There is a scene in “Gabriel’s Inferno” in which a male and a female character enter into a discussion about forgiveness and penance. I don’t agree with the view of penance that is presented by the woman and neither does she (it differs from the one presented in the link above). But since the man she is speaking with is distraught, she reasons with him as best she can, taking a much starker, harsher view of penance.
She also mentions forgiveness and she does so by referencing Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. This work is arguably one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century and if you haven’t read it yet, you should. There are several different stories intertwined in the narrative but my favourite is the story of Jean Valjean, the convict. He steals a loaf of bread to feed the hungry children of his widowed sister. He is arrested for the theft and sentenced to five years in the galleys.
After his release from prison, he steals again. This time, he steals the rich trappings of a Bishop’s house. But when he is arrested and forced to face his victim, something surprising happens. The Bishop declares that the stolen items are gifts and he adds to the items, giving more than Jean had stolen initially. After the gendarmes have departed, leaving Jean alone with the Bishop, the Bishop bids him go in peace. And he declares that he has bought the convict’s soul for God and that he must now go forth and do good.
This exchange is, perhaps, one of the most powerful ones in the novel. It’s a mirror image of Jean’s previous experience over the theft of the bread, but with an unexpected outcome. Once again, the law would provide justice and certainly the Bishop was well within the rights that the law provides him to demand that justice be served. But he doesn’t do that. He offers mercy, instead. He gives back the items Jean stole from him and in so doing, forgives him and challenges him to go forth in peace and to be a good man.
Anyone who has ever pondered the subject of forgiveness knows that some wrongs are incredibly difficult to forgive. We’ve all been in situations in which we would rather have justice than offer mercy to the person(s) who wronged us. Some people cling to justice or revenge and spend their entire lives striving for it. I’m not suggesting that we substitute forgiveness for justice or that justice should be jettisoned altogether. I’m simply pointing out that forgiveness and justice can go together not just for the good of the wrongdoer, but also for the victim. Forgiveness and mercy are gifts that only the victim can bestow on the wrongdoer, but they are gifts that bless both the giver and the recipient.
William Shakespeare provides one of the best speeches on mercy through the words of Portia in Act IV, Scene I of The Merchant of Venice,
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
There are a number of important lines here. Notice how Shakespeare points out that mercy is “twice blest” and “mighty.” One might wonder if part of the blessing mentioned is the liberation and freedom that comes with forgiving someone, rather than holding tightly to the injury one has from being wronged.
Shakespeare also points out “That, in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.” The speech as a a whole highlights the painful truth of our own shortcomings as human beings – our need for grace, forgiveness and mercy. Portia’s challenge is for us to remember our needs when we deal with others and to allow mercy to “season” justice. Yes, this is easier to say than to do. But the beauty that is the mercy of the Bishop far outstrips the ugliness of the justice that sends a man to prison for stealing a loaf of bread.
I welcome your comments below.
All the best and thanks for reading,