Justice vs. Forgiveness and Mercy


Much of religion revolves around justice.  Christians believe in the final judgment day when the evildoers will be punished and the righteous will be rewarded.  At the same time, forgiveness and mercy are also at the very foundation of the Christian faith.  Justice and forgiveness seem to be incompatible with each other.  Atheists exploit this conflict to make a point that Christianity is immoral.

I think, the contradiction is in the reciprocity of these concepts.

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

This expression attributed to Gandhi, but, perhaps existing long before Gandhi, shows the flaw in the biblical concept of justice. “An eye for an eye” approach creates a vicious cycle of violence that can only be broken by forgiveness.  Forgiveness and mercy, on the other hand, are supposed to create forgiveness and mercy in return.  But sometimes they don’t.

Reciprocal relations have to start small and build on themselves.  When I don’t know if I can trust a stranger, I trust him with something small. Then I build my trust on my experience.  Trust builds on trust, but it starts unconditionally.  It justifies itself, like faith. Or, rather, it’s justified by the experience of practicing it. In the same way, we can find out if forgiveness is worthwhile.

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4 thoughts on “Justice vs. Forgiveness and Mercy

  1. In game theory simulations of looping prisoner-dilemma type scenarios, a number of strategies were pitted against each other. The one that had the most success was: cooperate then tit-for-tat. That is, start off in goodwill, then respond in turn. It was more successful than defect then tit-for-tat, consistent cooperation, consistent defection, or a variety of other strategies.

    Of course, actual social dynamics are more complicated than this. But it seems to show that a successful strategy involves both forgiveness and reprisal. Do nothing but forgive, and you become a floor mat. Do nothing but retaliate, and you can get stuck in a cycle of endless back and forth revenge. The ideal balance is to not forgive so consistently that you become an easy target, but not retaliate so consistently that a cycle of revenge can’t be broken out of.

    All of which is to say, that I think you’re totally right to start with trust. But don’t be afraid to inflict a cost for violated trust, even if it only amounts to shunning the violator. And be willing to gradually forgive violators in the future if they cleanup their act. (Within reason of course. Some violations will be too dangerous to ever risk again.)

  2. I am not sure forgiveness and justice are exclusive. I may forgive my daughter for stealing even before she returns the item (or even if she can’t because she ate the candy bar or whatever) But I still want her to return it and I will still give her a punishment.

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