Hoping to dispense mercy, King Frederick William I (1688-1740) visited a prison in Potsdam, Germany. He listened attentively to one prisoner after another, each of whom claimed that he was a victim of injustice. They all alleged being sent to prison because of prejudiced judges, perjured witnesses or unscrupulous lawyers. From cell to cell, the king heard each prisoner swear his innocence and insist on his false imprisonment until he came to an inmate who said nothing.
“Well, I suppose you are innocent, too,” said Frederick, somewhat sarcastically. “No, your majesty,” came the startling reply. “I am guilty and richly deserve all that I get.” “Here, turnkey,” thundered the king, “come and get rid of this rascal quick, before he corrupts this fine lot of innocent people that you are responsible for.”
If I may stretch an analogy, I once found myself in a comparable, but far less dramatic situation. While a houseguest, I observed an unhappy situation unfolding for which there seemed to be no solution. The oldest daughter had apparently (but not definitively) neglected certain household duties. Her punishment was severe. She would not be allowed to play soccer that day. The father of the house wanted to be merciful, but he knew that he must also insist on discipline and responsibility. He feared that if he backed down, he would be shirking his fatherly responsibilities. The mother also hoped for mercy, but remained silent since she did not want to interfere with the execution of her husband’s responsibilities. It was a stand-off. Meanwhile, I could hear the daughter’s sobs from her prison in the basement.
I thought of a way that would be acceptable to everyone.
“There is an old Catholic tradition,” I said to my hosts, who were highly respectful of Catholic lore, “that if you are showing hospitality to a guest and it is his birthday” (which it was), “in accordance with the esteemed Passover custom, you are allowed to release one prisoner.”
That did the trick. A broad smile swept across the father’s face. He raced downstairs and freed his prisoner. She emerged happily from her cell, gave me a big hug and verbalized her heartfelt thanks. The father could show mercy because he had a basis that justified it, and one that had a long and honored tradition (especially the part about Passover).
Mercy cannot be dispensed willy-nilly. It means nothing to the unrepentant who would regard it as irrelevant and unneeded. But it means everything to the person who has accepted justice and thirsts for mercy.
“Justice without mercy is cruelty,” writes Saint Thomas Aquinas. On the other hand, according to the angelic Doctor, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution.” The New England poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, put it nicely when he said, “Being all fashioned of the self-same dust, / Let us be merciful as well as just.”
A little mercy goes a long way. It brings joy to a young girl, relief to a father, pride to a mother and peace to a family. But it also can bring a smile of satisfaction to a houseguest.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review.