Sunday morning, on mercy and uncertainty

I’ve been away this weekend on a retreat in the mountains. The program has been centered on quiet, and on the works of Flannery O’Connor. And so, I re-read “Revelation” this weekend, and I am reminded of just how treacherous a trap it is to believe that you have sufficient good judgment to sort people into the deserving and undeserving. (If you haven’t read “Revelation,” you should.)

Recently, I eavesdropped on a debate my friend Jordan got involved in on Facebook. He astutely argued that if you’re interested in building a political party that can win elections, you should stop thinking of people as existing on a binary scale–you’re either a good person or a bad person–and instead think of each individual as a person who does a good thing, or a person who is currently doing a less good thing,  and even a person who is doing a bad thing.

In “Revelation, ” the protagonist Mrs. Turpin reasonably observes that she is fortunate to be middle class, but credits herself for responding appropriately: She is stewarding the resources given to her. She has manners. She isn’t rude, even to people who don’t really deserve her kindness. She’s a respectable, decent person by all commonly held standards of the time. But despite being a good woman, she is also, as a girl she encounters says, “a wart-hog from hell.”

The story is not about how someone who thought she was good was actually bad. It is about about both/and. Mrs. Turpin is both good and bad. She is herself and a wart-hog from hell, too. As are we all.

When Roger Ailes died earlier this week, Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten reminded folks to “resist grave-dancing,” and got a whole bunch of pushback, insisting that as a sexual predator, Ailes deserved for us to delight in his death. Who knows? Maybe he does deserve it. But I am certain I am not supposed to be in the business of giving people what they deserve.

This is a fundamental part of my theology: the persistent redeemability of humankind. The story of my faith is that God did not give up on people–people who did bad things, who ignored instructions, who turned their backs, who were cruel and unjust. If God can forgive, and redeem, and make lemonade out of some awfully sour lemons, then who am I to insist that someone is irredeemable?

Not only that, the “you’re either with us or against us” approach is based on a zero-sum game that is fundamentally flawed. If I show any compassion toward Ailes, am I necessarily withholding compassion from his victims? If I spend time trying to understand the conditions that prompt someone to vote for Donald Trump, am I by definition withholding sympathy for the people who suffer under a Trump presidency? No. Mercy holds space for error and transformation. Grace multiplies as it is dispensed. We don’t have to conserve it just in case someone better comes along.

The more I allow myself to take pride in my correct opinions, the more certain I am of my virtue, the more arrogant I am about my own goodness, the less I am like the one who is merciful, who loves beyond reason, who forgives beyond deserving.

In her vision at the end of the story, Mrs. Turpin sees the words from Matthew 20 come to pass–she and her husband and the other well-mannered are last in line in the march to heaven. Mrs. Turpin recognizes in that moment that all the things that made her first–the manners, the correct opinions, the proper clothes–are utterly unimportant. In a phrase that convicts me, that calls me to humility and compassion, O’Connor says that as they walk toward God, “even their virtues were being burned away.”


Early morning at the retreat center. Thinking on O’Connor.

4 thoughts on “Sunday morning, on mercy and uncertainty

  1. Couldn’t leave a comment on your page. This is beautiful. Loved having you with us. Blessings, Myra >

  2. Beautiful. Insightful. True. I am going to have to make a meme out of this outstanding quote: “Mercy holds space for error and transformation. Grace multiplies as it is dispensed. We don’t have to conserve it just in case someone better comes along.” So glad that you are writing and sharing.

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