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Justice, Mercy and Reverend Graham

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

Recent discussions surrounding the execution of Karla Faye Tucker as well as the public statements of Reverend Billy Graham concerning the allegations against President Clinton have people thinking about two key Christian concepts (justice and mercy).

During a recent interview, the Reverend Billy Graham made some remarks that seriously disappointed many Christians, conservatives and morally minded Americans. He said that President Clinton has a personality that would make women "go wild," and that he would forgive Clinton "... because I know the frailty of human nature, and especially a strong, vigorous, young man like he is."

Reverend Graham has been a powerful evangelical leader to millions of people around the world. Over the years, he has had a strong presence at the White House in his capacity as pastoral advisor to several U.S. presidents. Sadly, on this particular occasion he missed an important opportunity to speak to America on the significance of the attributes of justice and mercy in our everyday lives.

A great number of Americans are outraged and indignant as they continuously observe the current administration engaged in the unseemly tactics of stalling, stonewalling and outright lying. Our Creator graciously equipped us with an inherent sense of what is just and righteous. This awareness is heightened as we witness the ongoing inequity exposed in the steady stream of news reports.

From the Christian perspective, two components must be analyzed in order to acquire a proper and balanced understanding of the nature of justice. The first aspect is something called commutative justice. This type of justice supposes an exchange of things profitable for things equally profitable. In effect, it means as I supply your need, you may supply mine. As I provide a benefit to you, I may receive one from you. This notion is expressed in the scriptural principle commonly known as the Golden Rule.

The second aspect of justice is distributive justice. This sort of justice does not depend upon a contract or express bargain, but instead it passes upon us by virtue of a written command of God. Both elements of justice play a part in ideal Christian behavior.

Yet most people have been the recipient of someone else's kindness and generosity at one time or another. Christians have experienced the ultimate form of undeserved benevolence in the extraordinary gift of salvation. God's mercy extends far beyond mere justice or fairness, giving us infinitely more than that which we merit.

As followers of His Word
, we cannot ignore the fact that justice also requires us to pay the price for our actions. This is to be clearly distinguished from forgiveness. This explains how Christians can forgive Karla Faye Tucker but still believe in the justice of her punishment. In the same way, Christians can forgive Bill Clinton and still demand that he be held accountable for the full legal consequences of his acts. The book of Romans states, "Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour."

In its pure form, law has no mercy. Law demands a penalty. But judgment can be seasoned with mercy. A kind heart seeks out ways to demonstrate mercy. Mercy is a quality that reflects the face of God. As we show mercy, the character of the Almighty Himself who is endlessly forgiving, infinitely kind and eternally merciful is revealed.

In forgiving as Reverend Graham has done, Americans can let go of the burden of discomfort in their own hearts. In pardoning, we allow the grace of our compassionate Lord to shine through our own lives.

Nevertheless, we do not know what presidential sins Reverend Graham was willing to forgive. Presumably President Clinton has disclosed the details of his transgressions to Reverend Graham. If not, then Reverend Graham, like most Americans, believes that the President's denials are not completely accurate.

Genuine forgiveness takes place when the person who is seeking forgiveness is truly penitent. If Reverend Graham advises the President to go before the nation and publicly confess the nature and details of whatever needs to be forgiven, he will have given him more valuable advice than a whole bevy of White House lawyers. Then people can choose the method and extent to which they wish to bestow mercy, and the country can move on knowing justice has triumphed in the end.

Copyright © 1999 -
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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