On Mercy & Charity

From way back in November of 2012:

This month, our focus virtue has been charity. An important precondition of charity is mercy.

Nowadays, in our do-whatever-you-please postmodern world, it seems as if many people have done mercy’s reputation some damage. Too often, mercy is mistaken for either weakness or for letting those who do wrong get away unpunished. Neither of these views is accurate. Mercy is not weakness or coddling, but instead it is the use of strength rightly ordered toward the genuine good of another.

Ancient Christian tradition speaks about works of mercy, dividing these into two categories, the corporal and the spiritual. Among the former are acts such as feeding the hungry; the latter includes my vocation, instructing the ignorant. Notice the first, feeding the hungry, is a common goal of charitable organizations today. Television commercials display wide-eyed, impoverished children while the voice-over asks us for a few dollars a day. We are assured that our charitable contributions will be used to help those children be fed, clothed, housed, et cetera. The organization intends to provoke mercy which in turn compels me to give my money to the cause.

My ability to give that money, to communicate what I’ve learned to others, or to mow a lawn for someone not fit enough to do it himself are all forms of strength. Money, knowledge, and physical health can be powerful, and all three can be used for selfish ends. I could tell my daughter Adrienne that we don’t have the money for violin lessons, and then spend that money on things I want. I can use my knowledge to manipulate others, and once upon a time I was strong enough and fast enough to use my body to intimidate, steal, or harm. Any of these activities would be a use of a strength, but in a disordered manner.

To avoid these and other abuses of my various strengths, I must ensure that my actions are rightly ordered. Mercy assists me in doing this. I recognize the weaknesses of others, such as Adrienne’s lack of an income, and I apply my strength to give the other person what they truly need. Much of the time, this means I do things that are beneficial to the other, such as paying for those violin lessons. Other times, however, mercy demands that I act in ways that may appear punitive. A student who refuses to complete his lessons rejects both my mercy and his own genuine good. If I am to be a responsible teacher, mercy and charity both demand that I devise ways to encourage the student to embrace what is truly in his best interest. Those ways may involve the temporary removal of some privilege, such as recess time, or enlisting the assistance of parental pressure. The student may not perceive these sorts of actions as merciful and charitable, but a failure of perception does not alter reality.

Merciful action is often difficult. It requires time, effort, and self-control to surrender the advantages of my strengths in order to meet the needs of others. The opposites of mercy, cruelty and neglect, do not make these sorts of demands. They are instead the easy way out, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why the world is the way it is.

At the same time, reflection on the nature of mercy and the resulting demands of charity that flow from mercy point the way to a better world. Not that any amount of mercy or charity on my part will make the world perfect or make life fair. As I’ve told my students more than once, life isn’t fair, and it’s never going to be fair, but that’s no excuse for us to not do what we can.

As Calvin Coolidge observed, “We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once.”

June 2nd, 2017  in RPG No Comments »

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