Single Words Part Five: Mercy

A Note From The Administrators: This is the fifth installment of a six-part series in which each administrator will discuss one of the six words found in the Winston Churchill quote below.  Follow the links to read parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. Enjoy.

All great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.

-Winston Churchill-

As I reflect on Churchill’s quote, above, I can’t help but think that “mercy” looks at least a little out of place from my Bible-belt American perspective. Take a look at that list again. All great things are simple and many can be expressed in a single word. Freedom. Justice. Honor. Duty. Mercy. Hope. Most of these ideals are impressed upon children (at least here in America) from an early age, no matter the religious upbringing. After all, we live in the “Land of the Free.” Our war on “terror” was (is?) called Operation Enduring Freedom. We have a Department of Justice to enforce the law and fairness among the common people. The highest military decoration that one can receive in the U.S. is the Medal of “Honor.” Which you receive when you perform feats beyond the call of “duty.” And we continually, maybe even audaciously, hope for a better tomorrow. All of these concepts seem to have been engrained in us since we were kids. Freedom. Justice. Honor. Duty. Hope.


I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid we would act out epic battles, declaring “Take no prisoners!” At an early age . . . maybe too early . . . Mortal Kombat reinforced this same sentiment when it told me to “finish him.” Fatality . . . take no prisoners. On the basketball court we say no blood, no foul. Man up.  On a more serious note, how many people have ever told you not to give money to a guy on the street. You know, he’ll probably just buy beer, and after all, why doesn’t he just get a job. That I can think of, the thing that might have come closest to teaching me an ideal of mercy as a young kid was a rule in baseball that called the game after only five innings if one team was winning by ten runs or more. But it’s not like we called that a “mercy” rule. It’s not like we said, you’ve endured enough punishment for today, out of respect for you let’s pack it up. No, we called it the “slaughter” rule. As in, seriously, we’re beating you so badly we don’t even need to play two more innings, we’re going home.

Why is this? Why is it that we can hold so many ideals in such high esteem, yet mercy isn’t one of them? Could it simply be that we see mercy as a form of weakness? To quote Karate Kid (yeah, I’ll go there): “We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak. Here, in the streets, in competition: A man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy.” Finish him. Take no prisoners. Even Churchill, who champions mercy above, seems to think this way to an extent. He’s quoted elsewhere as saying, “We shall show mercy, but we shall not ask for it.” Of course mercy is something to practice. It is one of life’s great virtues, among freedom, justice, honor, duty, and hope. But don’t think for a second I’ll ask for it myself!

Or is it something deeper? More complex? More serious? Is it that we see mercy as the antithesis to justice? That the two are mutually exclusive, or that we pursue one at the expense of the other? Agatha Christie, for example, once noted, “Too much mercy . . . often resulted in further crimes which were fatal to innocent victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.”

To the first point. If mercy is avoided because it’s seen as a form of weakness, let me say this: we are a weak people. As much as we’d like to think we have things under control—our job, our family, our life, our world, hell, our schedule even—the fact of the matter is we live in a world that is broken, a world in which evil exists, a world full of hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis and famine and heartache and inequalities and homelessness and war and perils of every kind. And this brokenness affects us all. Every single one of us. We live in a world in need of repair, and I would argue that showing mercy without limit could go a long way in bringing the healing so many people—including you and including me—so desperately need.

Now to the second point, that wants to subordinate mercy to justice. Please don’t get me wrong here. I am in no way saying that justice should not be pursued, or even put first. As I have just stated, I am absolutely aware of evils that take place in the world, and I understand that these evils beg for justice. In fact, reading just the first couple paragraphs of Curtis’ post on Justice a few weeks ago should arouse a battle cry for justice in your heart. I just wonder how we got to the point that we see justice and mercy as two mutually exclusive pursuits, as if mercy is nothing other than letting someone off the hook. Let’s get one thing straight: mercy is much more than pardoning a wrong. It is much more than looking the other way, or ignoring injustice, or turning the other cheek, or refusing to behead Tigris even though the crowd desires it and Commodus clearly(?) permits it. Mercy is compassion in action. It’s being moved when confronted by need; when your heart breaks for those around you to the point that you reach out and show love to the needy and the downtrodden. Mercy is active. It’s an incentive to service . . . to servanthood. It’s pulling up next to a guy on the street corner begging for change and—instead of dismissing your fellow man as lazy, or inconvenient, or an eye-sore, or someone who needs to just pick himself up by his bootstraps and get a job like the rest of us, or just plain awkward—it’s pulling up next to that guy and seeing him as a fellow man. Your fellow man. Your fellow man in need. It’s ignoring the potentially awkward nature of the encounter or the thoughts of your money going to buy vodka that might plague you and answering the echo of a voice telling you to stop and help a friend in need.

That is mercy. It’s actionable. It’s active. And you might read this and say, “Yeah, and if that’s mercy than that’s why it isn’t idealized like the rest of Churchill’s list.” But I firmly believe, in a world as broken as ours, filled with people as weak as ourselves, a little bit of mercy can make a world of difference. I firmly believe a hand extended to the aid of our fellow man in a time of need can, and will, bring a bit of repair to a world in need of healing.

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Categories: A First Faint Gleam

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  1. Single Words Part Six: Hope | thethingaboutflying - June 6, 2012

    […] words found in the Winston Churchill quote below.  Follow the links to read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Enjoy. All great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, […]

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