No Mercy, No Justice
The Dominant Narrative of America versus the Counter-Narrative of Jesus' Parables
- ISBN: 9781532645822
- Published By: Cascade Books
- Published: January 2019
For those who work in the justice system in various capacities, No Mercy, No Justice may sound like a typical day in the life. With a skilled hand, author Brooks Harrington tackles contradictions that are inescapably vibrant and demand efforts at reconciliation. Can there be a system of justice that has no capacity for mercy or is stingy with it? If one is nothing but merciful, where is justice? Harrington poses these questions and offers answers with similar contradiction. He is raw in his presentation of the suffering and pain of those victimized by the dominant narrative and eloquent and firmly cautious in his calling out of Christians who benefit from and perpetuate this narrative. He is tenacious in building his case for change and graceful in bringing resolution to those who seek it. Harrington is tireless in stimulating readers to seek the repair of justice and mercy.
The years of being an attorney appear to have shaped, consciously or not, Harrington’s presentation. He starts with the facts of the case: “Anyone who doesn’t recognize that life is unjust and merciless is a fool. . . . Life is unjust because of the random and merciless way that blessings and curses are meted out” (3). The response to these conditions is formulated into two narratives. The first is the dominant narrative of American life, where situations of possible justice and mercy are the results of the victims’ own choices and they are “due” little or nothing from those who made different, better choices. The second response is the counternarrative of God, where “justice and mercy are simultaneously part of God’s very nature. . . . God is just and merciful at once and to all” (24).
Harrington then establishes precedence for these arguments. There is a swing through Hebrew scripture and some instructive linguistic analyses. Harrington demonstrates his lineage with the work of Walter Brueggemann. This is critical to the book’s persistent subtext of activism within the church. The author refers to the concept of aspiring and professing Christians as well as that of “churchians” (249) and engages with the counternarrative of God’s merciful and just nature. This is accompanied by his inclusion of the classical Greek concept of the agon, the root of agony, the place where others “must lose for my family and me to win in our quest for honor and happiness that comes with stuff and pleasure” (20).
Chapters 6 and 7 are the bulk of Harrington’s evidence. The first of these is the presentation of eighteen stories from his work as a prosecutor, pastor, and community organizer. These are painful to read. It is not just the sadness, despair, unfairness, and squalor that are painful. It is the personal greed, the underfunded social services, the narrow-mindedness of bureaucracies, and the misguided choices made that create and perpetuate the malleable origins of suffering. Some embrace despair because the dominant narrative thrives and God is not brought into the discussion—except by Harrington and others of faith and activism.
This evidence is brought over against the next domain, the parables. The twelve parables that Harrington presents are an antidote to the separation between mercy and justice that is permissive to suffering. He meticulously presents these parables. The exegesis employed is genuine, illuminating, and effective to the task of revealing the place, the action, of faith in God, who unites mercy and justice and is ever present to the needy—if looked for.
The book finishes with a closing argument. The crux of the argument is that justice and mercy have to be present together in the awareness of others less fortunate, action to remediate the manifestations of these difficulties the and acceptance of others into the benefits and blessings we enjoy. The closing argument places the legalism of Hebrew scripture and Talmudic lore, this chapter is called a Midrash, against and alongside the narratives and presence of God’s love. We fail at being ourselves if we pretend that justice solves problems or that faith without action is adequate for realizing divine love. We fail our communities if we think justice fixes things or heals people. We fail our community of faith if church attendance, prayer and connection to other congregants is accepted as due payment to our community. The author closes the book by effectively joining love and legalism while listing the hazards of not doing so.
Seeing this book as a legal stratagem has limits, and viewing it in that manner may not have been the author’s intent. But such a view works to present the strengths of the book as an act of scholarship that stands in the tradition of Christian activism. This activism illuminates the destructive power of the dominant American narrative, which succumbs to the lyrical cadence of parables as they transform the ignorance of God’s just mercy into right action grounded in the power of faith.
This book offers a diagnostic perspective on the relationship of justice and mercy. For example, those who work with incarcerated youth may see mercy in how these youth are not held in a prison but in a treatment center. They are due this mercy by virtue of having incompletely developed brains. But such workers may also see how limits of funding and training have delayed the ability to engage in restorative and transformative justice. The crowded judicial system has delayed these youth from experiencing the deliberation of their cases and realizing, with their victims, some sense of closure and forward growth. There is mercy but no justice. This imbalance can lead to broken spirits in many.
Michael Witkovsky, MD is a staff psychiatrist for a State of Wisconsin program for incarcerated youth.Michael Witkovsky, MDDate Of Review:May 28, 2021