Sunday, November 30, 2014


Sunday Reflection: Talking about mercy

I've been thinking a lot lately about mercy in the law.  I wrote a piece about clemency for the Washington Post with Rachel Barkow which ran on Friday, and this Wednesday I'm speaking about it at Yale Law. 

Sometimes when I talk about clemency, I describe it as a vehicle for mercy.  Not everyone agrees with that, but I have good sources: for example, that's what Alexander Hamilton called it in Federalist 74.

Clemency isn't often about innocence-- it is almost always about shortening sentences or pardoning convictions for people who are guilty and legally sentenced.  As a Christian, I'm comfortable with that.  It is a faith for the guilty who are given grace, after all.  It tugs against our sense of fairness, though, which tells us that people who do the same thing should serve the same sentence.

One advantage I have in thinking about it this way is that through the work of my students, I actually get to know some of the people who are seeking clemency.  I get to know their history, their family and their hopes, as well as everything they have done to the detriment of society.  The experience has changed me, too.  I am slower to judge, and more mindful of the breadth of a life.  Much more than before, I am aware of the ability people have to change.

In all, it has made me a better person. I worked in a machine of justice, and it made me a worse person in some ways.  Now, working in a system of mercy, I think it makes me better.

Well said: in this post, and in the article.
I agree. But I think that we've erred by separating justice from mercy.

True justice doesn't stop with the verdict. It continues through the sentencing to determine what would be the best outcome for the individual -- which is almost always the best outcome for society.

And as penance continues, true justice continually monitors and re-evaluates as circumstances change and the penant shows himself ready to progress, or in need of a new approach.

Where is vengeance in this? Where it is in the New Testament. It belongs to God, not men. Only love belongs to both God and men.
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