An ethic of mercy: Gandhi, King and Mandela

By Philip S. Powell 01 Oct 2020

Given the current political climate, Philip Powell considers three giants of social reform who demonstrated an ethic of mercy in public life.

Last year at the Festival of Ideas in Cambridge, I spoke about three great men in history and lessons from their lives for today. Mahatma Gandhi from India, Martin Luther King Jr from the USA and Nelson Mandela from South Africa were leaders of people movements that achieved incredible breakthroughs in political transformation, bringing freedom and justice to the peoples of their nations. Although they were men of ordinary background who lived in different parts of the world, they shared some important ideals in common. They held deep convictions about changing the world and this passion drove them to fight against the evils of colonialism and racism.

All three of these men, different from each other in so many ways, had an overriding passion for justice for the oppressed and exploited, were willing to fearlessly speak truth to those in power and paid a huge price for what they believed and lived for. Gandhi and King were assassinated, and Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison.

However, I also discovered that all three of them had in common an ethic of mercy. Justice was paramount, but in their pursuit of justice they did not forsake mercy. Their striving for justice went beyond the power struggles between oppressed group and oppressor; it was a moral struggle against evil. While opposing and challenging the wrongs of the oppressor, mercy animated their lives and fuelled their hope that enmity could be overturned and transformed into friendship. They embodied an ethic of mercy and that is what made them great men.

What is mercy?

Mercy is hard to define, but as one homeless man put it: ‘I know what mercy is when I experience it.’ In some ways the English word ‘mercy’ (from the Latin misericordia) doesn’t do justice to everything the Bible has to say about it. In the Old Testament three distinct Hebrew words (hesed, hanan, and rahamim) are translated into the English word mercy. Mercy is more than offering forgiveness, it includes loving-kindness, pity for those who are suffering and being gracious. In the Bible, mercy is not primarily a legal term but a relational term. It is used in the context of covenant-relationship. The Jubilee Laws in the Old Testament (cancelling debt and freeing slaves) make sense only in the context of God commanding his people to live an ethic of mercy. Jesus spoke these words: ‘Be merciful, just as your Heavenly Father is merciful’ (Luke 6:36) and ‘Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Matthew 9:13)

Why have we neglected mercy in public life?

In the Middle Ages, the Western intellectual tradition put mercy on a collision course with justice. By defining justice as requiring strict retribution, mercy became secondary to justice. Enlightenment thinkers further secularized this understanding of justice. Immanuel Kant played a key role in marginalising mercy in public life. For Kant impartiality was the centrepiece of normative moral judgments regarding justice, and because mercy was understood as arbitrary reduction of just punishment, it had to be rejected. To exercise discretion was to be partial and therefore unjust. By emphasizing equality and impartiality, justice was reframed in term of rights. Mercy in public life was a relic from a bygone era of monarchy. It was condescending to show mercy because it went against the norm of equality.

In our contemporary context, society is defined in terms of autonomous individuals whose rights must be protected. Caring for the poor is no longer defended in terms of showing mercy but fulfilling the demands of public justice. But what if right relationship between persons was the centrepiece of normative moral judgments regarding justice, wouldn’t that put showing mercy at the heart of what it means to be human? From a Christian perspective, society is understood as a community of responsible individuals who bear a moral obligation to do what is right in relation to others. Mercy then becomes the bridge that connects and sustains human relationships, and this further informs the kind of institutions and social structures we build to organise society.

This is the lesson I have learnt from the lives of Gandhi, King & Mandela, that strict retributivism will not lead to a just and relational society. Punishment does have its proper place but it cannot be the final goal. Otherwise, in the name of justice, we could end up feeding hatred and the quest for revenge. Mercy seeks for something different and better. An ethic of justice for the victims animated by an ethic of mercy toward the wrongdoers will bring about healing and reconciliation, a future defined by reciprocity and mutuality. Without an ethic of mercy this would not be possible.

Image Credit: 'Mandela' by Francisco Anzola licensed under Creative Commons BY-2.0

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