Mercy and justice are not opposites, but they often find themselves at odds, particularly in the justice system. The tension between the two, between gracious love and rigid law, is a core conflict in so many stories. Recently, I’ve developed a penchant for legal dramas (by which, I mean Suits and The Good Wife) and I can’t help but notice this theme replaying itself. Suits has a spectacular ensemble cast, and I’ve grown to love each of the characters: their quirks, wit, heroics and vulnerabilities. I cheer when they win, when they beat their enemies, when they have their moments of glory. I ache when they ache. (And yes, I realize I may be overly emotionally invested.) But let’s be honest – all of my favorite characters are basically crooks. By the law, they deserve to be thrown into prison.
Good storytellers know how to play on our sympathies. Call it manipulative, but you have to admit, it takes skill to do. A well-executed emotional appeal strikes our heartstrings harder than impartial justice. Storytellers know that. The justice system knows that: attorneys would not be so bent on picking impartial jurors if most people could not be swayed by compassion, personal experiences, or anything other than cold, hard facts. We find ourselves rooting for “good” protagonists even if they aren’t completely by the book, even if they’re rule-breakers, because of something redeeming in their motives or heart. We empathize because we’ve been in their shoes, or simply because we understand their dilemma as fellow humans. We’re not robots, we don’t see the world in binary, and there’s no algorithm to our emotions.
But there you find the tension. The other day, I was watching an episode of The Good Wife where Alicia defends a middle-aged Indian woman facing deportation. She entered the U.S. illegally 27 years ago, but built her entire life in the States: two children, a job, and a home. In desperation, she tells Alicia, “I have nothing in India.” Her situation and her plea tugged at my feelings. I was totally rooting for Alicia to kick the opposing counsel’s behind on the case and save the poor woman. But as the other side put it, the truth is, she entered the country illegally. In the eyes of the law, she should be deported. It is mercy that cries for an alternative. So, what’s the right thing to do? The courts weren’t created for charity, and if every case like that was granted an exception, all sorts of chaos would break out. And yet … I felt compassion, and out of pity, I wanted an exception for her case. (I promise, I haven’t forgotten this is all fiction. I just get this way about stories.)
Where is the perfect meeting place of mercy and justice? Where is the sweet spot? Sorry. I don’t know. Sometimes, the two seem to be in direct opposition to one another, and we can all empathize with both sides at different times, depending on our natural bent and personal experiences. The only good answer I have isn’t my own: the cross of Christ is the only place I see the two come together in perfect, agonizing union. A picture of perfect justice and a picture of perfect love. The fair and full punishment for the wickedness of sin, and a love so unfathomable it embraces the worst of us unconditionally. It is something we cannot hope to emulate as broken sinners in a broken world, with our imperfect love and laws.
Personally, I love stories that deal with the tension well. Not in a cookie-cutter approach, where everything gets simplified and squared away. We are messy and complicated, tarnished by sin. Yet at the same time, we see a reflection of the image of God, the Imago Dei, imprinted on our souls – a God who is holy and just, yet also compassionate and slow to anger. One day, He will set all things right.