“How Could Anybody…?”

In my childhood home, my mother was the great talker. My father and grandfather mostly listened, or appeared to. When my grandfather’s hearing failed, it was up to my father and me, an only child, to decide if we should reply or otherwise comment. My mother often began with these words, “How could anybody . . . ?” Then she followed with some small-scale thing—such as how could anybody not see the dust on the top of that picture frame—or something more serious—how could that man sit on his porch across the street and swear at his wife because she didn’t bring him another bottle of beer as fast as he wanted? So I grew up wondering, How could anybody? My later interest in psychology no doubt grew out of that question.

Meanwhile my father, a quiet man, schooled me in a different kind of judgment. I eventually realized he believed most people thought too highly of themselves and needed to be brought down a peg or two. He did that with humor, tinged with sarcasm. So I became funny and sarcastic, while asking, How could anybody?

In high school, not realizing how judgmental I was becoming, I pondered two vocational paths, the law or ministry, with their two foundations of judgment, the law of the land, or the law of God. The law of God won out; it seemed more eternal at that time.

These personal musings are prompted by what James says in the Bible passage just read, especially that last sentence, “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” as in the NRSV, or “Mercy overrules judgment,” as in the Common English Bible. I was blown away by this concluding sentence. I thought I knew what the letter of James was about. At seminary I learned that James was a late piece of writing, in elegant Greek language style, attributed probably to James the brother of Jesus, who led the Jerusalem Christian community. I learned that the book of James was very slowly approved as scripture, and that even in the sixteenth century Martin Luther thought James should be removed from the bible. Why? Because James emphasized good works over faith, while Luther believed just the opposite.

I need to go on with the book of James because it is the theme book for this month’s worship services shared by our two churches. But first a word about the gospel passage, Mark’s version of the story of Herod executing John the Baptist because of a promise made to Herodias, his illegitimate queen. Not much to admire in Herod, a lascivious lecher abusing the power of his office. Perhaps the only worthy lesson: beware of the vocation of prophet. If you speak truth to power you may lose your life. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s hurry back to the book of James.

As I said, I was stunned by the concluding words of chapter 2, “Mercy overrules judgment.” What sane or rational person could say such a thing? Of course, one should be kind and merciful, but still, judgment has to be rendered. Decisions must be made. People have to be held accountable. So I reasoned that I was missing something, I was not understanding what those words, mercy and judgment, mean in the letter of James. Or, worse yet, it could mean that my judgmental personality is closed to mercy, mercy I cannot receive or give. I hope it does not mean that.

I wondered if the original Hebrew or Greek words might rescue me, but no, they did not. Judgment in Hebrew is mispat, and in Greek it is krisis. That Greek word looks like our English word, crisis. Somewhere I had learned that the Chinese character for the word crisis meant both peril and opportunity. I could make a sermon out of that. But did James mean that? Probably not. So I turned to the biblical words for mercy, which in Hebrew is hesed, and in Greek is eleos. Both words mean just the same as what we mean by the English words judgment and mercy. No help in language study, I realized!

Maybe context will rescue me, I then thought. Context determines everything! While we don’t know who wrote the letter of James or to whom it was sent, it is clear that in this second chapter of James, the author means judgment as used by those who love the rich but despise the poor. It helps to read the whole letter of James (I urge you to do so; it is quite short!) James got it right then, and it’s still true: the world idolizes the rich but scorns the poor.

At this point you may think that my sermon is poorly aimed. Our two churches are liberal and progressive, are we not? We do not worship wealth. We do not scorn the poor. If we scorn anyone, it’s the rich. We view everyone equally, as beloved children of God, don’t we? Well, maybe. While many of us probably do not follow the fortunes and daily lives of people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Donald Trump, Christy Walton or Mark Zuckerberg, don’t we all imagine how much good they could do with their billions if directed to causes dear to our hearts, and how much good we would do if we were that rich. Any one of them could purchase and endow the United Church of Christ, or the American Baptist Churches or United Theological Seminary.

And then there are those “How could anybody?” questions dear to the hearts of liberals and progressives like us, such as, “How could anybody eat that food?” Or “How could anybody drive that kind of car?” or “How could anybody want to carry a loaded gun?” or “How could anybody wear clothes made by child workers in Thailand?” (Don’t look at your labels right now!) or “How could anybody believe that Jesus is God?” or “How could anybody vote for a conservative candidate?” It is easy to unmask our progressive zeal for righteousness, and to show how judgmental we are. It is far more difficult to imagine how to practice mercy over judgment, as the writer of James urges. But we should try. Let me offer three suggestions: a personal life of mercy; acts of mercy as a volunteer; and working for merciful governmental policies.

I have discovered that a personal life of mercy is the hardest part for me, given my judgmental nature. In spite of that I have discovered two qualities or virtues framing a merciful personal life. Those are listening and imagining. To listen well means setting aside one’s personal agendas, one’s preoccupations, making space for “the other.” “The other” can be another person—stranger, friend, family member. Or it could be another group, culture, political party, differing racial or ethnic group. Or it could be a different species of being—a frog, a Monarch butterfly, even a melting glacier. Is there room in your soul and mine for such as these?

Personal mercy also requires imagination. I must be able to imagine a situation, a life, a circumstance with all its joys and pains, successes and losses, grief and tranquility, if I am to feel merciful and act with mercy. Something about becoming an adult seems to require narrowing the imagination. I love leading tours with children at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Their imaginations flow freely as they encounter a puzzling painting. Many adults, however, are sure there’s a right answer somewhere, but they don’t know what it is, so they shut down their imaginations. What a dreadful loss!

My second suggestion: volunteer somewhere that needs your merciful passion and skills. That requires an honest assessment of what you can do and what you should not try to do. Many zealous volunteers believe they should be able to do anything and everything. Not true! Ask for help, assessment, counseling, friendly advice. You’ll know in your heart when you find the right place.

And my last suggestion: working for merciful governmental policies. You may think the phrase, “merciful governmental policies,” is an oxymoron, but it’s not. Liberals and progressives easily lapse into despair and cynicism when righteous causes languish. Good causes and good organizations abound, however. Pick one, whatever it might be—racism and while privilege, income inequality, global warming, sustainable agriculture—give money, sign petitions, and go to meetings. Every merciful act, however small, adds weight to the sum total of goodness, to the realm of peace and justice that is surely coming. I believe that and trust it. I hope you do too.