Laws and mercy - Being 'both/and' instead of 'either/or'

Bumper stickers can say a lot about a person. I pay attention to bumper stickers, when I walk and when I drive. Some make me think. Others make me angry. Some make me laugh. Others can make me groan and roll my eyes.

Recently, I was behind someone at a traffic light who had a bumper sticker that read, "If guns cause crime, then pencils cause misspelled words." My immediate reaction to the statement was frustration. I started thinking through all the reasons the logic is flawed and how to reason against it. But, while I am certainly in favor of stricter, more just gun laws, upon further reflection, I had to admit that there is something to the logic of the sticker.

Fast forward to earlier this week. Someone with whom I went to college and to whom I'm connected via social media posted a statement about praying for conversion of hearts because laws can't change human hearts. And herein lies the logic of the bumper sticker, I believe. Laws can control. Laws can bring order. In some ways, laws are meant to help protect us from the worst in ourselves. I don't mean to sound like Thomas Hobbes — in fact, to the contrary.

What human laws cannot do is address deeper issues and problems in a society. Laws cannot bring about conversion of hearts. Laws have no bearing on virtues like compassion, mercy, love, justice and peace. And while we need laws that are just, more so we need conversion as a society and as individuals.

Last year on the Second Sunday of Easter, also known as Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis promulgated a document, Misericordiae Vultus, calling for an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy from Dec. 8, 2015 through Nov. 20, 2016. However, on his visit to Bangui, Central African Republic, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door of the cathedral praying for "peace, mercy, reconciliation, pardon, love" and thus entering the spirit of the Year of Mercy a few days early.

I've been reflecting a great deal on this Year of Mercy and the need for greater mercy, compassion and peace in our world. This is especially true in light of recent events — the heartbreaking rhetoric surrounding the question of refugee resettlement, attacks by terrorists, rising tensions among nations, the ever-present problem of racism, and gun violence. We talk a lot about what can be done from a policy standpoint, but there is not much being said about how to address the underlying issues. And the truth is, we need conversation on both.

As Catholics we have always prided ourselves on being "both/and" people. Jesus Christ is both God and human. Humanity is graced and fallen. We are a mix of saint and sinner. God is just and merciful. Can we not apply the same "both/and" approach to the problems of our society? Too often in our conversations about justice in our world, we focus on laws, policy and systems, to the detriment of conversation on conversion and virtue. In Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis wrote:

It would not be out of place at this point to recall the relationship between justice and mercy. These are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love. Justice is a fundamental concept for civil society, which is meant to be governed by the rule of law. Justice is also understood as that which is rightly due to each individual. In the Bible, there are many references to divine justice and to God as 'judge'. In these passages, justice is understood as the full observance of the Law and the behavior of every good Israelite in conformity with God's commandments. Such a vision, however, has not infrequently led to legalism by distorting the original meaning of justice and obscuring its profound value. To overcome this legalistic perspective, we need to recall that in Sacred Scripture, justice is conceived essentially as the faithful abandonment of oneself to God's will. . . .

Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God's way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe. (MV 20, 21)

In the upcoming Year of Mercy we are called to (1) reflect on the mercy of God, as is exemplified in the life of Jesus; (2) give thanks for God's merciful love for us; and (3) to become the mercy of God in our world today. How could our personal conversion change the conversation? If we, being aware of and grateful for the mercy of a loving God, were to become people of mercy and reconciliation, what effect would it have? In what way(s) could our society change?

I do not pretend to offer a panacea for the world's ills. The problems we face are complex, multi-faceted and wrapped in deep cultural biases. However, I do hope that in the Year of Mercy we might be able to speak boldly about the need for the conversion of hearts in addition to changes in policy and law. Just laws do not make just people. Virtue makes just people. And we can begin with mercy.

[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-Novitiate program for her province.]