What Will Pass for Mercy

April 21, 2015 by Guest Contributor 0 Comments

By Brian Volck

2986260634_9a443c432e_m“Do not say God is just. Justice has not been evident in God’s dealings with you.”
—Isaac of Syria

Among the habits I’ve lately tried living without are reading online comment boxes (Good Letters being an exception) and making predictions. I bypass comments because I encounter enough wrath, ridicule, and unreason without wallowing in still more online. As for prophecy, my ability to predict the future isn’t what it used to be.

Parents routinely ask me, a pediatrician, what’s in store for their children. I offer probabilities and guesses. Harder still to predict “the fate of the nation.” I don’t know where the United States, with an armada of oncoming problems and a conspicuous dearth of creative proposals in response, is heading.

Maybe it’s just a passing foul mood, a temporary crisis of confidence, but decline—perhaps precipitous—in America’s global economic and political influence seems likely. Who knows what shape that may take?

I leave it to academics, technocrats and politicians to identify causes, propose solutions, and assign blame, respectively. I’m more interested in how Americans, particularly those calling themselves Christian, might respond to involuntary limits, diminished expectations, and smaller horizons.

Badly, I fear—however delighted I’d be if proven wrong.

The church is a mess, to be sure, obsessively straining at gnats while swallowing camels. Christians produce slogans, manifestos, and mission statements enough to inspire a dozen worlds with messages running the gamut from spineless sentimentality to brutal moralism. If verbiage is the one needful thing, we’re set.

But traditional Christian formation includes schooling in certain practices—prayer, fasting, almsgiving, hospitality, and so forth—not for the goods they bring, but because they are good in themselves, forming and reforming us by doing them over and again.

Perhaps it was always a minority who assumed these challenges, but I fear the mass of American Christians now lead lives of loud consumption. When formative habits and the rich practical wisdom accompanying them are lost, how are they recovered? If consumer goods suddenly grow scarce, for example, how will once-rich Christians relearn the practice of hospitality?

And what of mercy, that unseemly virtue whose name appears more conspicuously in the New Testament than sexual morality and freedom, thereby eliciting jeers from the right, or justice and the poor, prompting catcalls from the left? In an era that celebrates snark, Schadenfreude, and online rage, what will school a forgetful people in mercy’s covenantal empathy, identifying with fellow suffering not by acknowledging “There but for the grace of God go I,” but rather, “There by the grace of God go I”?

Just who is that fellow sufferer? The illegal immigrant or the border vigilante? The pregnant teen or the clinic protestor? On which side of my burning social concerns will I recognize human pain? Who merits mercy? Who is lost? What shape will mercy take?


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