Back to Forum

The Jubilee of Mercy – Social ethical reflections

Marianne Heimbach-Steins, University of Muenster/Germany

Theological reflection on mercy is multidimensional. It refers primarily to an attribute of God or rather to a major dimension of the way God interacts with creation and namely with the humans in their postlapsarian condition. But it also refers to a dimension of human practice itself, mostly in terms of virtue-ethics. Divine mercy and human mercy are, following the biblical witness, interrelated: The experience of God’s mercy functions as an imperative to the faithful to exercise mercy in human interrelations as well (cf. Lk 6,36; Lk 10, 36-37). From a social ethical perspective it seems necessary to go beyond the level of virtue ethics in order to clarify what “social ethics of mercy” can actually mean. This means to concentrate on the ethical dimension of mercy in its relation to justice.

In my experience reflection on mercy played an important role during the last months. I discussed it with students as well as with pastoral workers in ethics courses. And I had the opportunity to reflect on it with Christian and Muslim theologians from different countries during an international conference “RAHMA. MUSLIM AND CHRISTIAN STUDIES IN MERCY” at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome (13-15 October 2016; ). These discussions clearly revealed how mercy and justice interact with each other – with regard to some of the most challenging social ethical issues such as rectificatory justice in the context of post-conflict societies on the one hand and the recent challenges of how to receive refugees and migrants in European societies (and elsewhere). Here I will shortly discuss two exemplary cases in order to clarify the interrelatedness of both concepts. I make the case that in a social ethics framework mercy must not be claimed as an alternative to justice, but rather as its critical correspondent that directs attention to the level of personal life and relations which cannot be fully met by a necessarily generalizing, normative framework of justice. Likewise justice critically corresponds with mercy. I chose two cases from different areas of social ethics in order to discuss this thesis.

(1) In September 2016 I visited Bosnia-Herzegowina and attended a conference on justice in the post-conflict society of the country at the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Sarajewo (organized by our colleague Zorica Maros). And I saw an exhibition on the horrific massacres of Srebrenica in 1995, crimes against humanity that extinguished the lives of thousands of men and destroyed the life-perspectives of innumerable people in Bosnia and of at least a whole generation of victimized citizens ( It is only one out of many recent examples of the deep social and mental destruction caused by human beings in the most inhuman way by genocide and similar systematic crimes against humanity. Societies wherein people suffered those periods of unbearable violence need to find a new beginning after the end of the war. Potential strategies to reach this goal suggest one either leaves the past behind or one establishes processes of rectificatory justice (cf. Göran Collste: Global Rectificatory Justice. Palgrave MacMillan 2015). Neither of these alternatives seems to give way to mercy. Given that a post-conflict society would seek a start at zero, no space would be opened to perform mercy because the crimes of yesterday had to remain in the shadow of forced oblivion. To proceed that way would mean to treat the victims in an extremely merciless way, since it suppresses the search for a healing of memories and delivers the victims of the former crimes to ongoing silent suffering (which in fact means a prolongation of the war within the hearts and minds of the people and in the long run very likely produces further conflict). Given that on the contrary a process of healing of memories would be established wherein victims are recognized and perpetrators identified and called to court, this is first and foremost an issue of discerning injustice and justice to be set into practice. Mercy – as resource of forgiveness – could only come into the play on the basis of justice having been restored. No reconciliation without justice – in fact this principle seems to be vital in order not to impose new violence and injustice on the victimized of the past. Nevertheless mercy will have to play a role when we think of the restoration of the practical level of interaction within such a wounded society. Without spaces being opened wherein former enemies may learn to recognize one another, to compromise and to treat one other in a humane way the struggle to establish justice will necessarily remain incomplete.

(2) The so-called Refugee crisis in Europe – which would much better be named a political crisis of Europe, since its roots are much deeper than refugees and migrants entering the continent in large numbers (cf. Heimbach-Steins, Marianne: Grenzverläufe gesellschaftlicher Gerechtigkeit. Migration – Zugehörigkeit – Beteiligung. Paderborn 2016) – provoked not only alarming xenophobic reactions and rapidly growing nationalist movements in many European countries, but also huge movements of solidarity and helpfulness among the citizens of European transition countries and countries of entry. Many people of different backgrounds, initiatives within civil society and religious communities raised rich voluntary resources to help the refugees, and religious leaders – not the least Pope Francis – took and still take responsibility to draw public attention to the issues of human dignity and the human rights of refugees and international migrants, for example by visiting refugee camps, by welcoming the people and by publicly speaking out about what is ethically required. It is this kind of important symbolic action as of the humanitarian aid performed by so many volunteers (be they driven by religious or humanistic motives) which seems to respond to a call for mercy with the needy. Here we obviously face a contrasting case compared to the first one: People get involved driven by mercy, charity or a sense of solidarity. They voluntarily invest time, energy, money in favor of the refugees, and by doing so they often expose themselves to critique, sometimes even to the hatred of fellow citizens. They practically witness mercy towards the needy – like Jesus suggests with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10,25-37) and with his own healing practice towards the miserable persons of his time. In no way should this necessary and highly valuable practice be criticized. Nevertheless it is urgent that it be complemented by searching for a political and structural analysis of the issue and by searching for solutions on the national, European and international levels. This means to invest research to analyze the complex political and economic reasons for the recent refugee movements, to clearly name the political responsibilities and to claim legal, political and economic action. This is a challenging issue of international and global justice which cannot be left aside by calling for mercy. To confine one’s attentiveness to just caring for the refugees and migrants in need of help and sympathy would not only ignore the deeper reasons, but support unjust powerful structures that force so many people to leave their home countries and to seek a better life abroad.

Justice and mercy – both concepts are of high ethical relevance. Both must not be confounded but carefully correlated to each other. Both dynamics relate to the challenges of healing human relationships, but each of them follows a different logic of how to measure what makes these relations peaceful and sustainable. Whereas a social and global justice framework relates to the institutions and structures that shape the conditions of human life, mercy relates to the level of immediate human interaction in a specific way, namely on the basis of love and compassion. Although the addressed person may eventually be involved in complex ambiguities in terms of justice, merciful care will not hesitate to recognize the other one as a fellow human being and to grant help regarding his or her needs. It has to be carefully discerned whether mercy is required in the sense of forgiveness – and where it may or may not be claimed for reasons of justice – or whether it is provoked in the sense of practical compassion – and has to be related to an inquiry of the reasons that provoke and/or perpetuate situations of deprivation and injustice.