Are we going to be honest and direct and blunt with each other, and not tiptoe around the issue? Yes? Okay then, who deserves mercy? Answer: everyone. Even total absolute slimy murderers and sinners and the lowest of the low. Yes, I am talking about famous slaughterers like Mao and Stalin and Pol Pot and Hitler and Osama bin Laden, who murdered three of my friends and then cackled, cackled, in his cave when he was told there were children on the planes. Cackled.
Even the shiny oily corporate lords who foul rivers and seas and poison everyone downstream and could not care less as they clink their coins?
Even the unrepentant liars who abused little kids?
How can I say such a thing? O, brothers and sisters, how often I have asked myself the very same question. Do you think that as a dad I have not thought murdrous thoughts when I lay abed and contemplate the chances that my daughter, my sons, might be in danger at sleepovers, at summer camp, in the sacristy, over the three days of the school spiritual retreat? Do you not think I many times entertained murdrous thoughts for bin Laden, who widowed the wives of my friends and stole the fathers of their children? Do you think I do not rage against the murderers of a false Islamic state, the thousands of men who stole the childhoods of boys and girls, the thousands of men who enslave girls this very day in every country on earth?
I rage, I wrestle, I grapple, I cannot stay consistent in the march to mercy; but I cannot evade the ragged whispering Christ, cannot get His voice out of my inner ear, cannot evade those among us I know for certain to be His agents in this bruised and blessed world.
The former bar bouncer from Argentina is one such agent. He is blunt and eloquent about this matter. I cannot bring myself to sneer or evade or argue with him about it.
No one can be excluded from the mercy of God. He said that. Is there any wiggle room for debate there? No?
The Church is the house where everyone is welcomed and no one is rejected. He said that, too. So if we say we are of the Church, and we say the Church is our house and language and tribe and teacher, we have to act like that? Really?
The Church’s mission is to be a witness to mercy...we are all called to give comfort to every man and every woman of our time… Every man and woman and child of our time? But that means liars and thugs and criminals and the committers of sins beyond our worst nightmares! It means every colour and gender and religion and orientation and ethnicity and nationality! It means the nine million prisoners in the world. It means the 500 million people in the world suffering from mental and emotional duress, and the 60 million refugees in the world, the most ever recorded in history! But we touch the flesh of Christ in he who is outcast, hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, ill, unemployed, persecuted, in search of refuge…He said that, the bar bouncer did. Hard to argue with a bar bouncer.
Seven years ago by utter chance I stood a few feet away from Christ’s agent Desmond Tutu when he suddenly said there is a country beyond even justice, and in that country mercy and forgiveness are king and queen. I heard him say this. He said it to a roomful of college students. They went silent for a minute, digesting what he had said. To their eternal credit no one said anything sensible or reasonable or contrarian or jokey in response. For a moment you could almost see them all staring at that country very far away but dimly discernible if you stopped being logical for a moment and listened to the ragged whispering Christ in your inner ear.
Christ’s agent Paul of Tarsus said that love is the law. He wrote that to the Corinthians. But the greatest of these is love, he wrote that, and people have been reading that line daily all over the world for nearly two thousand years. Was he wrong? Is love and bigger than even justice? Could that be? The evidence is everywhere against it. The evidence is what we call history. The evidence will be there tomorrow squirming in the news headlines. But if you say you are Catholic, if you say you are Christian, if you say you believe the Christ was The Illuminated One, the incarnated essence of that which made the stars to spin, then you have to believe that mercy is the mission. You do. I do.
There are many days I hate it that mercy is the clear and indisputable assignment. I see Hitler and bin Laden roasting children, Mao and Stalin starving children and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi offering girls as sex slaves to his fellow slimy thugs. I do not see how mercy could possibly be bigger and better than the justice so many sinners so richly deserve. I cannot bring even a modicum, a smidgen, a jot of mercy into my own workaday life, and find myself snarling at liars at work, and growling at my children, and curt with friends and brothers and even, God help me, with the brave woman who married me, among all the men she could have married. But I cannot sustain my avoidance of the assignment, for always in my inner ear there is that rough whisper I cannot evade. I know He speaks the truth. You know it too. We surely will never understand how it could be, that we must march to mercy, march toward the country that is beyond even justice; but we must, or we are liars with every breath we draw.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. He is the author of many books, most recently A Book of Uncommon Prayers and the novel Chicago.
View the reflection questions and activities for 'The March of mercy' here