This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction, go here.
The qualities of courtesy and mercy go together. The idea of courtesy can also be expressed as graciousness, being full of grace, and grace and mercy together are the two primary character attributes of God.
I am, however, for the purposes of this series unifying the virtues of justice and mercy, which is a little less immediately obvious.
I’ve blogged before on the subject of justice and mercy, and much of what I’ve already said is also applicable here. However, this series comes at the subject from a slightly different angle, so it may be worth reiterating.
As a knightly virtue, what is mercy? And what is justice? The chivalric vows of the Song of Roland include vows “to fight for the welfare of all”, “to give succour to widows and orphans”, “to protect the weak and defenceless” and “to eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit”. All of these vows could realistically be viewed through a lens of either mercy or justice; in practical terms, the chivalric outworking of mercy and justice is identical.
In short, showing mercy means fighting for justice. In the situation of an offence, compassion for both victim and perpetrator means we want to see justice done. Justice, not revenge: vengeance is not ours to grasp, but rests with the Lord as the ultimate Sovereign and the only One with all of the facts. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a step forward in terms of justice, setting forth the idea of punitive balance and limiting the sentence to the equivalence of the crime. Even today, we look at some sentences and decry them as unreasonably harsh.
But at the same time, showing mercy for a victim means fighting for justice for them. Protecting the weak and defenceless; those who cannot protect themselves.
In chivalric terms, justice and mercy run together as the constraint on our strength. Might is to be used in the service of Right, whether our “might” is literal physical strength or economic muscle or popularity and persuasiveness or positional authority.
This is what separates the knight from the bully. Bullies use their strength in no-one’s service but their own, to cow, terrorise and dominate. We can see the bullies in all walks of life – physical bullies, emotional bullies, economic bullies, political bullies, authoritarians and petty despots…
Fighting against these doesn’t always involve fists. In fact, in most cases that’s the least desirable option. But mercy requires that unrighteousness be opposed.
This is how God can be a God of love and a God of wrath. Evil really is evil, and mercy means doing what is in your power to end the suffering it causes.
In Divine terms, making a final end of evil will be so final that only righteousness will endure. And we none of us measure up to that absolute standard. In the wisdom of God, there’s a way through the apparently irreconcilable imperatives of love for humanity and anger against the hurt caused by evil. We can be brought to the side of righteousness.
Mercy and justice both are the outworking of love and compassion. Seeing a need (widows and orphans, the weak and defenceless) and taking steps to do something about it. Standing up for those who cannot do so. Doing good to those that need it.
Legend has a name for those warriors who embody all of the knightly qualities but this one: the Black Knight. Of dauntless courage, courteous, loyal to his liege and even possessed of a towering integrity, the Black Knight is nonetheless black-hearted and evil, a symbol of warrior virtue gone wrong, because they have no mercy in them and are contemptuous of weakness. Let us not go there, but rather, use the symbol of the Black Knight as a lesson in the importance of this virtue. Because anyone can be brave, but it takes a truly strong person to show mercy.
In the planetary terms of my Mediæval cosmological symbol scheme, Mercy is of course associated with Venus. In the planetary symbology of the Middle Ages, Venus and Mars stood for the feminine and masculine archetypes. A legacy of this is the use of the planetary symbols of those planets to represent male and female in biological texts. Indeed, that association has become the norm, and many have probably forgotten their origins as planetary symbols.
Interestingly, though, we as Christians often seem to want to feminise mercy. Spiritual gift inventories are particularly prone to this in my experience, which can often leave men who score highly in mercy feeling somewhat uncertain or disappointed.
Mercy need not be entirely feminine, however, any more than courage need be entirely masculine. The Scripture is full of both courageous women and merciful men.
We shouldn’t be in the situation where we have to rescue the manly qualities of mercy or detail what a masculine mercy looks like, but somehow we appear to be there anyway. For the record; nowhere does the Scripture indicate that any of the spiritual gifts are segregated by gender, least of all mercy. Perhaps we could do with letting go of our Christian cultural gender expectations a little and not trying to second-guess the Almighty Giver of Gifts in what He is doing.
If this post can broaden a few minds as to what mercy might look like, then my job here is done.