Mercy In a Mean Time

785px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project (1)

Mercy In a Mean Time
Brian Zahnd

My father was a political man; a lawyer and a judge. He was an ideological conservative. He was also known for his kindness and mercy. My dad died in 2009. At his funeral a man approached me and said, “Your father sent me to prison for armed robbery. I came to his funeral today to honor him. He always treated me with respect and dignity, and he dealt with me as mercifully as the law would allow.” I don’t know how often a felon attends the funeral of a judge who sent him to prison in order to pay his respects, but I would guess it’s not too often. My point is that my father was a political conservative who never felt his conservatism was in conflict with his Christian commitment to kindness and mercy.

Which is why I am so baffled and grieved by what seems to be a turn toward meanness in the name of conservatism. I’m also quite sure that my father, were he alive today, would be just as baffled and grieved.

But as a pastor my real concern is for Christians who embrace meanness simply because they see it modeled by culture war celebrities like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. This is a tragedy. Philosophically I have no intrinsic objection to ideological conservatism. (Personally, I don’t bother to place myself anywhere on the Left/Right political grid.) But for followers of Jesus the manner in which we hold our politics must be compatible with the spirit of Jesus. And, yes, I know very well that ideological liberalism can be just as mean and intolerant. But my concern is for the community of evangelicals with whom I have been deeply associated for more than forty years. Many American evangelicals now seem to be infected with a meanness contracted from their uncritical commitment to contemporary conservatism — a meanness that is incompatible with Christianity.

If partisan politics places us in an antagonistic posture toward the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the 2.2 million people in American prisons, we have placed ourselves among those condemned by Jesus as “goats” for failing to show mercy to “the least of these.” This is troubling.

A careful reading of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31–46) shows that Jesus is not strictly speaking about an afterlife judgment, but about what happens “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” According to Jesus, the coming of the Son of Man is not an event postponed to a distant future, but an imminent event. On the night of his arrest, Jesus told the High Priest Caiaphas that he (Caiaphas) would witness the coming of the Son of Man. “But I tell you, ‘from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (Matthew 26:64) During his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man referred to in Daniel 7 — the humane ruler who is the alternative to the beasts of empire. It is to this Son of Man that the Ancient of Days gives everlasting dominion over the nations. When Jesus, the Son of Man, was vindicated by God in resurrection and given all authority in heaven and on earth, the nations were given a Christ-informed moral arc that if followed leads to what Jesus describes as “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” But if the nations reject the way of Jesus, it leads them to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Jesus teaches us that the nations that care for the impoverished, the infirm, the immigrant, and the imprisoned enter the Father’s kingdom, while those nations who ignore “the least of these” are on the path to a smoldering Gehenna.

This is something we should take very seriously. I’m not talking about whether you vote for an elephant or a donkey, but whether you follow the Lamb. I’m talking about the attitude of your heart. What is your general disposition toward…

The poor?
Those in need of health care?
Immigrants (documented or not)?
America’s vast prison population?

If your attitude is one of indifference, distrust, disgust, anger, or moral superiority, may I suggest that you are being carried by the spirit of the age toward meanness as you fly away from mercy.

For a follower of Jesus, no loyalty to a political ideology can justify a turn away from mercy and toward meanness.

Meanness is not cool, it’s not tough, it’s not admirable; it is diabolical. It’s simply not like Jesus.

Remember what James the brother of Jesus said…

“Judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)

Mercy triumphs over judgment. That’s tattoo worthy. I recommend tattooing it on your soul!

When you can blame…have mercy.
When you can shame…have mercy.
When you can criticize…have mercy.
When you can condemn…have mercy.
When you have a political disagreement…have mercy.
When you have a theological disagreement…have mercy.
When you are certain you are completely right…have mercy.
When you could exact your revenge and get even…have mercy.
So that when you pray, “Lord, have mercy on me”—
There will be a large reservoir of mercy for God to draw from.

I hope this post doesn’t anger those of you with a passion for politics. This is not a plug for any particular political ideology — it is a plea for mercy. It is a plea that we who are followers of Jesus would be known, not for meanness, but for mercy. Like my dad was.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


Version 2
L. Glen Zahnd

(The artwork is a detail from Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal.)