Monday, September 12, 2016



The intricate relationship of Law, Justice, and Mercy is a constant theme on social media today; and as Oblates of the Order of St. Benedict we are faced with this issue every time we go on the internet.

At the heart of a Benedictine approach to this, is the following from The Rule of St. Benedict:

“The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all. Because of the holy service they have professed, or because of dread of hell and for the glory of everlasting life, they carry out the superior’s orders as promptly as if the command came from God himself” [The Rule, Chapter 5. Obedience].

To what are we to be obedient? Holy Scripture sets the parameters for our understanding of this, in relationship to the current issues that face us in the world today. The following is a summary from The Book of Common Prayer, p .317, 

The Decalogue   
1.    I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.
2.   Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them. and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.
3.   Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4.   Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.
5.   Honor thy father and thy mother.
6.   Thou shalt do no murder.
7.   Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8.  Thou shalt not steal.
9.   Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
10.     Thou shalt not covet.
Lord have mercy upon us,

Without these commandments, and without a response to the call to Obedience, society would begin to deteriorate.

To focus on Commandment 6, there is a distinction between “kill” and “murder” in Greek and in Hebrew. Both John the Baptist and Jesus, understood that distinction. John the Baptist does not tell the soldiers, not to kill, when they ask what they should do. C. S. Lewis says, “All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery, and when soldiers came to St. John the Baptist asking what to do, he never remotely suggested that they ought to leave the army.” [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 119].

“Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages" [Luke 3:14].  

Jesus does not tell the Centurion not to fulfill his calling as a soldier in warfare, but quite to the contrary points him out as an example of faith.

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly."  7 And he said to him, "I will come and heal him."  8 But the centurion replied, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."  10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” [Matthew 8:5-10].   

The classic English mystery writers understand that their readers want justice to be done, and that evil must be punished. How they work it out is another matter. One of my favourite authors is Agatha Christie. She has an obvious concern that justice must be done, but she is also aware that those who administer law, do not always do justice; and when you understand that distinction we have to ask the question, how does mercy enter in? The following summary from Murder on the Orient Express will illustrate the problem. I have drawn this version of the story from the BBC Poirot series on Television.

David Suchet as Poirot on The Orient Express

In ‘Stamboul a woman is stoned in the street for adultery.
“Ma foi!” says Poirot, “Justice is often upsetting,
But she has broken the rules.”
The theme of justice and the law has been introduced,
But what of mercy? What of mercy?

On The Orient Express, Cassetti, 
the killer of baby Daisy Armstrong
Asks, “Do you believe in God, Mister Poirot?”
Cassetti smiles and continues, “I do now. I think that
God is like an extra gun, an extra piece of protection.”

But God is not a hired gun to be summoned 
at the beck and call
Of the would-be pious like a mercenary mountebank.
And so “the repulsive murderer is repulsively,
And perhaps deservedly, murdered”,
But what of mercy? What of mercy?

Cassetti and Hercule Poirot

The dilemma is owned by Dame Agatha Christies
and by David Suchet, the inimitable Hercule Poirot.
The law had failed little Daisy Armstrong; but had justice?
And what about the guilty who stabbed Cassetti to death?
How will they continue to live with the issues
Of law, of justice, and the ever illusive quality of mercy,
Which is sometimes so incredibly strained
By the complex relationship of law and justice?

Poirot swallows his pain over the failure of the law
To administer justice and he condemns not,
But walks away fingering his rosary and praying.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

That is not to say that God does not answer his faithful people’s prayers for protection. Of course he does, but a fundamentally unrepentant person like Cassetti does not have the same claim on God, even though at times, God, in His omniscient care, answers the prayers of unbelievers. That has been a mercy for many of us.

C. S. Lewis points out that, “Justice means much more than the sort of thing that goes on in law courts. It is the old name for everything we should now call ‘fairness’; it includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, and all that side of life.” [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p.79). Again from C. S. Lewis,

“For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self, is the worse of the two. That is why a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.
” (Ibid.  p.103].

“Now a step further. Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment - even to death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, and long before the war, and I' still think so now that we are at peace”  [p. 118]

‘Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature”[p. 119-120].

“Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves - to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not” [p. 120]

            To put that in a Gospel perspective, death is not the worst thing that could happen to us, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. [Matthew 10:28].  There is a final moment for every man and woman when we will present ourselves to God to hear either, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” or “Depart from me, I never knew you.”  [Matthew 25:21; Matthew 7:27]. In the case of Cassetti, it is not entirely clear that he is not penitent, even though he suffers the penalty of death for his terrible sins.

While The Rule of St. Benedict does not deal with the death penalty for crimes, yet it does deal with the relationship between, Law, Justice, and Mercy,

Chapter 28: On Those Who Will Not Amend after Repeated Corrections

If a brother who has been frequently corrected for some fault, and even excommunicated, does not amend, let a harsher correction be applied, that is, let the punishment of the rod be administered. But if he still does not reform or perhaps (which God forbid) even rises up in pride and wants to defend his conduct, then let the Abbot do what a wise physician would do. Having used applications, the ointments of exhortation, the medicines of the Holy Scriptures, finally the cautery of excommunication and of the strokes of the rod, if he sees that his efforts are of no avail, let him apply a still greater remedy, his own prayers and those of all the others, that the Lord, who can do all things may restore health to the brother who is sick. But if he is not healed even in this way, then let the Abbot use the knife of amputation, according to the Apostle's words, "Expel the evil one from your midst" (1 Cor. 5:13), and again, "If the faithless one departs, let him depart" (1 Cor. 7:15) lest one diseased sheep contaminate the whole flock."

            That is as far as the authority of the Abbot under The Rule extends. If the issue at hand is actually murder; then following the principle of obedience, it would be the Abbot’s responsibility to turn the murderer over to the state.

            At best the relationship between Law, Justice, and Mercy is a difficult one, and highly individual circumstances must be taken into account. How do we decide the appropriate response? That is not a matter of individual choice for we are members of the corporate Body of Christ and decisions should always be made thoughtfully, with prayer, remembering that all of us are under authority.


Murder in the night
On the Orient Express,
“Ce n’est rien, Je me suis trompé”.
“It is nothing. I am wrong.”
Or did he say,
“C’etait un cauchemaur?”
“It was a nightmare.”
The nightmare is Ratchett himself,
The baby killer Cassetti.
Mr. Beddoes says of him,
“Put a sewer rat in a suit,
It is still a sewer rat’
Just a rat in a suit.”
Cassetti is perhaps deservedly murdered.

“Bien, Monseiur!”
Sometimes justice is not simple, and
Sometimes the law is not justice,
But how does one decide, and
Just who makes the decision?
Eh bien, la vie est compliquée ,
et est donc la mort.
Ah well, life is complicated
And so is death.

Copyright © 2016 R. Penman Smith

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