My husband and I watched The Two Popes (2019) last weekend, and so much about that film has stuck with me. Too much for one post alone, so here is the first of a mini-series of posts on different elements raised by the film.
“Mercy is the dynamite that breaks walls” – Cardinal Bergoglio, from The Two Popes, 2019.
What a powerful image. I am terrible at vulnerability (I know, you may not have thought that from previous posts!) but I am an expert at building walls. Big, towering efforts President Trump would be proud of. They keep me safe, I am at ease and comfort within them. Thing is, they also keep everyone else out. My children can weedle their way in through the corners, but heaving them back over the wall again when they’re finished with me takes so much effort I leave the interaction exhausted. My husband? Forget it, he’s firmly on the other side. Oh what an amazing life we would live together if I could only install a door! I exaggerate of course, but I also acknowledge this is a true picture for more of the time than I would like to admit. Or than is healthy.
So the idea that through mercy, my walls can be blown to pieces is an appealing one. I love the idea that such an abstract concept to western modern day living can have such an impact when we translate it to our situations. Most of us don’t exactly spend much of our time bowing to overlords who literally hold our lives and livelihoods in their hands, ready to dispense of either on a whim, as our medieval counterparts did. Although, in some parts of the world, and perhaps in some dark corners of our own society, this is still the reality – a sobering thought as I type.
I love the definition of mercy as “Compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” (from Lexico.com). The application of this in the aforementioned contexts of overlords and subjects is clear, a merciful lord is one whom can pass judgement or sentence bringing harm but choses not to. But in our own lives? As I let the words settle in my heart I had a stark realisation. In my situation, with my walls sky high, I’m the one who has the power. That’s why I build them, after all. But in doing so I am harming those around me I am maintaining distance from. The mercy in this situation would be me choosing to not cause the harm and dropping the barriers. When this quote first drew my attention, I assumed the mercy would be something received, now I see it is something active. Is it actually my mercy towards others that can break down the walls. It is in extending the mercy that I receive blessing too. Wow!
The implications for this active expression of mercy are huge. I think of the many rules and regulations of organised churches, which are then interpreted in different ways by different individuals. Some Vicars in the Anglican church, for example, would love to be allowed to marry gay couples (citing contextual argument such as explored here), others can not see a path forward when the bible states marriage is between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24). How much pain and exclusion would be avoided if the Bishops who have the power to extend mercy would say “We are within our rights by our biblical understanding to exclude you from marriage, but we’re going to welcome you into marriage anyway”. Or what if the local Vicar was able to say “The Anglican Church stance is that marriage is between one man and one woman, but I have the discretion to act on my understanding of the Bible which is Love is Love, so please do come and be wed here”.
Or even if the answer to any expression of interest in having a wedding in church was “Oh how lovely, yes of course, let us celebrate with you”. How many walls would be smashed down in the name of mercy.
(I know this is a huge topic with lots of ongoing discussion either way, and I’m very deliberately not going to address those in this post – one of the hardest things about writing a blog is not following every single strand in a topic that you happily could do! So my apologies for skirting over the detail of this in pursuit of the main strand of the post, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it another time!)
James 2:13 states “because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (NIV). We all have the ability to take power, to use it, to sit in judgment and to ignore the pain we cause because we are in the right. But if we gave that power back up to God, followed his commands to love our neighbour (Mark 12:31) and acted with mercy in love, how much more of a light shining to glorify God would we be (Matthew 5:16).
Parella, F. (2004). Gay Marriage: Theological and Moral Arguments. Makkula Centre for Applied Ethics. Available at https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/religion-and-ethics/resources/gay-marriage-theological-and-moral-arguments/ (Accessed 9th May 2020)
The Two Popes. 2019 [Film]. Fernando Meirelles. dir. UK/Italy: Netflix