July 19, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

An online news story today discusses the widely varied sentences for parents who leave their very young children unattended in hot cars, resulting in death. Mothers are punished more severely than fathers, and paid caregivers are more likely to be prosecuted and punished than parents. Only about half the cases are prosecuted, because it is nearly always accidental, but half are seen as victims themselves and the other half as perpetrators by neglect.

Are fathers “excused” more often because they aren’t considered primary caregivers and get a pass when they forget something important—like taking their children out of hot cars? Are mothers pursued more vigorously because they should know better, or because their failures challenge our culturally iconic myth of motherly love?

Are paid caregivers treated more severely because they are paid? Because that pay is pretty low in most circumstances. Are they punished more because the exaggerated outrage helps detract from the truth that parents don’t want to see, that the parent bares some responsibility for placing the child in someone else’s care? By punishing caregivers more severely, are we as a society fabricating a belief that paid caregivers should be held to excessively high standards so parents don’t have to feel responsible for the decisions they make about leaving their children behind?

The story is just a news story, so it can’t really explain the reasons for the differences. But there is an underlying sense of vengeance, not justice, in how the cases are handled so differently. I think that’s because pure justice is equal, but justice applied within a judicial system leaves plenty of room for excuses and exceptions in some cases, and harsh treatment in others.

In a much less heartbreaking example of fiddling with rules, a friend on an internet forum posted recently that her employers at a job she is leaving got in a final “dig” at her as she left. She gave them reasonable notice and continued to work, but the final paycheck included inaccurate deductions and seemingly intentional oversight of actual hours worked and vacation and sick pay accrued. Expecting to be paid in full for her final week, she was getting just a few dollars. The employers were either operating within “the rules” and applying them to their full benefit, or ignoring some rules but assuming the enforcement of the rules would favor them as record keepers.

What is up with us? Why do we fiddle around with fairness and justice, putting some people in a chokehold just because we can and excusing other people’s failures, even when they are fatal?

I think it’s usually for all the wrong reasons. When we can exercise power and stomp down with authority, it’s too easy to conflate our desire for revenge or retaliation with “the law.” When we have the freedom to go easy on a lawbreaker and soften the consequences, it’s easy to use that power to readjust rules we don’t support or apply a warped idea of justice: What he did was bad but he’s so grief-stricken that anything society does to him can’t come close.

Worse, we can delude ourselves into believing we are withholding punishment out of mercy, when in fact we are protecting ourselves from facing an awful truth that’s hard to see. People who worry they might not be capable of the diligent action required by a law might be inclined to let someone else off for violating that law. Going easy on one guy might make it likely others will go easy on them when they mess up.

Mercy, I believe, can only be given freely. The person extending mercy cannot truly be merciful if enforcing the rules or the law would cause him unbearable distress; giving leniency cannot be merciful if it actually makes things easier for the guy in charge. It can’t be mercy if the person granting it dislikes the rule or thinks it’s unfair or harsh—that’s just rewriting the rule one instance at a time.

I think a person has to see the misdeed as wrong to be able to extend mercy. He has to agree that some kind of punishment is a fair and just consequence for the act. He has to be able and willing to mete out the punishment and enforce the consequence. Only when he has that freedom, but chooses to withhold some portion of the consequence, for the ultimate greater benefit of the transgressor, is he truly showing mercy.

Mercy is the triumph of compassion and forgiveness over justice. Mercy draws these values together and attempts to balance them in a way that honors standards but accepts shortcomings. In humility and with empathy, full of hope for restoration, I see another person broken by his own mistakes and, with faith in his desire to change himself and repair the damage he has done, I set aside justice and offer comfort and assistance. Mercy is my response to a genuine need for help and healing.


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