The Difference between Justice and Mercy
Justice and mercy are two different concepts that are often expressed in the same sentence or phrase. They are seen together but are very different sentiments. Justice seems harsh and pedantic and is also linked to the judicial system and the righteous laws of the land. Mercy, on the other hand, is soft and compassionate, a virtuous quality of human kindness. Abraham Lincoln said:
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”1
Looking closely at the basic elements of these two words and their usage will help us to understand why they appear together so often and yet are so different in their values and their contribution to our society and social life. Mentioned by famous people, discussed in the Bible, and included in many presidential and reformists speeches, these two words are opposite in many ways but at the same time worthy of sharing the same page.
Definition of Justice
- Dictionary meaning:2
Upholding what is fair, decent, and right; dispersing what is right.
It is the quality of being fair and reasonable.
A system of reward or punishment. A Judicial System.
- Phrases using Justice or Just.3
A concern for justice and peace.
Justice of his case
The quality of being fair and reasonable, keeping within the law.
A tragic miscarriage of justice
Poor administration of law and authority.
Bring someone to justice
Arrest someone and bring them to court.
Do oneself justice
Perform as well as one is able to.
Do something or someone justice
The menu for example did not do justice to the food.
In justice to…
Saying something about someone out of fairness.
Mr. (or Mrs.) Justice
A form of formal address to a judge.
Something is deemed to be unfair.
A harmful event seems right when someone who did mean things is harmed in return.
For example in the story of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Mr. Bumble, who owns the workhouse for orphans ends up being so poor he has to live in his own workhouse.
- Synonyms for justice include goodness, honesty, fairness, and righteousness.
- Antonyms are unjustness, unfairness, and dishonesty.
Examples and References to Justice
The image of justice:
The image of justice is portrayed on a statue of Lady Justice, Justicia, an ancient Roman Goddess. She is holding a blindfold and a set of scales. The picture portrays an image of truth and fairness. A judgement based not on colour or creed but on the truth of matter. This image honors the fairness in the procedure of justice and the fair outcomes that result from fair procedures.
Justice is one of the cardinal virtues:
Listed in the Bible under the Wisdom of Solomon, there are four principal moral virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.4
Solomon 8:7 reads, “She (wisdom) teaches temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life.”
Plato also wrote about four cardinal virtues called prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.
“Fiat justicia ruat caelum” (a Latin legal phrase):4
‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall.’
Justice must be realised regardless of the consequences.
Stories of Justice
The lives of well-known people and their principles have enlightened others about the need for justice to change lives.
Some forms of justice are radical and ridged; a harsh justice.
Piso and the story told about his decision in the lives of three soldiers is alarming to read. The story in a book by Seneca has become known as ‘Piso’s Justice.’ Seneca tells of a soldier who returns home from war without his comrade soldier. He is sentenced to death for losing his fellow soldier. As the executioner is about to kill the offending soldier the missing soldier returns. The three soldiers go to the King. The king promptly sentences them all to death. He orders the death of the soldier who had already been sentenced because he lost his comrade in arms. He orders the death of the executioner for not carrying out his orders and then he orders the death of the returning soldier for causing the death of two innocent men. This legend has become known as “Piso’s Justice.” There must be several conclusions to make over this form of justice, a fine example of harsh justice!
Martin Luther King Jr spoke out about justice often.5
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
“Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King.
Plato the great philosopher described justice as the following:
“An order and duty of parts of the soul; it is to the soul as health is to the body. Justice is not the right of the stronger but the harmony of the whole.”6
Albert Einstein, respected inventor and philosopher said
“In matters of truth and justice there is no difference between large and small problems for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.”7
Nelson Mandela a past president of South Africa and freedom fighter said
“Let there be justice for all, let there be peace for all, Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know for each the body, mind and soul have been freed to fulfil themselves.” 8
All these great men were champions of justice and righteousness. They help us understand the meaning and value of the word and how it differs from mercy.
Definition of Mercy
- Dictionary meaning:9
Mercy means having compassion or giving forgiveness towards someone who one has the power to punish. It forebears punishing even when justice demands it.
Being full of mercy.
Synonyms for mercy include compassion, grace, charity, and forgiveness.
- Phrases using mercy or merciful:
May God have mercy on us:
A blessing that is the act of divine favour or compassion.
It was a mercy they found her before she froze:
It was a fortunate circumstance that kept her alive.
Works of mercy among the poor:
Compassionate treatment of those in distress
At the mercy of:
Completely in the power of someone or something else.
Thankful for small mercies:
Grateful for small acts of kindness
Show no mercy:
Do not show any kindness towards another person.
The quality of mercy:
Shakespeare wrote about the quality of mercy,
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d
It droppeth as the gentle rain
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blest.
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Examples of Merciful People
The following are examples of people who showed mercy in their lives.
The Bible teaches that “mercy—a quality intrinsic to the nature of God. Being merciful is a quality of God and one that God requires of his people.”10 It was God’s mercy that led Him to create a relationship with Israel. His mercy is mediated through the covenant that he creates with His people in the Old Testament.
The greatest example of ‘Ministries of Mercy” is the example set by Mother Teresa and the incredible work she did to show mercy to the poor and destitute in India.
There are always amazing examples of acts of mercy during wars and conflicts between people. Patrick Ferguson refused to shoot his enemy, who was unaware of his presence, in an ambush situation. In a merciful act of sparing a soldier, he spared the life of George Washington.
Nelson Mandela, after 27 years of imprisonment, showed mercy and forgiveness towards the people who had held him as a prisoner. Mr. Mandela became the president of South Africa.
Wonderful stories told by Aesop help young children understand the quality of being merciful and kind. “The Lion and the Mouse” is a traditional favourite.
These two words, although different in meaning and life application, are both words that describe aspects of our social values and ordered life styles. They appear together in many circumstances, and philosophers make comparisons and observations based on their qualities.
C.S. Lewis made this comment:
“Mercy detached from justice becomes unmerciful.”
Perhaps justice is the benchmark that allows mercy to be merciful. The difference in the two words is the conflicting ideology that they may have when in the wrong hands. Justice is simply to be fair. Mercy is to be kind and forgiving. Winston Churchill said that all great things are just simple things that are expressed in a single word. He talks of ‘freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, and hope. All qualities of greatness. Justice and mercy are there together in his list.
What quality then is of more value: justice or mercy? Perhaps the answer lies in this moving quote from Khalil Gibran, the prophet:
“Do not be merciful, but be just, for mercy is bestowed upon the guilty criminal, while justice is all the innocent man requires.”8
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