and mercy to enemies is the central theme of the Bible, with the incredible Christmas story at the centre of the centre. The just Judge does not simply waive penalty, He pays it Himself.

As that great champion of the story, the Apostle Paul puts it (Romans 5, mix of translations): "Therefore, since we have been made right in God's sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us ... . When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners ... ."

This is a much better story than Michael Abrahams' diatribe against God, a God of stern justice and tender mercies, as the complete Bible portrays Him.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and