The Path To Justice Is Through Mercy

“All transformation begins with self-transformation; all self-transformation begins with self-witnessing.”


A clergyman was walking down the street and saw a parishioner wave as he rushed by. “Where are you going in such a hurry?” asked the man of the cloth.

“Excuse me Reverend,” said the fellow, “but I’ve got a goal in life, things I’m trying to achieve.”

“I’m sure,” said the minister, “but have you ever thought that if you slowed down a little maybe the life you are looking for would catch you?”

Sometimes we unknowingly walk away from what we’ve been given by rushing to what we want.

Zeno of Elea lived in the fifth century B.C. and constructed a number of paradoxes to dispute whether movement is possible. The best known of these describes a race between Achilles and a tortoise. The question is posed thus: If Achilles runs 10 times faster than the tortoise, but the tortoise is given a head start of 10 units, will Achilles ever pass the tortoise? Zeno said no. Each time Achilles reaches the place where the tortoise was, the tortoise has advanced a tenth of the distance Achilles has just run. Hence, by this reasoning, the tortoise’s lead will diminish and diminish, but he will always be ahead. And Achilles will get close but no cigar.

Mentioning this paradox to a professor friend, he replied. “Well, I’m a mechanical engineer by training. And when I was in school we used to tell the same story. But instead of it being Achilles and a tortoise, we posed it as a man in the pursuit of a beautiful woman. And though to a mathematician the tortoise will always be one step ahead, to an engineer the man will eventually get close enough to the woman for all practical purposes!”

And of us who are running from love or to love, will find that love is running us. And most of us have a little of the greyhound in us. Most of us are chasing something. Some of us are chasing power, money, sex, or the coattails of someone who appears to have more. Some of us are chasing honesty and lie about how close we are.

Over the years, my mind has been chasing the illusive issue of “caring.” A few years ago I was in Washington D.C. to give a speech on “Creating a Caring Society,” at the Library of Congress. I was humbled by the invitation and at the same time reminded of the late Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir’s, remark: “Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great!”

Greatness is not always in what we reach but what we reach for. In the Bible it is written: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” And it seems to be that it is the pursuit of justice that is noble.

“Pursue justice but love mercy,” says scripture. And it seems to me that the path to justice is always through mercy.

It is the simple act of reaching out to others that is its own caring. Justice and caring are goals we are no less for not reaching but much less for not chasing.

The word for charity in Hebrew has its root in the word “justice.” Simply put, a society that is not charitable is not just.

The word for charity in Christianity has its roots in the Latin word for “love.” A society that is not charitable is not loving.

But the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference. To be indifferent to the fate of others is to live outside the passions of love and hate. A society that is indifferent to others is uncaring. A society that is indifferent is, by definition, neither passionate nor compassionate.

The root of the word “compassion” is from the Latin cum meaning “with” and “passion.” Compassion is passionate caring.

As societies, rather than personalize our disregard we often institutionalize our indifference. By socially institutionalizingindifference we use society to relieve individual responsibility for caring.

We may wonder if we have resources, feelings or fiscal, to do the right thing, but by staying out of things we are certainly subsidizing the status quo. And the status quo is not static. And in many areas of society where the status quo runs rampant it is time to say, whoa! Caring is more than not caring to change because we’ve got our head down in the trough and the eating is good.

“History never repeats itself,” said Voltaire, “man always does.” Certainly one of the ways that “man” repeats himself and history records it is in a rush to judgment. Brain physiology makes us feel uncomfortable is we don’t know what goes where. The actual physical makeup of our brain demands that we sort what we know. Even if it’s only what we sort of know.

In our rush to judgment, like in any other rush, we overlook much. What we certainly often overlook is that God’s great gift to us is not that we will be judged but that we will be shown mercy. Mercy, not judgment, is the Judeo-Christian mark on civilization.

All of us have moments when in the pursuit of more we conduct ourselves as less. All of us have sinned if only by our own convenient definition of sin. We can all see these things in ourselves because we all live in glass houses. And that means that we are all fragile. And any of us can be broken. And some of us already spend our days trying to put together the pieces.

Penance in Judaism begins with turning and looking at one’s self. The very term in Hebrew for penance actually means “turning.” Winter has turned to Spring. Like the seasons, we too need to take the time to turn. For some of us it’s about time. For some of us the need to turn and take a look at how we are conducting ourselves is something we need to do time and time again. All transformation begins with self-transformation; all self-transformation begins with self-witnessing.

Religiously, when we’re doing penance we’re pulling back the covers and saying, “Hey God, here I am. What do you think?”

And then we wait. And we wait. We wait for judgment. We pray for mercy.

When we pray, we often ask for strength and insight. We seldom pray to be more loving. We forget that who we are praying to is a loving God.

Told to emulate the qualities of God, we are usually hoping to be stronger or smarter. We seldom seek to be as merciful as God.

Scripture reminds us to seek justice but love mercy. But mercy me, being merciful raises some tough questions. Hard core hang- ‘em-and-let-’em-dangle-in-the-wind hard-liners like to ask people who claim to be pacifists: “Yeah, well what would you do if a guy broke into your house and was threatening to kill your family?” The wonderful world of “what if” reminds me of that old Yiddish witticism: “If my grandfather had breasts, he’d be my

I think it was the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter who said: “The right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.” Certainly there should be real time for real crime, but there is a world of difference between people who actually hurt us and those who hurt our feelings. We all tend to see red when our feelings feel black and blue, and bruised feelings often fuel a rush to judgment. Too many of us have judgment for all and mercy for none.

All of us have feelings. Some of us forget to feel for others. Mercy is a map. It allows us to find our way through a world of hurt just as judgment is a pit that we fall into as often as we complain that others let us down.

When we ask a woman to marry us, we often give her a diamond ring. It’s worth remembering that even the most beautiful diamonds have flaws. The Talmud says, “Great men, great flaws.” A willingness to love his flaws or hers is what makes for a great relationship. Every diamond begins as a lump of coal put under a lot of pressure for a long time. Any of us who don’t feel so special, and feel like we’ve been under pressure for a long time, might be a diamond in the works – particularly if we’re willing to work on our flaws.

Years ago I spent the better part of an afternoon slowly circling the statue of Moses the Lawgiver sculpted by Michelangelo. It is a huge work and staring up at the image I was struck to see that one eye was open and one eye was shut. Justice may be blind, but in life it’s always a good idea to keep at least one eye open. And one eye shut. There is much to look at in life and sometimes much to be gained from looking the other way.

We all hope that mercy is the view from heaven. Heaven help us if we don’t return the look.

Noah benShea Copyright 2009—All Rights Reserved