Erik Larson

Apr 4, 2009

On Mercy and Judgement

In The New Testament, John 8:7, Jesus defends a sinful woman against an angry crowd:

“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

In Schindler’s List, the movie, Oskar Schindler challenges Amon Goeth’s killing of Jewish prisoners:

Oskar Schindler: Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.

Amon Goeth: You think that’s power?

Oskar Schindler: That’s what the Emperor said. A man steals something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor… pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go.

Amon Goeth: I think you are drunk.

Oskar Schindler: That’s power, Amon. That is power.

What is this? Forgiveness, or power? In Matthew 21:12 Jesus walks into the temple, yells, overturns tables, and drives out the banking crowd, later healing the less fortunate in the vacant temple. What are we to make of this? Why didn’t he treat the money lenders as he did the sinful woman? Why did he judge the bankers and not the prostitute?

These diametric opposites — forgiveness and judgement — are it seems perpetually resistant to systematizing with ethical theories. They continue to sit, unanalyzed, unresolved, through millenia of human history.

The history of human ethics is a commentary on the proper application of mercy and judgement. So far we’ve come, and so long we continue to stand motionless and without understanding.