Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
There is no single response more confounding to the rational mind as this way of life Jesus describes in the fifth beattitude. There is also nothing quite so refreshing as the action of mercy. It comes as no surprise then, that mercy is so rarely experienced.
In recent weeks, two major news stories have captivated my attention. The first is the tragedy and ensuing chaos in Ferguson. The second is the forced resignation of Mark Driscoll. Both are jarring instances. Both are mere culminations resulting from years of built-up bitterness, resentment, and fear.
The situation in Ferguson is bathed in fear. Isn’t it fear, after all, that prevented “white America” from naming our collective guilt for the past century and a half? Isn’t it fear that caused the mismanaged communication from the police department, causing everybody to smell something afoul from the very beginning? And isn’t it fear that causes rioting to erupt from the midst of protests? And isn’t it fear that caused the police to don riot gear against the angry mobs?
The culture of fear at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, a church founded by Pastor Mark Driscoll, has also come into light over the past several weeks. From ousted leaders to consolidation of power to silencing dissenting voices to verbal (and one might add spiritual) abuse, the antics of Driscoll are also soaked in fear. So many people have been scarred by the defensive nature of his ministry that the bitterness and resentment built up over the years has now resulted in a vitriolic response, with hoards of Christians rejoicing at his downfall.
In both of these instances, the cry for justice has been heard. In both instances, there may justifiably be good reason to cry out for righteousness to win the day, as we pointed out in our reflection on the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. It is good to desire justice. It is human, in the very best sense, to long for the right thing to result, even in unjust circumstances. It is good to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
But the reality of hungering and thirsting for righteousness is that we will wait–in many cases–beyond the span of our natural lifetimes for the long arc of justice to land in the right place. And here Jesus is being practical with his people. He follows up a blessing for those who will long for justice with a promise for those who will live lives marked by mercy in the meantime.
Mercy does not mean glossing over injustice. It means having compassion in the face of injustice. That is a complete shift. This is what makes Jesus capable of saying on the cross, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Do you really think he thought the crowd was completely unaware at the evil they were perpetrating? Or do you think that Jesus, in spite of enduring the greatest of all injustices, looks on the fearful crowd with compassion?
Back when Jesus spoke these words, there was a group of serious minded thinkers known as the “Stoics.” Today, we might just call these people the “Media.” These were people who claimed to be impassive, neutral, and objective thinkers. They were solid observers of the human psyche. And they turned their noses up at the very mention of mercy. They thought it was a “sickness of the soul.” They thought that the emotions and actions associated with compassion in the face of injustice as “unworthy of a sage.” Today the Stoics are alive and well.
The Stoic will argue that mercy is cheap. They will argue that nobody should rest until justice is fully carried out on all accounts. The modern Stoic will not stop short of blood being spilt for blood. An eye for an eye, the Stoic demands. The Stoic (modern and ancient) is driven by fear. (S)he is terrified that mercy will get in the way of justice. The Stoic’s reasons to be afraid multiply faster than the charges they bring against the current target of their anxiety.
But the blessed of the beattitudes lives a life breathing the fresh air of mercy. The blessed know that God is as great as he is good. The blessed work for justice, knowing that the end is settled. The blessed understand, in the words of Bono, that “the battle’s just begun to claim the victory Jesus won.” And the blessed can play freely in the world, knowing that they were in the same crowd of people that Jesus prayed for so long ago.
Today, the invitation is to breathe in the fresh air of undeserved compassion.