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The nature of mercy

By Michael Jensen - posted Monday, 2 March 2015

One of the truest things Shakespeare ever wrote was put in the mouth of Portia, from The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.

Two young Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, have discovered that their final plea for mercy to the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, has been rejected.


There is no doubt that they have committed a crime, and that it is a serious one. They are not arguing for their innocence. But they are pointing to an amended way of life – to Christian conversion, to a life of good works amongst the prisoners, to human potential and to rehabilitation.

But all to no avail. Widodo is not inclined to mercy. Mind you, we shouldn't be too morally outraged about this: a slight majority of Australians, in a poll ran by Triple JJJ, agreed that Chan and Sukumaran should die. We are not inclined to mercy either.

And maybe we should agree with them: they had no regard for, and indeed, sought to profit from, the devastation that drug addiction wreaks upon its victims. It was an appallingly callous and greedy act, and they brought a bunch of gormless youths along with them to help, and their lives have been ruined.

They deserve a severe punishment, perhaps even death.

The service of Morning Prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, authored, edited and compiled in the main by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, opens with an appeal for mercy to another ruler. As with Chan and Sukumaran, it is a completely open-handed plea. It recognises immediately our guilt:

We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have been faithless, lawbreakers, trespassers.


But we also say:

And there is no health in us.

Now this is something different: for we are not asked to point to our reformed ways, or to our trying our best to be good. We bring nothing to this table – Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's words make that abundantly clear. The general confession has we human beings as not only guilty of sin, but as unable to change. It is not simply our actions that have marred us; it is that we are broken creatures, helpless and hopeless.

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About the Author

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church at Darling Point. He has a doctorate in Moral Theology from Oxford University.

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