Mercy and Justice are not polar opposites

A few weeks ago, I was attending my new ward and the bishop got up to speak. He was talking about the power of the atonement and, honestly, there are so many ways to understand the atonement I don’t really mind if people disagree with me regarding how it works. But he said something that I’ve heard a lot, that is a natural extension of the way that we talk about the atonement, but that I think completely misses the point. He said, at one point, that the essence of the gospel and the atonement was the reconciliation of justice and mercy (which I agree with), which is hard to understand because they are polar opposites. It’s the last part that I think needs reconsideration.

The traditional “Judeo/Christian” notion of justice stretches back to Moses (and Hammurabi before him (start with law 196)). The notion of a fair, proportionate, and equitable reaction to some injustice, so that community (or divine) notions of right and wrong can be satisfied, is, in its literal sense, referred to as lex talionis (feel free to correct, o legal scholars). An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is the archetype of this sort of justice. It is fair, reasonable, and completely barbaric. When people or societies attempt to adopt this sort of justice today, they are rightly criticized and occasionally even face consequences.

For one thing, it starts to get tricky once you move beyond clearly delineated body parts. The prohibition on murder, for example, states that if you kill someone you will be killed. But, for example, Moses and Hammurabi (keep going after 196) didn’t see people as equally valuable. So if you killed someone’s slave, the proscribed punishment isn’t death. It is to pay the slave’s owner some amount, dependent on the value of the slave. And if, say, someone stole something from you, you aren’t automatically allowed to take one of their things. Restitution in this case is restoration (they have to give you back what is yours), but that doesn’t feel punish-y enough to some people. So other punishments, disproportionate punishments (start with law 7), are doled out even in Moses’s law.

So Moses’s law, the example of basic fairness in justice, isn’t actually all that fair or just. The other thing is that, of course, mercy isn’t like justice. Opposites have to have something in common to be opposites. This is why the opposite of woman is man, not lunchboxes. Justice describes a system that, if nothing else, supersedes individual power. That all people are treated equally by the law is a necessity in any just system. Mercy, on the other hand, is entirely about how a person uses their personal power and privilege. The concerns of justice dwell on a higher plane than mercy. In other words, both a merciful and an unmerciful act can be considered just or unjust, depending on the system of justice being applied. The one doesn’t really inherently affect the other.

Mercy is now and has ever been a matter of privilege. Whether that privilege comes to you by birthright, election, accident, or design, in order to be merciful, you have to have power over someone else. I cannot extend mercy to a criminal if I am not involved in their trial in any way or even if I am a bystander watching in the courtroom. Only the judge and jury are given that privilege. I can’t unground some other person’s child. If I have no power over the person, however well-intentioned, I cannot extend them mercy. And mercy is not an inherent good nor is its lack inherently bad. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be upset when judges give community service to young rapists with bright futures.

Now we come to the crux of it. Years ago, I used to believe that mercy is inherently unjust because it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to punish one person, even Christ, for the sins committed by some other person. People understand this (it is why, however wrong-headed I think they are, people are anti-abortion). But here is the thing: Justice is not and never has been some abstract, objective “eye for eye” system for the resolution of conflict. People have always been involved and have always corrupted it in ways both obvious and invisible. Mercy can combat that corruption, of course, but there are many other ways (legislation, reform, revolution, and so forth) to accomplish similar systemic changes. And all of these means to change systems are not and cannot be the systems themselves. Therefore, they are not the system’s opposites.

So what does that mean for us? It means that the best and most just systems imaginable, including God’s, have mercy built in because mercy is a necessary aspect of any just system. There are always mitigating circumstances, unintended consequences, simple accidents, and extreme circumstances that demand applications of the law that can contradict typical legal structure. Does this mean that we throw our legal system? Heaven forbid! But it might mean that we focus less on punishing delinquents because we should be able to admit that we don’t always do a good job of distinguishing them from the downtrodden. God’s grace, as it were, falls on both the sinner and the saint.


  1. The abortion aside is both gratuitous and confusing. What does punishment have to do with abortion?

  2. lastlemming says:

    Eternal justice consists of making victims whole. Period. In a fallen world, we cannot do that, so we substitute punishments, pretend that justice has been done, and conclude that mercy must be justice’s opposite. Work through the implications of Packer’s “Mediator” parable, only instead of equating the moneylender with God the Father (Packer implies as much, but never explicitly makes the connection), think of the moneylender as the victim, however unsympathetic. In the end, the moneylender is made whole by the mediator, satisfying justice, and the borrower is shown mercy in that he is kept out of debtor’s prison. In that light, justice and mercy are not only not opposites, there is no tension between them at all. Of course, as Packer would hasten to point out, it all falls apart without a mediator who has the capacity to make victims whole.

  3. It is my understanding that pro-life folk see the mother as punishing the child (by killing it) for a mistake she made. Is this not so?

  4. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I like this way of thinking better than trying to juxtapose justice and mercy as opposites. Justice is often, well, unjust. Justice is really an arbitrary enforcement of social conceptions of what is proportionate. There is not an inherent logic to laws that means they are universally applicable across circumstances and contexts. Justice is flawed. God knows this. Mercy exists as a correction to the flaws of justice.

    And, not to drag this further into the abortion realm (and feel free to delete this last part if it distracts from discussion), but forcing a women to carry a child to term as punishment for having sex is not inherently just. That’s quite disproportionate to the “sin”. Those who drive drunk and kill others are, typically, sentenced to something much less. The difference between those two acts are adjudicated socially and contextually. Mercy can be applied, in both cases. And, personally, I’m inclined to be MUCH more harsh on the drunk driver.

  5. Jeremy S says:

    Maybe describing them as polar opposites is technically inaccurate, but they sure seem to be quite oppositional in nature when we are talking about cosmic justice and divine mercy. These different forces or systems pull in opposite directions when it comes to deciding the fate of agents who were ordained to act for themselves. Justice, being the unyielding force that creates order and predictability, is indispensable for the establishment of order; thus, placing us all in a very precarious position as we inevitably violate immutable laws that carry punitive consequences with very long sentences.

    Enter God’s mercy which acts as a counterforce to mitigate the effects of justice, even to the extent that it overpowers it (its stronger – Alma 34:15). To understand what overpowering means in this context, I think we must refer to the revelation in D&C 121 that describes the true nature of power. I don’t think this contest resulted in mercy compelling or forcing justice to accept God’s plan for our salvation, but rather persuaded justice to relent as a consequence of its being awed by witnessing the most profound manifestation of love ever seen – the atonement of Jesus Christ. I believe it was through this ineffable demonstration of the power of godliness that caused justice to fall in love with mercy.

  6. I wonder if it would help if we got back to treating them as two parts of a trio – Justice, Mercy, and Faith (Matt. 23:23) The more I think about it, the more it does seem to me to be a missing part; how sometimes neither justice nor mercy is possible but faith can remain.

    The recent national article (and wtf post, ty) about the Church “abuse hotline” comes to mind. Justice should be sought (strenuously) but cannot completely recompense (but will surely help). Mercy may fill in some places, but as you said, it doesn’t apply when there is no power. What’s left is Faith, what seems to be the hardest to keep when Justice and Mercy don’t seem to be near enough.

  7. Thanks, Jeremy S, for making a pretty clear statement of what many Latter-day Saints believe about the nature of justice and mercy. Now let’s talk about why it’s mistaken.

    There is a tradition in LDS teaching that treats justice and mercy as independent cosmic forces, things like gravity, that operate in their own sphere and impose their own requirements on us. The scriptures do not teach us this. We read it into the scriptures. When we believe this, we construct needless barriers that separate us from each other and from God.

    In fact, justice and mercy are things that people do. They are ways of thinking about our relationships to each other. Justice and mercy are not independent of us. They are a result of our being with each other and our being with God.

    The Book of Mormon sometimes talks about justice and mercy as if they are people. This is to help us understand the personal, human foundation of these concepts. Jeremy S writes, “Mercy persuaded justice to relent as a consequence of its being awed by witnessing the most profound manifestation of love ever seen.” Cosmic forces do not persuade, relent, experience awe, or witness. These are things that people do. It’s our mistake when we read scriptural passages to mean that justice and mercy are like gravitational law. When we do this, we’re wresting the scriptures—taking a lesson about human realities and turning it into something inhuman.

  8. Why are they mutually exclusive? I agree that reality, “seeing things as they really are…”, is to see things relationally. I don’t believe we fulfill the true measure of our creation without being in right relationship with all things and that God is God because he is. “… God would cease to be God” if he violated that true relationship. So what dictates true relationship? I believe it is defined by immutable laws that we fail so miserably at so God mercifully intervenes. How would you explain Amulek’s description of the plan of salvation as brought to pass by mercy overpowering justice?

  9. Amulek is describing the experience of giving and receiving forgiveness. When we forgive, it always feels like we are allowing mercy to overpower justice.

  10. Jeremy S says:

    That’s a very narrow reading of that scripture. He is clearly teaching about the great plan of redemption and how it makes repentance and forgiveness possible.

  11. The plan of redemption is great because it shows us how to be with God, one act of love at a time. There’s nothing greater than that. The plan has nothing to do with a big mechanism made of cosmic forces called mercy, justice, repentance and forgiveness. It’s not a mechanism at all.

    If you assume that scripture is talking about cosmic forces, there’s no argument I can make to dissuade you. All I can do is tell you that it’s not necessary to read the scriptures with that assumption and that it adds nothing good.

  12. Jeremy S says:

    There has to be some overriding context upon which things that act for themselves and things that are acted upon exists relationally. Meaning, we all agree on the terms and that agreement embodies the law of justice. I describe it as cosmic because it’s all encompassing and ubiquitous and it is the collective reverence for it that gives it force.

  13. Mark Grammer says:

    Here’s Elder Packer disagreeing with you. He says mercy and justice are two ends of the same stick (as he tries to wish away the sexual indiscretions of the Bishop who helped found the church’s abuse hotline)

%d bloggers like this: