Mercy, not mercilessness, is a value worth defending

19 Nov 2015

This morning the emotion of the last days caught up with me. Perhaps it was the pent-up emotion of having arrived in Paris last Friday evening just before the killing started, of living into the tragedy with French friends on the spot, of visiting the café worst hit… Perhaps it was also a deep sorrow about how our world and its people, which is inherently so beautiful, is being disfigured, even destroyed by the forces of hate, vengeance and self-righteousness.

Emotion is inevitable at a time like this, and we are seeing plenty of it. It can lead us to anger, vengeance, despair and fear. Perhaps it can also lead us to a deeper – and tougher, more challenging – place of humility, compassion and mercy.

There are many ways of characterising the struggle in the world at present. What resonates most deeply for me in the present crisis is the struggle between love and hate, between dignity and demonisation, between humility and arrogance, between responsibility and blame.

President Hollande says France’s response to the atrocities will be 'merciless'. So understandable, but doesn’t this put us on the same level as the 'terrorists'? Is 'mercilessness' one of the Western values we proudly wish to defend?

US Secretary of State John Kerry describes the terrorists as 'psychopaths'. Even if this is true, which is surely a matter for debate, it lets us off the hook. We can exterminate psychopaths as sub-human beings, and excuse ourselves the hard work of self-examination.

Veteran British commentator on the Middle East, Robert Fisk, when asked 'where do we go from here?', replies 'first we have to understand how we got here in the first place. Otherwise we will just repeat the mistakes that have produced what we have now.'

Nothing excuses what happened on Friday night. A strong response is necessary. But we are under an illusion if we think that the language of power is going to answer the hate and the violence.

The really hard work that needs to be done is to seek an understanding of why the Middle East and Europe are in crisis – and for us Europeans to acknowledge our share of responsibility. The root causes of the current mess go back centuries and pose a deeper challenge to our Western ways of thinking and living than we are prepared to face. We rightly want to defend our best values, but cannot understand or accept that some of our values are indefensible.

Meanwhile, back here in Sweden where I live, the country is on high alert for a terror attack for the first time in its history. The nightly news bulletins continue to be dominated by the influx of refugees.

We are at a moment of unprecedented danger and unparalleled opportunity for a new approach.

Richard Rohr says that we should not leave a place of pain until it has taught us all we are meant to learn from it. Can we as Europeans reject knee-jerk reactions and embrace the call to much deeper reflection about our society, its values and our responsibility?