5 min read

Mercy of any magnitude is scarce

Today’s cynicism, means justice really needs tempering.
In a court room a judge looks out across it as a lawyer standing addressing her turns his head to look.
Rhoda Griffis and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy.

My friend Jo was killed by a lorry driver while she was cycling to work. She was thirty-four. The driver wasn’t paying attention. A couple of distracted minutes had tragic consequences. One life was lost; many others would never be the same again. 

Months later, in court, the driver pled guilty to causing death by careless driving, and the judge warned him that he was facing time in prison. But between the verdict and the sentencing, Jo’s parents wrote to the judge asking him to show mercy. 

So he did. The driver didn’t go to jail. He was spared the punishment that our legal system says he deserved. He admitted his guilt, and he didn’t ask for leniency or mercy or forgiveness, but Jo’s parents showed it anyway. They even made a point of going over to him to tell him clearly that they forgave him for taking their daughter’s life. 

The court case was covered by national and local media, with one newspaper summing up what had happened with the headline: ‘Death driver shown mercy.’ 

It made national news because mercy of this magnitude is rare in society today. In fact, mercy of any magnitude is scarce. We live in an increasingly polarised world, where our desire for justice eclipses the beauty of mercy because we cannot see how both could exist at the same time. We want justice, and rightly so. We want people to pay for harm they have caused and we especially cannot abide it when the obviously guilty use their power, wealth or status to get them off the hook. 

Extending mercy seems to us to come at the expense of justice. If we forgive, somehow that seems to deny the damage caused. 

But cancel culture is rapidly turning our society into a place where anyone with a remotely public profile needs to live in fear of saying or doing anything wrong. We increasingly err on the side of cynicism when someone says they are sorry. We dismiss apologies, even when accompanied with tears and distress, as a stunt or ‘too little too late’ or more to do with being caught than with the original offence. We have become predisposed to assume the worst. 

We start by recognising that justice in its purest form, at its best, is inherently merciful because it wants repentance more than it wants retribution.

I wonder if we have strayed beyond the necessary and right fight for justice into an insatiable appetite for vengeance, which leads us to a place where there is no space for contrition. If guilt is irredeemable, punishment must be permanent and absolute.  

We argue that mercy is not deserved. And we are right. But it never is. If it were deserved, it wouldn’t be mercy. The very definition of mercy is that it is undeserved – to receive mercy is to receive kindness, compassion and forgiveness that you have no right to, no claim on, no reasonable grounds to expect. 

But a bigger problem with our desire for justice over mercy is that we are not consistent. I know that my default is to want justice when I am wronged, but mercy when I am in the wrong. Who among us has not made a mistake or hurt someone else but then defended our actions by claiming mitigating circumstances or good motives? We want to be forgiven. Even when we know we have done wrong, we do not want to be punished. 

I’m self-centred in my approach to mercy and justice. I am also way more lenient when those I love get things wrong than I am when someone hurts someone close to me. I assume that those dear to me had the best intentions, and those I don’t know or don’t like had the worst. My friends meant well; my enemies meant harm.  

The Bible presents God as both merciful and just. It repeatedly affirms his concern for victims of injustice and reminds anyone who claims to know him that, if they really do, pleading the cause of the vulnerable and marginalised will be an inevitable (even required) outworking of that. It says that getting justice for the oppressed is more important to God than religious rituals such as fasting from food. In fact, it calls caring for the afflicted and distressed “true religion”. 

But at the same time, Jesus told the religious people around him – the justice-warriors of his day who looked out for the slightest misdemeanour in others so they could call them out on it – that they needed to learn that God prefers mercy to sacrifice. Indeed, there is no example in the Bible of anyone pleading for mercy and God denying them. Even the most wicked and cruel abusers of power, if they humbled themselves and cried out to God for mercy, were shown it. 

And it is not just God who exercises both justice and mercy. He says that he wants ordinary human beings to act justly and love mercy. In Christianity, justice and mercy are not pitted against each other; they are woven together as time and time again we are invited to live a better way by valuing and practicing both. Jesus criticised the religious leaders of his day for following all sorts of detailed and pedantic rules while neglecting what he called “the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness” and ultimately he died on the cross in the most astonishing act of faithfulness to bring perfect justice and limitless mercy. 

But how do we mere mortals do both? We start by recognising that justice in its purest form, at its best, is inherently merciful because it wants repentance more than it wants retribution. Without repentance, there can be no reconciliation or restoration. A society that rules out redemption – that says no apology or atonement can ever be enough – will soon become a harsh and hopeless place. Biblical justice always leaves space for mercy. So must we. 


‘Natalie Williams' Tis Mercy All: The Power of Mercy in a Polarised World is published by SPCK. 

Life & Death
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.