In the late 1700s, the English poet William Blake wrote a poem that sticks with me still. Surrounded by war and the visible suffering of the poor, the orphaned, and the widowed, he often lashed out in his writing against those whose neglect permitted such suffering: the government and the church. This poem, Prologue[…] is no different. After surveying the pain in the world around him Blake issues a desperate cry of condemnation:
O who hath caused this?
O who can answer at the throne of God?
The Kings and Nobles of the land have done it!
Hear it not, Heaven, thy Ministers have done it!
Blake had a complicated relationship with religion, but he revered the Bible and he despised the suffering of the innocent. And reading this poem, I marvel that it was written so long ago and yet remains relevant in 2015. The poem reminds me, in its righteous fury, that mercy and care is the business of the church – that God’s dictate to care for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned is as important now as ever. We are to be characterized by grace and mercy, by giving, and by love. Neglecting that, as Blake rightfully implies over and over again in his work, is neglecting God’s work on earth – it is a sin we will have to answer for.
And yet mercy and grace somehow have a reputation as “soft” virtues. As Christians we tend to view them as the opposing force to God’s power and His wrath. In a less flattering light, I suspect we tend to think of grace and mercy as the fluffy, feel-good aspects of Christianity, with God’s power and His righteous anger balancing them out. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Mercy and grace, too, can convey astonishing power. Just as the silence that follows the thunder can be more devastating than the thunder itself, so can God’s grace and mercy cut through the sorrow and pain and hardened hearts of the world.
In the face of indifferent government, a loving church can shock by its contrasting generosity. In times of sorrow and great pain, God’s believers reaching out freely and in good will to help those in need is a clear light that shines through a haze of cloudy rhetoric and confused intentions. Even today, the world’s attention is drawn to surprising and incomprehensible acts of grace and mercy: the Christian doctors and nurses who work with scarce pay and few resources in developing countries, grieving families who forgive murderers, the CEOs and executives who give up chunks of their salary to provide bonuses for workers.
A small act of grace and mercy can have consequences that we might not be able to conceive. In Lord of the Rings, three characters have a chance to kill the sly, pitiful creature Gollum. All three resist the urge, and later – at the novel’s end – it is Gollum who is responsible for the ultimate destruction of the One Ring. Back when Gollum is first spared, the wizard Gandalf comments on the act:
Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo [who spared Gollum] may rule the fate of many – yours not least.
We are, of course, not hobbits. And this isn’t The Lord of the Rings. But the book of James also speaks eloquently on mercy:
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment (2: 12-13).
In mercy and grace, we gain much – not just for ourselves, but for others. Every small act we make in Christ’s name has resonance in eternity; let us then not set them aside or dismiss them as soft or weak. The sins that Blake spoke against – the neglect of the suffering, the indifference to poverty, to pain, to those less fortunate and crying out for help – are what mercy and grace equip us to vanquish. With every act of forgiveness, of generosity, of unwarranted kindness, we battle back, and carry a blessing under the great Name.