Human Mercy Revisited

I dreaded my job interview at Zbrojovka Brno, a manufacturing company about 130 miles southeast of Prague. But the reality was even worse than my fears.

I was sitting across the desk from a stern-looking apparatchik who was dressed in perfectly ironed Mao-Tse-Tung-style workwear, adorned by a red star lapel pin. He was slowly thumbing through my file, briefly reading the documents, some of them undoubtedly provided by the neighborhood watch. The awkward silence gave me plenty of time to reflect on how I got here.

As a college senior in 1962, I worked part-time at the highly-respected Department of Automation at Czech Technical University in Prague. My hope was that, after graduation, I would stay in the Department as a full-time lecturer.

Our graduating group received a list of job openings that exactly matched the number of students in the group. Among them, the lectureship in the Department of Automation was the most coveted one. The bottom of the barrel was a shift supervisor of a typewriter assembly line at Zbrojovka Brno, managing approximately 300 low skilled workers. 

College administrators delayed job assignments. Only after the final semester ended, they announced a meeting where decisions would be made.  Unfortunately on that date, I was scheduled to be out of town because earlier, I signed up as a tourist guide. I wanted to earn some extra money to help pay for my education expenses.

I tried unsuccessfully to cancel the contract but ended up traveling to Tatra Mountains in Slovakia with a group of tourists. I was now legally responsible for them and took a great risk when I left them to fend for themselves for three days. It took me one full day to get back to Prague by train, one day I set aside for the job meeting, and another full day was needed to get back. But when I arrived to Prague, I learned that the college administration postponed the meeting again.

It was impossible for me to stay in Prague that long and leave my tourists in the Tatra Mountains alone. Desperate, I walked into the office of a professor whom I trusted and explained the situation. He assured me that he thinks that I deserve the position in the Department of Automation and promised that he would do his best. He told me to return to the Tatra Mountains and that everything would be fine. Only later did I learn that he broke his promise and said at the beginning of the meeting: “Václav is not here. After all of you have your picks, we can assign to him whatever is left.” The job I was given was the shift supervisor in Zbrojovka Brno.

The apparatchik stopped reading documents from my file, looked at me, and asked: “You do not want to come to Brno, do you?” In a strained voice, I answered: “You are right, I do not.” He again thumbed through the folder and said: “You are good at mathematics, correct?” I said, “Yes.” He read several additional documents in the file for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, he said, “We are a big company. We have a Research Institute of Mathematical Machines in Prague. Have you heard of it?  I will send you there.”

The Research Institute for Mathematical Machines was often in the news. It was the premium research institution that was developing computers, an exciting new technology at that time. To work at the Institute was something I secretly dreamed about, but such a lofty goal seemed completely out of reach. Stunned, I said, “That would be excellent!”

That was my entry into the world of computers. I worked at the institute for more than 10 years as a researcher and later as a scientist. This work laid the foundation for my rewarding life-long career, first in Czechoslovakia and later in the United States.

My cynical friends always argued that the apparatchik just corrected a misallocation of the regime’s resources, where a potentially useful researcher was set to fail as a shift supervisor. However, I am convinced that he saw reports of my negative views of Communism and therefore he took a substantial risk. I believe that he had to justify his decision to his party bosses, that he had to fill a detailed and carefully worded report, and that he showed genuine mercy towards me. I consider him living proof that mercy is not only the crown jewel of Christian virtue, but also a natural human trait, written on peoples’ hearts as Saint Paul asserted, even when those people are far from God (Rom 2:15). Nowadays, we call this trait “empathy.”

Dictionaries define human mercy as a benevolence that is shown by a person in a position of power towards somebody in need. The phrase “to be at somebody’s mercy” means to be under somebody’s power. The moral compass written on our hearts (our empathy) tells us to be merciful to those who are at our mercy. It has been a favored topic of the Popes, Christian authors, theologians, and mystics. I often ponder whether I, a Christian, always showed mercy towards those who happened to be under my power.

Human Mercy in New Testament

Jesus of Nazareth taught extensively about both God’s and human mercy and presented the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example to emulate. The Good Samaritan saw a roadside victim of a crime, stopped, and treated his wounds. Then he found an inn where the victim could recover and he assumed the victim’s financial costs (Lk 10:29-37). He sacrificed his time, energy, and money on behalf of the victim.

Since mercy is a natural virtue, as the apparatchik demonstrated, it is understood by many and garners wide approval, even among people who are far from Jesus. As a consequence, there are people who covet the good reputation that merciful acts bestow, but do not want to pay their costs. Their incomplete acts of mercy serve them, rather than the others. As a thought, consider a Fake Samaritan who would bring the victim into the inn and through deception or coercion, would make the innkeeper responsible for the victim’s costs, disregarding the possibility that this may cause financial difficulties.  Such an act is more a self-aggrandizement and a camouflaged act of injustice, rather than mercy.

We also note that the Good Samaritan, as merciful as he was, had his limits. Although he was a man of some wealth, he could not afford to cancel his trip and to stay in the inn until the victim fully recovered. He humbly accepted that he had done all he was able to and left the scene. He did not impose an unjust burden on the inn keeper, but he also did not impose an undue burden on himself.

Jesus of Nazareth illustrates these limits more explicitly in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The wise virgins refuse to share oil with foolish ones because there is not enough for both (Mt 25:1-13). The lesson is clear: Mercy does not require the impossible, or threaten person’s other serious obligations, or sacrifice one’s fundamental rights. Such an act would be a posturing, a foolish show off, an excess, and a sign of pride. In all humility, we have to admit that sometimes, our power is limited and we may not be in a position to do more.

As previously mentioned, true acts of mercy must not unjustly transfer the cost of mercy to others. However, that cost needs another look, as there are true and false costs. Jesus of Nazareth clarified that in the parable of laborers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-15).

In this story, the householder hired some laborers early in the morning and out of mercy, he also hired some idle laborers in the late afternoon, knowing that their contributions to the effort would be small. In the evening, the wages were paid and the early morning laborers expected that they would be paid more than the laborers hired later in the day. The early morning workers were upset when both groups received the same wage.

However note that there was no injustice. The householder paid them their just wage. He was careful that the cost of mercy did not unjustly fall on the early laborers. That is, he did not cut their wages to pay the late laborers. Their problem was an unfounded expectation and envy. The householder rightly concluded that he had done no injustice and persisted with his mercy towards the late laborers.

While we note possible distortions of the merciful act, Jesus of Nazareth reminds us that exercise of genuine mercy is an essential part of Christian life. While sacrifice of comfort or resources may be a part of a merciful act, it is not an acceptable substitute for mercy (Mt 12:7).

 Although we should not exceed our capabilities in our acts of mercy, we should not underestimate our capabilities either. Sometimes, we may fail to act mercifully because we may be overwhelmed by various trifling concerns and distractions that do not leave a room for merciful acts. Jesus of Nazareth addressed this issue in the parable of sheep and goats (Mt 25:31-46). The “goats” in the parable have not realized that they have been endowed with possessions of food, clothing, or freedom, and wasted their opportunities to show mercy towards those who are lacking these things. The “sheep” in the parable are a metaphor for those who got it right and engaged in the acts of mercy by sharing these blessings with the less fortunate. In the final judgment, the “sheep” win eternal life while “goats” go to eternal punishment.

In summary, mercy is a natural virtue. It is a part of our moral compass and helps to smooth the hard edges of social life. It garners wide social approval and has a pivotal role in Christianity. However, like all virtues, the practice of mercy is an art and requires us to consider a wide range of circumstances. The Gospels illustrate true mercy and warn us about pitfalls that can turn the virtue of mercy into a vice of injustice, excess, pride, envy, or omission. Only true mercy that avoids these pitfalls leads towards peace and the Kingdom of God.

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