The Strange Glory of Mercy
There was a story in the news this past week that you might easily have missed, if only because there are so many stories in the news these days that seem to occupy all of our attention all at once.
It concerned the story of a very troubled young man named Bart Whitaker in Texas. Mr. Whitaker was the eldest of two sons of a wealthy family in Texas, who seems to have had about the same kind of impatience for his inheritance that we know from the story of the Prodigal Son.
But he chose a very terrible way to accomplish this. In 2003, just before Mr. Whitaker’s twenty-third birthday, he hired two other men to attack his family as they all returned from a dinner celebrating his graduation from college. His mother, brother, and father were shot before the accomplices fled.
Mr. Whitaker escaped to Mexico, where two years later he was eventually found and arrested. He was brought back to Texas, where he was tried and convicted on two counts of premeditated murder and sentenced to death. His accomplices agreed to plea deals; even the man who actually did the shooting was sentenced only to life in prison.
He appealed his sentence on many grounds, but all of his appeals failed, and his death warrant was signed last November, fixing the date of his execution for this past Thursday.
Now, I said that he was convicted for two murders. That is because his father survived his injuries. Of course, the father had no idea in the initial stages of his recovery how his own son had been involved in the attack on his family. All he knew was that he had lost everything. As he recovered in the hospital, he demanded justice for the murders—not knowing that the person principally responsible for what had happened was his own son.
But when all was ended, when the accomplices were imprisoned and the boy was convicted and sentenced to death, that father had a change of heart.
The end of the story is that the father petitioned the parole board in Texas for clemency for his son. He asked that his life be spared, and he flatly contradicted a claim the prosecutors had made—that the mother and son who had died would want this man put to death. He had some unique authority to make that claim. After all, they were his wife and son.
The parole board listened to the appeal, and recommended to the governor of Texas that Bart Whitaker’s sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. And this past Thursday, half an hour before he was scheduled to die, Bart Whitaker was reprieved.
The prayer appointed for this day at the beginning of our worship, the collect of the day, has a strange little conundrum in it that you may have missed, because it goes by so quickly. This is what it said: “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy...”
Think about that hard for a moment. When do we ever regard mercy as glorious? What we think of as glorious is wealth, or fame, or power, or beauty. The Red Sox are glorious when they win the world series. Your child is glorious when she stars in the play, or when he excels in a competition.
But mercy? Mercy isn’t glorious. Mercy is...soft. Mercy is what you do when you can’t do anything else. Mercy is the way the weak rationalize their inability to respond.
There are two true things that are hard to reconcile sometimes. One is that our nation has its own very distinct and culturally shaped way of thinking about justice, especially criminal justice. We are the inheritors of a tradition called common law. We believe in individual freedom and individual responsibility. And we believe that justice can be found for every act of criminality by an equal and opposite act of punishment.
The other thing that is true is that as Christians we follow a gospel that has a lot to say about justice. We cannot pretend that there is some clear line separating the realm of Christian moral teaching from the real world in which we seek to live by the principles we preach. And when we talk about mercy, we are talking about the way Christians are supposed to navigate through the landscape of justice.
In the real world, at least in the real world of the time and place in which we live, our understanding of justice is deeply rooted in the idea of equity. We go to great lengths to calibrate with precision what level of punishment is appropriate for each infraction that other people commit. There are five hundred and ninety-eight pages in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual detailing with great precision the correct sentence not just for each crime, but for each conceivable aggravating or mitigating circumstance to each crime. We really believe that we can measure out justice with precision.
But as Christians, our understanding of justice is not meant to be rooted in equity. It is meant to be rooted in faith. It is meant to be rooted in a very different kind of belief: That God is just, that God is indeed the source of justice, and that whenever we presume to punish some other person we must remember that we will answer to God for the punishment we imposed just as surely as they will answer to God for the wrong they have done.
This tension between worldly justice and God’s justice is what stands at the center of the strange argument between Jesus and Peter. Peter is fully aware that the world’s idea of justice often gets it totally wrong. We get carried away by causes, and fads, and movements, and we end up rationalizing our ideas of justice by claiming that we are acting to protect someone, or to minimize harm.
Jesus is seen as a troublemaker. He has a bad reputation. The authorities of his day fail to understand who he is; they fail so badly that they perceive him, not as an answer, but as a threat. They believe absolutely that it is their duty to protect their people, their institutions, their ideas, from the disruption that Jesus represents. And in the end, they carry out that duty to spectacularly evil ends.
Peter is not wrong in thinking that the justice of this world can get it wrong. But his focus is in the wrong place, because he is not trusting in God’s justice. That’s what the argument is about. Jesus is no fool. He has a clear-eyed view of how events will unfold. He’s the one who is laying out very plainly just what he thinks will happen to him. He sees the brokenness of our justice system, he sees the misguidedness of our presumptions to calculate righteousness correctly.
But for him, that is not what matters. What matters is following God’s call. What matters is living out to the fullest a commitment to the ideas of reconciliation, and forgiveness, and the offer of love God makes to all people. What matters is living that out no matter what, and entrusting the consequences of it to God alone.
That’s what Saint Paul is pointing to when he writes this to the church in Rome about Abraham: “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
What Paul says of Abraham he could equally say of Jesus. Jesus has absolute faith that God will do what God has promised to do. And God has promised to bring justice, final and righteous justice, to bear; justice that will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Now, let’s just acknowledge a difficult truth. It is very, very hard for us to place our whole trust in the promise of God. We are not that patient, for one thing. We are not that willing to be forbearing. We don’t want to look like fools. And we care a lot about justice, about binding up the wounds of those who are mistreated or violated, about seeing to it that those who harm others are made to suffer themselves.
But we can get this so wrong. Our calculations so often become our substitute for the trust we should be putting in the source of all justice, and the source of all righteousness. And it is exactly when we substitute that for the faith we are supposed to have that we end up causing more destruction than building more wholeness, and doing more harm than good.
I suppose to many people, Kent Whitaker—that boy’s father—is a fool. At first he thought that last precious son he had left was a victim, in just the same way that he was. Then he had to grapple with the knowledge of all that his son had taken from him.
If he had he simply walked away and let our system of equity-based justice take that man to the death chamber, no one would have blamed him.
But he gave up something—he made a kind of Lenten sacrifice. He gave up searching for justice in the terms of equity and calculation. And he decided instead to be guided by a faith in a different possibility of justice.
So what he chose to do was merciful. What he chose to do reflects a profound faith that justice has its foundations somewhere other, somewhere deeper, than our ability to calculate.
What he chose to do was glorious.
It was the glory of mercy. It is a glory that can be easily missed, easily overlooked. But it is the only thing powerful enough to bend the arc of history toward true justice—that thing we believe to be God’s purpose. The question for us is whether or not we will be part of that purpose. Amen.