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Mercy & Moralism

April 29, 2014 | DAVID LEEDY

Mercy has been this year’s theme. We’ve visited the idea in various formats, from the Fall Retreat drama contest to Interregnum a few weeks ago. It’s a profound concept to ponder—yet difficult to live out.

Most of us are bent more toward moralism than mercy. Given the high moral sensibilities of the King’s community, if we err we tend to err on the side of a Javert. Inspector Javert, the antagonist in Victor Hugo’s epic, Les Miserables, gets a bad rap. Yet he’s a principled, upright man. Born in a French prison to a criminal father, Javert resolves as a young man that he will not be a parasite on society; he’ll be society’s protector. So he joins the French police force and dedicates his life to prosecuting criminals.

But Javert has no category for mercy. He looks with disdain upon those of lesser morals and cannot fathom that bad men can become good. “A man like you can never change,” he scoffs at Valjean. He holds people’s past against them and is the first to cast stones at those who flounder morally.

Picture Javert attending King’s. He’d be an outstanding member of the community—upholding the Honor Code without fail and calling others to do the same. He’d celebrate the work of the Honor Council and be thankful that people get the consequences they deserve. Yet he’d also be a poison. He’d look upon others as morally inferior if they didn’t uphold the Code as perfectly as he. If unchecked, he would turn King’s into a harsh, unwelcoming place for those still sorting things out.

Nobody wants to be Javert. We’d rather be Jean Valjean—or perhaps Monsieur Myriel. When Valjean encounters the bishop of Digne, the ex-convict is penniless and starving. Though everyone else shuns Valjean, Myriel welcomes the ragged, smelly vagabond. He feeds him, clothes him, and gives him a warm bed. The next morning, Valjean returns the kindness by stealing Myriel’s silver. When the police apprehend Valjean and drag him back to Myriel’s parsonage, Valjean knows he’s damned.

Then the unexpected occurs. Myriel tells the officers the items are a gift, and then the bishop adds silver candlesticks to Valjean’s booty. He treats Valjean with dignity by calling him “brother” and by challenging him to “become an honest man.” Valjean was prepared for the hammer of justice, but not for mercy. His hardened interior cracks. Valjean morphs into an agent of mercy for hundreds of other “miserables.”

Picture Myriel at King’s. He too would have strong moral sensibilities. Yet, when he sees others making poor choices, he’d grieve for how those choices adversely affect the person and those around him. He wouldn’t throw stones; he knows that, given different circumstances, he might make similar choices. Myriel would be at home in House of Reagan SYS groups, talking about his own struggles, because experience has taught him that brokenness is part of life. He’d even go out of his way to befriend those others shun.

Truth be told, we’re all a mix of Javert and Myriel. Like Jekyll and Hyde, many of us schizophrenically switch back and forth between moralism and mercy. But imagine what would happen if mercy were not merely our Interregnum theme, but the ethos of our entire community. King’s, as great as it already is, would be place of comfort and healing—of truth and transformation.

Give us more Myriels.