Justice and Mercy

Alma is unarguably the figure in the Book of Mormon who exhibits the most concern for the concepts of justice and mercy—which he notably conceptualizes as different things, even things that are in competition. He thoroughly explicates this in Alma 42, as part of his sermon to his wayward son Corianton. I wish to go briefly over his argument, and then raise some questions about this conception.

Corianton apparently sees it as unjust to consign a sinner to misery. Alma challenges this at length, starting with the story of the Garden of Eden. It would have frustrated the plan of salvation, he says, if our first parents had eaten of the tree of life. Instead, they became fallen,” cut off both temporally and spiritually from the presence of the Lord; and thus we see they became subjects to follow after their own will” (v. 7). As soon as this happened, they became miserable. The only way to escape the consequences of their disobedience was through repentance. Significantly, without this repentance, mercy could not come into play because it would destroy the work of justice. And “the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God” (v. 13). Two significant points here are that justice and mercy are different things, and that God’s very godhood is contingent on justice being enacted.

Alma continues, saying that as fallen beings, humans entered into “the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence” (v. 14). On the one hand, here justice is described as God’s justice, which suggests something that’s part of his character and not outside of him. But on the other, again it is said that he is dependent on its existence—without it, he would cease to be God. Justice seems to be a kind of abstract force in the universe, one which requires certain consequences for behavior—and indeed, I have often heard members of the church conceptualize justice in this way, as something that even God has to follow. (This works in an LDS theology which at least opens the door for rejecting an omnipotent God.)

So how do we get to mercy? It requires the atonement, which appeases the demands of justice. So again, justice requires some kind of payment. If God is exclusively merciful, it is assumed, this will undermine justice, which will not get its due. Alma further explains that repentance is made possible by sin, which is made possible by the law, which requires punishment. And without the law, mercy and justice would both be irrelevant.

But there is a law, and a punishment. And also repentance, which allows for mercy. Without this “justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment” (v. 22). This mercy is enabled by the atonement. Humans are brought back to the presence of God, where “justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved” (v. 24). Crucially, mercy cannot rob justice. What we have is a situation in which you get mercy if you repent, and this is only possible because of the atonement which has appeased justice.

I realize this is familiar stuff for most church members; I would say, in fact, that it is the most common model of sin and repentance in the church. The atonement was necessary because someone had to appease justice. Christ carried this out. This means that humans can escape the punishment that justice would require—because justice has already been satisfied—and, contingent on repentance, they can access God’s mercy.

But I have some serious reservations about this. First of all, I question the idea that justice is an abstract force that requires punishment for every sin—something that even God cannot escape. It makes justice, rather than God, the most powerful force in the universe. I am similarly not enamored of substitutionary atonement theories, in which Christ takes our place and gets the punishment that we deserve. There is a cruelty to this model—God basically has to torture someone before he is able to forgive us. It also raises the question of whether this is genuine forgiveness, given that God/justice has actually been paid off. To forgive someone a debt is to not require payment. But that’s not happening in this model of the atonement—payment has been made.

But most troubling of all, I think, is the way in which this conception of justice excludes mercy. Yes, mercy gets to play a role—but only after justice has been satisfied. Justice, then, is the primary force. This downgrading of mercy, I would argue, is in tension with other commandments, particularly the two great ones: love of God, and love of neighbor. Notably, we are not told to enact some abstract ideal of justice on those around us, but rather to be loving, merciful, and forgiving. It is in doing this we are said to emulate Christ.

Ahh, you may say, but we are in fact told to do justly, or deal justly—an idea that appears in all of the standard works. But it only appears a few times—and in the context of so many commands to have charity, I think it is problematic to interpret this as retributive justice, which focuses on law and punishment. I rather see it as distributive justice, which involves giving everyone an equal share.1 This is clearly the case in the Zion society in the Book of Mormon which is established after the coming of Christ: “And they taught, and did minister one to another; and they had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another.”2 This is not retributive justice.

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At the risk of getting in over my head, I want to turn briefly to the work of Immanuel Kant, whose notion of morality is similar to Alma’s conception of justice in that it is abstract, and separates out love. Kant accepts love as an ideal but rejects it as a motivation, arguing that it is inferior to duty as a basis of virtue. Like Alma, he points to a universal law. This law is something, he says, that must be followed for its own sake. The problem with love is that it is not a matter of willpower: “it is not within anybody’s power to love someone, simply because he has been told to do so.” 3 Love, then, as far as it plays a role in Kant’s morality, is an unattainable ideal. For a created being, “it is impossible that it should ever be entirely free from desires and inclinations which are not of themselves in agreement with the moral law.”4 For this reason, it is vital that one put one’s inclinations aside and follow the law for its own sake. It is worth noting here that emotion is seen as dangerous, as potentially detrimental to true morality.

One notable aspect of this conceptualization of morality is that it is defined it solely in terms of the relationship between an individual human being and the law to which she has immediate access. Problematically, this excludes morality which is enacted in the context of relations with others. It is somewhat disturbing to reduce morality to an abstract ideal when moral action must take place in the concrete world with real human beings. Additionally, if your commitment is to the moral ideal rather than to the people themselves, I think this undermines relationships. In subordinating love to duty, Kant may have guaranteed its consistency, but at the price of stripping it of what makes it meaningful.

I realize that Alma’s paradigm is different in that rather than talking about people actually following the law, he focuses on how they escape its demands—which happens through repentance and the atonement. But I still see underlying similarities, particularly in its suspicion of love as something which can undermine justice, and its focus on the individual’s relationship to an abstract law.

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Another split we often make is that between reason and emotion. These are frequently described not only as fundamentally different, but as in opposition. Those who claim to function by pure reason contemptuously dismiss those who rely on emotion in making judgments and decisions, saying that this clouds their thinking. Those who would describe themselves as motivated by emotion, on the other hand, accuse the former group of being cold and uncaring.

Recent scholarship, however, questions this split. A particularly influential work is Antonio Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Damasio, a behavioral neurobiologist, examines the ways in which reason and emotion are intertwined. He observes,

reason may not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were . . . emotions and feelings may not be intruders in the bastion of reason at all: they may be enmeshed in its networks, for worse and for better. The strategies of human reason probably did not develop, in either evolution or any single individual, without the guiding force of the mechanisms of biological regulation, of which emotion and feeling are notable expressions. Moreover, even after reasoning strategies become established in the formative years, their effective deployment probably depends, to a considerable extent, on a continued ability to experience feelings.5

The idea, he says, that we can function with “pure reason” is a myth. Our use reason of is inescapably intertwined with emotion.

What does this have to do with justice and mercy? The idea that they’re inherently in competition seems to parallel the idea that logic and emotion are in competition. Justice generally gets placed in the realm of reason, and mercy in the realm of emotion. Reason applies a logical system; emotion allows you to empathize and have compassion and concern. But if reason is directed rather than hindered by emotion, then the two cannot be so easily separated. We cannot abstract out a system of justice that is independent of our emotional experience.

What if justice, then, requires mercy to be authentic justice—and mercy isn’t real mercy in the absence of justice? I am reminded by something John Dominic Crossan says in passing at the end of his book How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian:

Justice is the body of love, and love is the soul of justice. Separate them and you do not get both—you get neither; you get a moral corpse. Justice is the flesh of love and love is the spirit of justice . . . Justice without love may end in brutality, but love without justice must end in banality. Love empowers justice, and justice embodies love. Keep both, or get neither.6

What about Kant’s concern about consistency? If your actions are based on love, what do you do when you don’t feel loving? Wouldn’t it be better to have an abstract ideal to guide your actions? For one thing, given what I’ve said so far, it seems unlikely that this is entirely possible. But it also assumes that love is no more than a fleeting emotion. Love might better be understood as relational commitment to others and to God. It embodies mercy as well as justice, in that it has the compassion of mercy, but the consistency and commitment to the good—understood not as abstract ideals, but as loving relationships—as justice. And in the end, I think, the law cannot be extracted from loving relationships, because that is what the law is.

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Two more questions:

How does this play out with sin? I see sin in terms of doing things that harm relationships, with others, God, our community, and even ourselves. There are obvious consequences to such actions, in that the relationships have been harmed. But that doesn’t require some external force to demand additional punishment. Repentance means working to repair those relationships; it doesn’t mean doing a certain amount of suffering to make up for what you’ve done. And grace is at work in God’s freely given love for us, which enables our love for others and for him.

What about the atonement? I agree with those who understand the atonement not as humans reaching out to God and attempting to appease him, but as God reaching out to humans by entering into our lives and our deepest suffering. As Alma says, “he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”7 I find this more powerful than his later explanation of an atonement which satisfies justice—though perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive if we re-think what justice is.

I conclude with a well-known scripture from Micah, one that connects justice and mercy as qualities to strive for: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”8

  1. I’m getting this from the work of John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian. Crossan doesn’t invent these terms, but he applies them to the Bible in interesting ways. []
  2. 3 Nephi 26 :13 []
  3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by H.W. Cassirer (Marquette University Press), 102 []
  4. Ibid., 102-3 []
  5. Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Avon Books, 1994), xi-xii []
  6. John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian ((HarperOne, 2015), 245. []
  7. Alma 7:12 []
  8. Micah 6:8 []

8 thoughts on “Justice and Mercy

  1. 1

    Consider there are no abstract principles called “justice” or “mercy.”

    Justice is your desire for vengeance against those who have wronged you.

    Mercy is your forgiving those who have wronged you.

    As long as you’re asking for justice, then other’s requests for justice against you will be honored – that’s the rule you’re following.

    And if you release them from their debts, so shall you be released from yours.

    That’s the golden rule – you get what you ask for.

  2. 2

    Dealing justly with someone means to give them what they ask for.

    “Give unto every man that asketh.” – Jesus

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    That would be the point of this.

    21 Then came Peter to him and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?

    22 Jesus said unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times; but, until seventy times seven.

    23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, who would take account of his servants.

    24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him who owed him ten thousand talents.

    25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

    26 And the servant besought him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

    27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. The servant, therefore, fell down and worshipped him.

    28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow- servants which owed him a hundred pence; and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.

    29 And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

    30 And he would not; but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.

    31 So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.

    32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant! I forgave thee all that debt; because thou desiredst me; shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow- servant, even as I had pity on thee?

    33 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.

    34 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

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    Thanks for this post, Lynnette. I love it when you give me so much to think about. I particularly like this question you pose:

    “What if justice, then, requires mercy to be authentic justice—and mercy isn’t real mercy in the absence of justice?”

    I like this framing. It makes a lot more sense than having justice be the ultimate force and mercy being downgraded to the force that gets to sweep up the crumbs after justice has done the serious work. And the connection to the reason/emotion research seems spot on to me.

    I’m not sure if this makes any sense, but another scripture that jumps to mind for me as being possibly related is Nephi’s oft-cited comment that we are saved by grace “after all we can do.” This might just be repeating the connection to the atonement that you point out, but this sounds a lot like the justice/mercy split, where Nephi sounds like he’s saying our works are the really important part, and grace sweeps up the crumbs, like mercy does after justice. I wonder if this could be reinterpreted using the same framing you’re outlining for justice and mercy, making grace something that works with what we do rather than only after we’ve done everything we could.

  8. 8

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Ziff! I really like that parallel to grace and works; I hadn’t thought of that. And I totally agree that grace is part of what we do, not something that kicks in afterward.

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