My esteemed Friend Dr. Michael Abrahams in his column elsewhere in the press (Gleaner, September 7, 2015) contends that God in the Old Testament is not merciful. I am countering with some philosophical and legal pointers.
If being merciful is not meting out the [just] punishment deserved by a guilty offender then a plea for or expectation of mercy is, in essence, seeking a ‘bly’= an unmerited even undeserved favour.
Though it is a widespread view that a ‘good’ person would/should be more than fair in dealing with others one needs to question the basis of such a view. Why so?
So I ask my friend Michael, why should God be more merciful than just (i.e. meting out commensurate deserts to law-breakers)?
Let it be known that ‘mercy’ is not inherent in our judicial system. The prerogative of mercy resides with our [titular] monarch and thus with our Governor General. A plea for mercy is really begging for something beyond strict justice (extra judicial). There is no right here at all. If one disagrees with punishment, per se, or a degree of punishment then the germane issue is not mercy but a legal challenge of some kind.
Imagine an accused charging that our Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and as well the Privy Council are more concerned with being just than with being merciful. Such a charge, levelled at the highest legal tribunals in our judicial system, would be, at best, laughable, and at worst, totally misguided.
As I urged in a recent public forum “Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster?”, borrowing the words of H.E. Guillebaud, “The distorted picture of God as a mildly benevolent Heavenly Father whose patience is inexhaustible, who will never deal more hardly with his creatures than the most easy-going of earthly parents…is a complete misrepresentation of the God of the Bible.” (In his Some Moral Difficulties of the Bible, 1941, 110).
I went on to say,
Anyone (whether a Christian or a non-theistic critic) who registers internally or expresses publicly a problem with the sanctions on human misbehaviour recorded in the Old Testament, whether directly or indirectly attributed to God, needs to justify that position.
The objector may have problems at best with the degrees of punishment threatened or administered in the Old Testament or at worst with the notion of punishment itself especially coming from a loving/merciful God.
A summary challenge to both positions would be to ask if the said objector has a similar problem with sanctions threatened or administered in modern law or with the notion of punishment in law. Indeed, any objector who says yes to both positions must, if logically consistent, have a problem with laws and the concomitant sanctions in law since laws without sanctions are like dogs without teeth and so unable to bite or virtually useless.
As lawyer/philosopher/theologian Prof. John Warwick Montgomery advises, “All law — whether physical law or societal law — involves two elements: order and compulsion [i.e. sanctions]…Scientific laws describe regularities in the physical universe. They also — and inevitably— entail sanctions, that is to say, negative consequences if we disregard or violate them…Finally we come to the law of the land — juridical law.
“This is the law that is enforced not by social ostracism (as is custom) or by moral opprobrium (as is the moral law), but by state sanctions. Most modern nations have legal systems that distinguish civil law and criminal law.
“Civil law attaches penalties…to acts which cause quantifiable or objectively provable harm to others. Criminal law deals with those far more serious acts which are inherently harmful to the society as a whole (homicide, physical attacks, stealing, corruption, etc.), and attaches much more serious penalties to their commission (incarceration and sometimes even the death penalty).” (In his Christ As Centre and Circumference, 2012, 572-573.)
It may seem politically correct to move away from notions of retributive justice to restorative justice but practically and philosophically are we rubbishing the notion of ‘commensurate desserts’, the jugular vein of justice in law? This is a very thorny issue in modern jurisprudence, which is the philosophy of law.
If the objector simply has a problem with the degrees of punishment threatened or meted out then such an objection implies knowledge of a yardstick beyond God’s pronouncement that renders the sanctions in Scripture as unjust or excessive. This also presupposes that the objector has intimate knowledge of how God sees particular sins or offences and has knowledge superior to God’s re commensurate desserts.
There is yet another matter for the objector to deal with re God and our legal system. If one is not opposed to allsanctions in our legal system why deny the Sovereign God/Judge of the Universe a right that is allowed to human law courts —the right to punish wrongdoing?
Finally, a thin slice of Divine mercy in the Old Testament. The flood was not terminal, one family was spared to give rise to another population of humans; the Canaanite people group, the Amorites, got a mercy period of approximately 430 years before judgement (Gen. 15:16); Sodom and Gomorrah were punished only after God could not find ten righteous persons therein (Gen. 18:32); Jonah’s problem with his call to prophesy conditional doom upon Nineveh was that he disagreed with God’s willingness to forgive and not punish a repentant nation.
The Old Testament refrain that “the Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy…” or similar sentiments (Num. 14:18; 1Chron. 16:34 and several Psalms) emerge from the writers’ familiarity with this attribute of God.
Let’s read carefully, analyze properly and as weird as it sounds, be fair to God.
Rev. Clinton Chisholm, Academic Dean, Caribbean Graduate School of Theology