• August 14th, 2020

When mercy tempers justice, there is peace in our societies

At one point in our lives, we all experience trials and tribulations. These trials and tribulations might be because of our own shortcomings, some oversight on some legal technicalities, or simply trumped-up charges that will leave us at the mercy of justice. In some cases, sheer miscarriage of justice lends many people in trouble. Sometimes, it is an eye for an eye that has brought evils in many societies. There is no doubt that people make mistakes in their lives. It is how people react to these mistakes that begs the question of either being merciful or not.

On the question of mercy and justice, William Shakespeare, writing his play in Britain centuries ago, teaches us about the divine quality of mercy. In his play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, he shows us the essence of mercy – that when mercy tempers or softens justice, there is peace in society. It is unreasonable to always clamour for justice when fellow human beings are in danger. This is not to imply that wrongdoers must be left off the hook. In ‘The Merchant of Venice’, we are given a situation in which the law allows Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body for having defaulted in paying back the money he owes him (Shylock). Shylock is ready to cut the pound of flesh according to the signed bond. He chooses to cut the pound of flesh near Antonio’s heart. There is no doubt that if Shylock is allowed to carry out the act, the merchant would bleed to death. 

At this point in the play, the judge takes time to explain the divine quality of mercy to Shylock – that mercy comes from heaven as gentle rain and that it is blessed twice – blessing both the giver and the receiver. Mercy is more powerful than the powers of kings. It is greater than all the symbols of kings’ earthily power. Therefore, mercy seasons or tempers justice. In essence, “the quality of mercy is not strained”, reasons the judge. 

Besides all the teachings about the quality of mercy, Shylock says he craves the law and nothing else. His insistence on the law later lends him into trouble when he is told to cut exactly a pound of flesh and not to spill a drop of Antonio’s blood in the process because the bond does not provide for these (a legal technicality). 

The question of the essence of the divine quality of mercy produced a robust debate in my Master of English class this week. The underlying argument was that, as human beings, we need to show one another mercy, especially when people make genuine mistakes. In our interactions, we are prone to making mistakes – and if we do not show one another mercy, there would be a lot of acrimony and chaos in the world around us. Showing empathy and forgiving one another makes us the human beings that we are. Retaliation or tit-for-tat does not pay as it begets chaotic situations that may degenerate into people taking the law into their hands. There are many trouble spots in the world where communities are fighting each other and killing people at will. 

But does showing mercy mean we must forgive criminals who harass us every day? Showing mercy does not mean criminals must be let off the hook – the long arm of the law must catch them and deal with them accordingly. However, in the case of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, the general feeling was that Shylock is supposed to be merciful to Antonio, who has failed to pay back his money as planned. It was concluded that Shylock is driven by revenge since Antonio had spat on him and humiliated his Jewish nation in public. In this story, the lesson is that law or justice alone is not enough; it needs to be softened by mercy.
Whatever the situation is, our emotions must be governed by mercy or forgiveness. We must be motivated by the results of being merciful to our fellow human beings. Mercy brings joy and peace to our societies.

*Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Please send your comments to kjairos@gmail.com

Staff Reporter
2020-03-06 08:50:00 | 5 months ago

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