Friday, February 20, 2015

Can one be just and merciful?

Some say that to go easy on someone convicted of a crime cannot be fair, cannot be just. They say Justice and Mercy contradict each other.
Not Bryan Stevenson. Not Shakespeare.
Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption presents his plea.  It’s title is yet another one of those books summed up with two-words that seem bit of a mental tease.  Prior to finishing it, I read David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks and wondered how do we measure the time of  bones? That prompted me to think back to that other Mitchell book, Cloud Atlas – when I asked how we map the shape-shifitng of clouds?
        Thinking about “just mercy” is a little like that. Shakespeare’s Portia explained it for me so eloquently so long ago in The Merchant of Venice when she said:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

     Just mercy isn't easy. It must be noted that  Portia, like Robinson in his book, pleads for mitigation, for justice seasoned with mercy, but unlike Robinson is blind to mercy in her cruel application of justice in the play's problematic ending. Her eloquence later seems just the product of a slick tongue.  A judge herself, Portia herself likely needs some mercy from readers who read or see the play and find her lacking.

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