The Limits to Mercy

I struggle greatly with the idea that Christians should always forgive their oppressors and forgive all debts. Part of this is pure selfishness; I desire some safety and prosperity in this life. But there are other, deeper reasons as well:

  1. Vengeance was mandated in the Old Testament. Such a huge turnaround in policy is difficult to fathom.
  2. Complete forgiveness is not merciful!

Consider: While it is truly an act of mercy for you to forgive someone who has wronged you, is it an act of mercy for you to forgive someone who is hurting someone else? Is it mercy to stand by passively while a mugger beats up a victim?

Likewise, while it is charity to give your wealth to the poor, is it charity to give someone else’s wealth to the poor?

If Christians adopt a policy of complete pacifism, then non-Christians will rule. Is this a scenario for optimal mercy? Do we want all power in the hands of the unmerciful?

Likewise, if Christians give away all their wealth to the poor, then the economy will be in the hands of greedy non-Christians. Is this a scenario for optimal mercy? (There is much more on this subject in the series Christianity vs. Capitalism.)

Or, suppose idealistic Christians choose to rule, and try to impose a legal system of complete mercy: no punishment for any crime. We have a contradiction: How does the government enforce such a mandate? How does it stop freelance revenge? Either we allow the chaos of lynchings and vendettas, or we have the government step in only on behalf of the initial perpetrators. Is either scenario one of optimal mercy?

Or how about forgiving all debts? Should a Christian government forgive all debts, including debts by property criminals? If so, such a government would make property meaningless. Capital improvements would cease. Much work would become pointless since the lazy would get paid as much as the diligent. Mass starvation would ensue. This has happened numerous times in the past with attempts to establish communist economies—both Christian and Marxist. Is this optimizing mercy?

Reasoning along these lines has led me mostly to libertarian conclusions. Measured punishment of criminals who hurt or steal from others can reduce the net total punishment received. On the other hand, our often brutal system of prisons is counterproductive and hardens criminals. I think the punishments listed in the Law of Moses should set an upper bound for punishment by a Christian government. The option of complete forgiveness, however, should be the choice of the victim, not the government.

Such reasoning does not always lead to the positions of the Libertarian Party. On the question of abortion, I side with the Religious Right. An embryo is well below the age of consent, so forgiveness by the victim is not an option. Either the state intervenes or the state has no moral justification for its existence in my opinion.

I also think the Libertarian Party, and some libertarian Republican, go a bit too far in foreign policy by calling for no intervention unless the U.S. is attacked. If genocide or extreme tyranny is occurring in a small country, which the U.S. military can easily overpower, war may well be the most merciful option. (But this is not an option to be taken lightly! A botched liberation can be far worse than the preceding tyranny. I am no neocon.)

Finally, there is the issue of government-based welfare for the poor. In general, taxation for wealth transfer is theft. But letting the poor suffer is also a sin. The concerns of mercy are part of what led me to create, with its emphasis on ways to reduce the wealth gap while cutting such theft. An Old Testament look at the moral rationale of my positions can be found in God’s Welfare System.

Please note that these political conclusions are my own. They are biased by my own distaste for bureaucracy, inefficiency, and excess human authority. Do meditate on my arguments and on the scriptures. Check my work.

These uncertain conclusions apply to crimes against others. For personal vices, for sins against God only, the libertarian case is far stronger, as we will explore next.