Thoughts on Justice and Mercy

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  Micah 6:8

I have been thinking a lot lately about justice and mercy.  I promise to get back to weaving soon, but for now I am weaving with words.


Humans don’t survive well on their own in the wild. They are slow, they don’t have claws or sharp teeth, and their cunning is not sufficient to insure their survival.  Humans on their own in the wild tend to starve, or die of exposure, or get eaten by predators.  Yes, I know that I am speaking in generalities and there are exceptions like wolf-boys and Grisly Adams, but in general, I’m right - you know I am.

On the other hand, humans in groups have the ability to be the dominant species in virtually any land environment.  Ok, there are ants.  So lets say “dominant vertebrate species.”  In fact, we’ve been living and working together in groups so long that it’s literally part of our DNA.  And, if we’re not a member of a group, we will find a way to make one.   Note: I’m not talking about the inheritance of acquired characteristics here.  I’m saying that humans who like living together in groups are more likely to live and reproduce than humans who like living alone.  Duh.

For most of human (and pre-human) history, people existed in small bands of hunter-gatherers.  They tended to be closely related individuals, who interacted occasionally with other bands of humans.  But in order to live together in groups, they had to make some rules.  Sharing is one of those rules, not hitting your brother is another one.  Also putting down the toilet seat.

There will always be rule breakers.  In fact, if you can break the rules and get away with it, you might increase your personal chances of survival.  (I’m assuming you may have watched “Survivor” here - I haven’t, it makes me crazy.)  But if you break the rules often enough, or seriously enough, you will get caught, and you will be punished.  Otherwise, what’s the point of having rules?  That’s called “justice."

But then there’s this other, more complicated thing.  You break the rules, you get caught, you are sorry, and you are forgiven.  This is called “mercy.”  Or you may be punished - it depends on how badly you broke the rules, and a lot more, as you will see.

The concepts of justice and mercy are found in every human group.  In the rare cases that we have found and studied groups that did not have these concepts, there is evidence that this was a recent change in the group, that they were unstable and destined for extinction.  It is possible, even likely, that justice and mercy are also part of our DNA.

But why does mercy make sense?  If you have a rule, it’s generally for a good reason.  And if someone breaks the rule, shouldn’t they be punished?  If if you don’t punish them, won’t that just lead to more rule breaking?  In general, yes, but as with most things involving humans it’s more complicated than that.  

So now it’s time for a highly simplified illustration.  Did I mention that it is highly simplified?  And with broad generalities for purposes of illustration?  And if you’re going to get nit-picky and make it more complicated, you should just stop reading now?

Consider a fictional band of hunter gathers - our likely ancestors - we will call them the “Diz.”

The Diz live in small bands on the savannah.  From time to time they get together with other bands of Diz, mix things up a bit like humans do, then separate again.  All Diz share some common cultural norms, e.g. rules.

One of the limiting factors for the Diz is water.  The savannah is dry.  So they have a rule that no one gets seconds on water until everyone has had some.  The punishment for taking more than you fair share of water is exile from the band.  With me so far?  

Now let us introduce the individual we will call Uh-Oh.  Uh-Oh is a member of our particular band of Diz (let’s call them the Diz-zy, just for fun). He is hot and thirsty, so he sneaks an extra ration of water.  This means that at the end of the day, someone else has to go without water.  What happened?  There should have been enough for everyone!  But a little boy saw Uh-Oh take the extra water, and he tells this to the elders of the band.

The Diz-zy elders have to decide what to do.  They call Uh-Oh before them and ask for an explanation.  They are puzzled - why would you do such a thing?  And Uh-Oh, by this time is seriously remorseful - he saw that a young woman with a baby had to go thirsty because of his selfishness.  The Diz-zy elders have to punish Uh-Oh, and the usual punishment is exile.  

But wait, says one of the elders, Uh-Oh is our best tracker, he is better at finding game than anyone else in our group.  And his brother, Un-Huh, is our second best tracker.  And if we exile Uh-Oh there is a chance the Un-Huh will go with him.  And then where would we be?  We might all starve!  So they look for a compromise.  Can they find a punishment that is fitting but not full exile?  So they decide on a lesser punishment.  Uh-Oh will remain part of their band, he will have to make a full apology to the group, and forego his own water ration for one day, and give it to the the woman who went without before.  

The Diz-zy elders are pleased with their decision, which is carried out.  The have found a way to punish Uh-Oh, and preserve their band.  Not far away, another group of Diz (let’s call them the Diz-zed) are not so pleased.  They had been following the situation with the Diz-zy and Uh-Oh with interest.  The Diz-zed are of the opinion that Uh-Oh should have received the full punishment - exile.  

Are the Diz-zed just being mean?  Interfering in something that doesn’t concern them?  Not exactly.  If Uh-Oh had been exiled, he could have been used as an example by the Diz-zed to tell their children.  “See what happens if you break this rule?  Look at what happened to Uh-Oh - he was kicked out of his band and eaten by lions!”  For the Diz-zed, Uh-Oh’s exile and eventual demise strengthens their group by strengthening their rules.

So these two bands of Diz - highly similar in every regard - have very different interests in this situation.  

The tension - or perhaps balance - between justice and mercy exists in every level of human society almost all of the time.  It is one of our most complex human interactions.  It is innate to all of us, yet the fine points must be learned.  And by its very nature, mercy is not a fixed point on a scale, but sliding depending on circumstance.  Small wonder that we get it wrong much of the time!  And yet, we must continue to try to get it right - our very survival depends on it.