21 January 2016

Miserando atque Eligendo: A Mercy that does Justice as it Creates a Future

Quite often this blog is a way in which I work out theological positions, especially in terms of the nature and charism of eremitical life, the relation of Gospel and Law (often canon law!!), or of mercy and justice. In reflecting on Friday's readings from 1 Sam and Mark I was reminded of Pope Francis' jubilee year of Mercy and of his coat of arms and motto: Miserando atque Eligendo. In 1 Sam David shows mercy to Saul despite Saul's commitment to killing him and is deemed by Saul to be worthy of Kingship by virtue of this act. An act of mercy is presented as having the power to change Saul's heart as nothing else does. The lection from Mark deals with the calling of the twelve. Together they represent a single pastoral impulse, a single imperative, the impulse and imperative also marking the entirety of Francis' Episcopacy and Pontificate and this Jubilee year of mercy as well: Miserando atque eligendo.

Francis translates the first word of his motto as a gerund, "Mercifying". He sees his episcopacy as being about the mercification of the church and world; the motto as a whole means "To Mercify (to embrace wretchedness) and to Call". This can even be translated as, "I will mercify (that is, make the world whole by embracing its wretchedness in the power of God's love) and (or "and even further") call (or choose) others" who will be commissioned in the same way. Francis speaks of the meaning of his motto in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy . He writes, "So mercifying and choosing (calling) describes the vision of Jesus who gives the gift of mercy and chooses, and takes unto himself."  (Kindle location 226) This is simply the way Francis chose to be a Bishop in Christ's Church; it is certainly the face God turned to the world in Jesus and it is the face of the shepherd we have come to associate with the Papacy. It is the way the Church is called to address and transform our world, the way she is called to literally "embrace wretchedness" and create peace and purpose. Mercifying and calling. It is the Way into the future God wills for everyone and everything.

Paul too saw that mercy was the way God creates a future. He writes in his letter to the Romans, [[Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?]] In other words it is the kindness or mercy of God, God's forbearance and patience that will create a way forward --- if in fact we take that mercy seriously. What I saw as I read that line from Paul was that Divine mercy is always about creating a way forward when our own actions close off any way of progress at all. God's mercy draws us out of any past we have locked ourselves into and into his own life of "absolute futurity". Let me explain. Often times I have written here that God's mercy IS God's justice. Justice is always about creating and ensuring a future -- both for those wronged, for society as a whole, and for the ones who have wronged another. Justification itself means establishing a person in right relationship with God and the rest of reality; it indicates that person's freedom from enmeshment in the past and her participation in futurity, that is in God's own life. Mercy, which (as I now see clearly) always includes a call to discipleship, is the way God creates and draws us into the future. What is often called "Divine wrath" is just the opposite --- though it can open us to the mercy which will turn things around.

Divine Wrath, Letting the Consequences of our Sin Run:

Wrath, despite the anthropomorphic limitations of language involved, is not Divine anger or a failure or refusal of God to love us. Rather, it is what happens when God respects our freedom and lets the consequences of our choices and behavior run --- the consequences which cut us off from the love and community of others, the consequences which make us ill or insure our life goes off the rails, so to speak, the consequences which ripple outward and affect everyone within the ambit of our lives. Similarly, it is God's letting run the consequences of sin which  lead us to even greater acts of sin as we defend or attempt to defend ourselves against them, try futilely to control matters, and keep our hands on the reins which seem to imply we control our lives and destinies. But how can a God of Love possibly allow the consequences of sin run and still be merciful? I have one story which helps me illustrate this.

I wrote recently of the death of my major theology professor, John Dwyer. In the middle of a moral theology class focusing on the topic of human freedom and responsibility John said that if he saw one of us doing something stupid he would not prevent us. He quickly noted that if we were impaired in some way he would intervene but otherwise, no. Several of us majors were appalled. John was a friend and mentor. Now, we regularly spent time at his house dining with him and his wife Odile and talking theology into the late hours. (It was Odile who introduced me to French Roast coffee and always made sure there was some ready!) Though we students were not much into doing seriously stupid things, we recognized the possibility of falling into such a situation! So when John made this statement we looked quickly at one another with questioning, confused, looks and gestures. A couple of us whispered to each other, "But he LOVES us! How can he say that?" John took in our reaction in a single glance or two, gave a somewhat bemused smile, and explained, "I will always be here for you. I will be here if you need advice, if you need a listening ear. . . and if you should do something stupid I will always be here for you afterwards to help you recover in whatever way I can, but I will not prevent you from doing the act itself."

We didn't get it at all at the time, but now I know John was describing for us an entire complex of theological truths about human freedom, Divine mercy, Divine wrath, theodicy, and discipleship as well: Without impinging on our freedom God says no to our stupidities and even our sin, but he always says yes to us and his yes to us, his mercy, eventually will also win out over sin. John would be there for us in somewhat the same the merciful God of Jesus Christ is there for us. Part of all of this was the way the prospect or truth of being "turned over" to our own freedom and the consequences of our actions also opens us to mercy. To be threatened with being left to ourselves in this way if we misused our freedom --- even with the promise that John would be there for us before, after, and otherwise --- made us think very carefully about doing something truly stupid. John's statement struck us like a splash of astringent but it was also a merciful act which included an implicit call to a future free of serious stupidities, blessed with faithfulness, and marked by genuine freedom. It promised us the continuing and effective reality of John's love and guiding presence, but the prospect of his very definite "no!" to our "sin" was a spur to embrace more fully the love and call to adulthood he offered us.

How much more does the prospect of "Divine wrath" (or the experience of that "wrath" itself) open us to the reality of Divine mercy?! Thus, Divine wrath is subordinate to and can serve Divine mercy; it can lead to a wretchedness which opens us to something more, something other. It can open us to the Love-in-Act that summons and saves. At the same time it is mercy that has the power to redeem situations of wrath, situations of enmeshment in and entrapment by the consequences of one's sin. It is through mercy that God does justice, through mercy that God sets things to rights and opens a future to that which was once a dead end.

Miserando atque Eligendo, The Way of Divine Mercy:

What is critical, especially in light of Friday's readings and Francis' motto it seems to me, is that we understand mercy not only as the gratuitous forgiveness of sin or the graced and unconditional love of the sinner, but that we also see that mercy, by its very nature, further includes a call which leads to embracing a new life. The most striking image of this in the NT is the mercy the Risen Christ shows to Peter. Each time  Peter answers Christ's question, "Do you love me?" he is told, "Feed my Lambs" or "Feed my Sheep." Jesus does not merely say, "You are forgiven"; in fact, he never says, "You are forgiven" in so many words. Instead he conveys forgiveness with a call to a new and undeserved future.

This happens again and again in the NT. It happens in the parable of the merciful Father (prodigal son) and it happens whenever Jesus says something like, "Rise and walk" or "Go, your faith has made you whole," etc. (Go does not merely mean, "Go on away from here" or "Go on living as you were"; it is, along with other commands like "Rise", "Walk" "Come",etc., a form of commissioning which means. "Go now and mercify the world as God has done for you.") Jesus' healing and forgiving touch always involves a call opening the future to the one in need. Mercy, as a single pastoral  impulse, embraces our fruitless and pointless wretchedness even as it calls us to God's  own creative and meaningful blessedness.

The problem of balancing mercy and justice is a false problem when we are speaking of God. I have written about this before in Is it Necessary to Balance Divine Mercy With Justice? and Moving From Fear to Love: Letting Go of the God Who Punishes Evil. What was missing from "Is it necessary. . .?" was the element of call --- though I believe it was implicit since both miserando and eligendo are essential to the love of God which summons us to wholeness. Still, it took Francis' comments on his motto (something he witnesses to with tremendous vividness in every gesture, action, and homily) along with the readings from this Friday to help me see explicitly that the mercification or mercifying of our world means both forgiving and calling people into God's own future. We must not trivialize or sentimentalize mercy (or the nature of genuine forgiveness) by omitting the element of a call.

When we consider that today theologians write about God as Absolute Futurity (cf Ted Peters' works, God, the World's Future, and Anticipating Omega), the association of mercy with the call to futurity makes complete sense and it certainly distances us from the notion of Divine mercy as something weak which must be balanced by justice. Mercy, again, is the way God does justice --- the way he causes our world to be transfigured as it is shot through with eschatological Life and purpose. We may choose an authentic future in God's love or a wounded, futureless reality characterized by enmeshment and isolation in sin, but whichever we choose it is always mercy that sets things right --- if only we will accept it and the call it includes!! Of course it is similarly an authentic future we are called on to offer one another -- just as David offered to Saul and Jesus offered those he healed or those he otherwise called and sent out as his own Apostles. Miserando atque Eligendo!! May we adopt this as the motto of our own lives just as Francis has done, and may we make it our own "modus operandi" for doing justice in our world as Jesus himself did.