Faith & Reason: A need for compassion but a need to condemn

As two nations wait for the judgment on Louise Woodward, what are we praying for, justice or mercy? Huw Spanner wonders if there is a choice.
Whoever was to blame for the death of Matthew Eappen, the court decided that Louise Woodward must pay. But then we hear from members of the jury that they might have preferred a count of manslaughter: she was culpable, they say, but not that culpable. And we learn that Matthew's parents plan to sue for $20m the agency that supplied her. Whether that money is meant to console them or punish others, clearly the Eappens believe there is more than enough guilt to go round.

Meanwhile, they themselves have been widely condemned - by traditionalists, for leaving their baby day after day in somebody else's care; and by everyone else for entrusting him not to a qualified but expensive professional but to a teenager with other things on her mind.

The jury's decision has itself been found faulty. In a curious reversal, just as those nine women and three men reportedly swung from a majority in favour of Woodward to unanimity against, the American public has shifted the other way: before the trial, most people thought she was guilty of murder. Now it is claimed that almost 90 per cent are convinced she is not.

Legally, of course, that opinion means nothing. But it is revealing. One explanation for the change of heart might be that before the trial it was the victim who was the focus of attention. One does not need to see the body to be incensed by the very idea of a baby battered to death. But the close of the trial displaced that reality with another: that of the young woman in the dock, facing 15 years in prison, and probably more, for the work of a few moments.

The most incisive question I have heard is this: Which would you rather see, absolute justice or universal mercy? Most of us demand justice when our sympathies lie with the victim - especially when the victim is us - but as soon as we feel anything for the culprit we dread it and plead for mercy. A friend of mine told me how shocked he had been when he watched Schindler's List to find he was sorry in the end to see the camp commandant hanged.

When we learn, for example in cases of child abuse, that the culprits are often victims themselves and are doing no more than has been done to them, the strain on our moral systems becomes almost too much to bear. How can we escape this tension? We need to condemn a little more, said John Major, and understand a little less. The more we put ourselves in the culprit's shoes, the harder it is to damn them. As Graham Greene observed in The Power and the Glory, hate is just a failure of imagination. And yet we need to condemn. The softer our hearts are towards our fellow human beings, the more they revolt against torture and abuse.

If our society is now more forgiving, perhaps it is because we have largely accepted the credo that we are all guilty. If our priority is to escape condemnation ourselves, how can we condemn others? Yet at the same time - as we will be remembering tomorrow - this century has seen a crescendo of man's inhumanity to man. If we are not willing to condemn evildoers now, how can we hope to prevent worse?

Our dilemma reflects a disjunction in the moral universe we inhabit. If that universe is no more than our own creation, we shall have to remake it, and choose between justice and mercy. But if it is an objective reality, we may hope that our belief in both justice and mercy alike is grounded in the character of the Creator. In the Genesis story, Abel's blood cries out from the ground not because God, like Zeus or Odin, is obliged to enforce his own laws whether he likes it or not, but because God loves him. Yet we hear God talking with the murderer, Cain, with something which sounds very much like compassion.

Over the last week, the focus of the media on the man presiding over the Woodward trial, Hiller Zobel, has reminded us that it is both a high calling and a hard one to be a judge. How can a man meet the demand for justice for the victim without denying mercy to the culprit?

In the end, Christians believe that the tension between absolute justice and universal mercy will be resolved in the integrity of God's love. For the non- believer, the agonising choice remains.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely

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