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Justice and Mercy Walk into a Bar

By Linda Hoffman Kimball

Scales of Justice

Justice and Mercy walk into a bar.

Justice overhears a customer order “another Shirley Temple, please.” Barkeep reminds the customer that he hasn’t paid for his last two yet.

Justice grabs the customer by the collar, yells, “You can’t pay your bill? You’re outta here!” and kicks him out the door.

Mercy goes out and drags the customer back in, orders a Shirley Temple for him, pays for it and pays his back tab as well.

Then, turning to Justice, Mercy grabs him by the collar, yells “You may be right, but why do you always have to be such a self-righteous, retentive, heartless jerk about it!?” and kicks him out the door.

Then Mercy goes out, drags Justice back in, puts salve on his scrapes, and buys him – and everyone else in the bar – a free Shirley Temple.

Which do you think are true about this (little lame) anecdote?

A) Neither Justice nor Mercy behaved very well.
B) Justice and Mercy behaved exactly as they should have, with Mercy having more chutzpah than he generally gets credit for.
C) In the end the blessings of a Temple are available to all.

This little romp leaves me musing on a couple wrestles I’ve had with the concepts of justice and mercy.

I learned about one in our Marriage and Family Relations Class taught in our Illinois ward by my friend, the fabulous Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife. One of the many challenges she says couples face is the insistence on “being right.”

Maybe you balk at the idea of letting some ridiculous pronouncement come out of your spouse’s mouth without the appropriate – and just – correction being made. I mean, really. To just let something that wrong/irrelevant/ungrammatical/insensitive, etc. go by unchecked? Never! The cause of truth is at stake!

Or maybe one of you trots out a parade of your partner’s past gaffes or mistakes whenever any new evidence of imperfection surfaces. Gotta hammer home the proof: one of you is perfect and the other, obviously, is not.

Yet, these situations where “justice” constantly trumps, if not mercy, at least kindness can corrode relationships. Sometimes the notion that you have to be right needs to be slapped upside the head. Use judgment, of course, but seek for connection, not for needing to be right all the time.

The other wrestle springs from my quibble with 2 Nephi 2:27.  In this verse we learn that we are free to “choose liberty and eternal life….or to choose captivity and death.” For me, most of my choices are not so stark. They are not between a good choice and a bad choice, but between two good choices. As my  son used to say “Who would take who in a fight?”: Prayer or action? Certainty or faith? Personal responsibility or delegation? Leniency or demanding high standards?

And even Justice or Mercy?

What experiences have you had with holding on to or relinquishing the need to “be right” in a relationship? With choices between good and bad? With choices between two goods? And, in particular, with Justice and Mercy?

About Linda Hoffman Kimball

Linda Hoffman Kimball is an artist, writer, photographer, and poet who grew up as a faithful Christian near Chicago, & joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1971 while at Wellesley College near Boston. Early on she assumed that all Latter-day Saints were articulate, inquisitive, faithful, and socially engaged since her role models in the University wards in Cambridge, MA., were. Her husband says she is “fluent, but not native” in Mormon-ese. She is a founding member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.

15 thoughts on “Justice and Mercy Walk into a Bar”

  1. Why do you have to out me in such a public forum? 🙂 Just kidding. You did describe my former attitude towards my husband well. Things only got better when I realized that my husband, his feelings, our connection, our marriage mattered more than being right, solid conclusion, or even being hurt. My goal is to make mercy a more prominent character in my marriage and my life. Justice, well, he can take care of himself.

  2. I feel I took a big step forward when I started realizing I am not responsible for my husband's choices. Let me explain. When he was in the bishopric for the first time, I would die a thousand deaths each Sunday he conducted because of how he fumbled and guffawed his way through (of the two of us I tend to be more articulate and verbose). Somehow I thought his performance reflected on me, the one who chose him as a mate. I guess I thought my pride was at stake. I can't remember how it changed but I finally realized that the whole thing was silly. How a good man conducts is no reflection of his wife and it wasn't my responsibility anyway. It was his. Such a relief! It's allowed me to separate other areas of our relationship as well, to relinquish ownership of them and to better appreciate him for who he is and what he chooses to do without feeling tied to it. (He's not in the bishopric now but when one of the counselors guffaws through [our bishop is really smooth–he never guffaws] I (mentally) laugh and laugh remembering where we used to be.)

  3. I see what you mean, however, we shouldn't be a doormat either. Something my husband tells me all the time that I shouldn't be one, but then expects and treats me to be that doormat.

    I try hard to not speak to him unkindly, but even so, he gets all hot about just asking him to please make the pancakes smaller for the boys. They don't need one the size of two plates. They end up only eating a little bit and throw the rest away. I am trying to save money like he has asked me to. I am darned if I do and darned if I don't.

  4. I think that the next verse in 2 Nephi is very telling: "28 And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;" – 2 Nephi 2:28 – We choose liberty and eternal life through the Savior – through keeping His commandments, and following the Spirit.

    It seems like the Spirit will help us to make the nuanced decisions. Even Christ told Peter, "get thee behind me," When Peter vowed that he would not let Christ die. Peter wasn't a bad man, and protecting Christ's life would have been good, but it was not expedient. It was not what the Spirit wanted. And, all in all, it would have been horrible because it would have stopped salvation of all.

    So – there are times when the choice is between "good and good", but if we seek the Spirit, then we will know which one of the things will push us toward liberty and eternal life.

    As far as "being right" in a relationship, following the Spirit has worked wonders in my marriage. In our first year of marriage, there were times when we would fight – and we were kind of setting the trend – of how we would always fight. This is my second marriage, and I was so worried when we fought. So, I prayed.

    Do you know how hard it is to pray when you're mad? Impossible. And, it is humbling because, even though I was convinced I was right, the Lord took that moment to direct me on how I ought to change. This proved most beneficial – as the Spirit was introduced into these circumstances, and instead of fighting, we really tried to understand one another. It wasn't easy, but it has been such a blessing to our marriage.

    Long comment. Short answer: Follow the Spirit.

  5. I wrestle with both justice and mercy, in particular with parenting. I want to teach my sons good principles, like work, determination and keeping your word, where justice most definitely plays a part. Which at times seems to contradict other principles where mercy is most obvious, like kindness, charity and patience.

    Explaining the 'grey' areas (like mercy) to people who see things very much in 'black vs white' (justice!) is tricky (and sometimes frustrating and exhausting). I do like the mental image of mercy giving justice a healthy throttling though!

  6. This story about Joseph Smith is one I LOVE and to me shows a wonderful balance of justice and mercy. Mercy is not enabling poor choices. Mercy is giving us a chance to overcome our poor choices and do differently in the future.

    For the purpose of posting this comment I did an online search and found it at http://www.angelfire.com/mo2/blackmormon/000H1.html:

    Once, as the Mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois (a Mormon city on the banks of the Mississippi) he was told of a black man in Nauvoo named Anthony who had sold liquor on Sunday; which was a violation of the Nauvoo City Code. Mormon writer Mary Frost Adams tells us what happened:

    "While he was acting as mayor of the city, a colored man named Anthony was arrested for selling liquor on Sunday, contrary to law. He pleaded that the reason he had done so was that he might raise the money to purchase the liberty of a dear child held as a slave in a Southern State. He had been able to purchase the liberty of himself and his wife and now wished to bring his little child to their new home. Joseph said, 'I am sorry, Anthony, but the law must be observed and we will have to impose a fine.' The next day Brother Joseph presented Anthony with a fine horse, directing him to sell it, and use the money obtained for the purchase of the child." (Young Woman's Journal, p.538)

  7. I spent the better part of a year while in law school helping my professor-boss research and write a legal article about Micah 6:8–where it talks about our need to do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with God. I have spent a lot of time since then thinking about the powerful insertion of humility into the tension between justice and mercy. Walking humbly with God seems the only way to make these difficult distinctions between good, better and best. Humility seems the only worthwhile tool to even try to truly do justly and love mercy.

    I have a dear son whose tight grasp to notions of justice and fair play is at times exasperating. Justice as he sees it often blinds him to the information he needs to make correct decisions. He can quickly find himself in a rage over a perceived injustice. But when he can be pulled away from his stranglehold on justice and fairness and allow himself to soften, he is the kindest boy.

    I think the effort to walk humbly with God is what leads our hearts to love mercy, but also to love God's laws and want to do justice.

  8. I have a brother who was very special to me who has been having a long-term affair. He lived a secret life for a number of months until we all figured it out. He's totally offended that I have chosen to tell him that what he's doing is wrong, and that I've called him on his bad choices. He thinks that I have betrayed our relationship by not being there for him and he is surprised that I have such strong feelings about his actions. (!)

    I have had months of trying to figure out the proper role for me in this circumstance. I don't know how to love him best. It may not be my place to judge, but is it really my place to accept his behavior and be a sounding board for him while he tries to understand why suddenly the whole world has turned against him? And what if he decides to marry this girl? What then? How do we, as a family, act in this circumstance? Justice says we shun him. Mercy says we accept him. Or does it? We're not supposed to embrace evil, but to love the sinner. Does loving the sinner mean embracing his sin, even though he has abandoned a wife and young child? Or is it more complicated than that?

    Advice? I'd love any thoughts.

  9. Regarding 2 Ne 2:27 (and your post about justice and mercy for that matter) – I have a slightly different interpretation which evolved specifically because my former wife betrayed our marriage covenants, requiring me to consider constantly the roles of justice and mercy in my role toward her, and everyone else for that matter.

    Here's what I discovered…for those who are still at a point in their lives where they need to decide between wether or not they will obey outward principles and commandments of the gospel (don't kill, don't commit adultery, don't steal) the choice is still seen in that stark light of "liberty and eternal life vs captivity and death".

    There are many for whom that initial struggle with most outward principles has been reasonably decided (even thougt of course it is still possible to change).

    What we don't realize is that our continued growth in the gospel is still a function of that stark comparison…but it happens on an internal level, a spiritual one capable of either drawing us infinitely closer to the divine presence of a lovng heavenly father, or infinitely closer to a pharisaic way of living which Christ compares to white sepulchers (despite living perfectly the outward principles (white) they were spiritually dead and void (sepulchers with rotting decay inside)).

    The true nature of choice then becomes not so much what we do but how we do it (assuming of course you are already pursuing a life of relative obedience). It becomes a choice between doing good things in a spirit of faith, hope, and love…or doing good things in a spirit of fear, doubt, and enmity. Does it really matter if you choose prayer or action, as long as both of them are done in a spirit of faith, hope, and love? Isn't an action performed in that divine spirit itself a prayer unto God?

    This seems to me to be the primary message of Moroni 7. Good and evil described here seems to talk less about the action than the state of being. You can give a gift in love and sincerity, or you can give it grudgingly. Giving a gift is certainly a good thing, but only one of the givers will draw closer to their fellow man and therefore God. The good things that come from god seem to reference not so much the things we often think of and pray for (health, a new job, the right spouse, an obedient child, or a child at all (for those dealing with infertility as me and my wife are)). We think these are the good things that come from god, when in reality, the good things are states of being like peace, joy, love, patience, hope…even when the "good things" like health or employment or a child are currently escaping us. That's what I call liberty! Learning that peace and joy are actually separate from and not dependent on circumstance.

    The truth is I no longer choose whether or not I'm going to church…I'm going. But I do choose the state of being I will entertain while there and while interacting with everyone around me. I do have to choose, very consciously, to embrace all feelings towards others motivated by faith hope and love, and dismiss all motivated by fear, doubt, and enmity.

    The state of being you enjoy is something you are choosing (even if you're unaware of it) at each and every moment, and therefore there is opposition in all things…you are constantly choosing your *how* even if you decided your what a long time ago.

    So too with justice and mercy. Justice delivered in an unloving, spiteful, angry way isnt really justice at all (at least it isnt God's way of justice). God too chooses not only what he does (justice and mercy) but how he does it (in his case always in faith hope and love).

    Maybe that's why I liked the story shared by Kristin because it shows that justice never would have kicked you out of the bar in the first place…justice itself would have acted in love, as would have mercy. Joseph was able to kindly and lovingly tell him there was a law and fine, without also overreacting and throwing him out of the city or ostracizing him or telling everyone they should no longer frequent his store because he isn't as faithful as the rest of us.

    You aptly wrote "justice" in quotations after giving your examples because they were never God's way of doing justice in the first place. That kind of justice pursued throughout a life would definitely result in captivity and death (captivity to petty judgments of another person that would have robbed you of the patient love and kindness you were supposed to choose that would have resulted in freedom and life…the kind of life consistent with God's heart, mind, and loving way of interacting….the very definition of eternal life)

    Great post! It was very thought provoking! Real justice and real mercy are two sides of the same coin…love.

  10. Wow, handsfullmom, that was spot on. Thank you. I had forgotten that talk, and it spoke so directly to my questions. I appreciate you sharing it with me.

  11. I believe more and more that love is the greatest power there is. That would be charity…not "feel sorry for your neighbor" charity, but love that is the underpinning of everything you do and are.

    Sitting on the foundation of love, justice takes it's place gently, and mercy…well, we are all dependent on the mercy and Atonement of Jesus Christ. Thank goodness for Mercy.

    Hear hear, Danny. Thanks for the thought provoking questions, Linda.


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