That Bull About Mercy

Pope Francis has issued a “Bull of Indiction” declaring the coming year, beginning December 8, 2015, a Year of Mercy.

Does mercy have meaning for global politics? There is a long tradition, including thinkers as diverse as Thomas Aquinas and John Rawls, holding that the first virtue of the political order is justice. But justice, while crucial, is “not enough,” insists Pope Francis. Alone, it descends into legalism, resulting in its own destruction. Complementary to justice and critically necessary to politics is mercy.

Pope Francis is not the first pope to espouse mercy, despite the fact that he is frequently celebrated for his novelty. Pope John Paul II made mercy a major theme of his pontificate and argued in his second encyclical of 1980, Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), that mercy could be a political virtue. Mercy, he argued, is the will to restore all that is broken in human affairs.  We might see mercy, then, in policies aimed at directly alleviating suffering — for instance, humanitarian relief.  Most distinctively, though, John Paul II thought that mercy could be manifested through forgiveness.

Forgiveness in politics? The very phrase rings oxymoronic. But John Paul II thought the idea held promise and argued as much not only in Dives in Misericordia but also in two subsequent Messages for the World Day of Peace, one in 1997 and one in 2002, the latter in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Is there any evidence that forgiveness is actually practiced in politics? In the past generation, forgiveness has entered global politics in the context of a wave of tens of countries facing past crimes of dictatorship, genocide, and civil war. A discourse, and substantial evidence for the practice, of forgiveness can be found in countries ranging from South Africa to Uganda, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, and Chile. Forgiveness is often associated with religion and stands in contrast with the global practice of “transitional justice” and its stress on law, rights, and especially, judicial prosecution.

Mostly, forgiveness is practiced by individual victims, as I have documented through a recent study of victims of armed violence in Uganda, conducted in partnership with the Refugee Law Project (mentioned in this previous post). Far more rarely is it practiced by leaders, but this is not unheard of.  An outstanding example is Nelson Mandela, who forgave apartheid leaders after being released from his prison sentence of 26 years and set an example that many other South Africans followed.

Forgiveness has also taken place in the high politics of international relations. The decision in 1950 of France, Italy, and other western European states to incorporate Germany into the embryonic form of what is now the European Union can be seen as an act of forgiveness.  A recent book by political scientists Brent Nelsen and James Guth documents that Christian notions of forgiveness were much in the mind of the statesmen, mostly of Christian Democratic parties, who supported federation most strongly and helps to explain why they took a path quite different from the punitive approach towards Germany that Europe took after World War I.

Forgiveness may be rare in politics but it is not absent and has become more common in the past generation. It thus depicts one response in the political realm to Pope Francis’ call for mercy.

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Daniel Philpott

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