Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Quantity of Mercy

Warning: this is a post about religion and faith. If you're here for the marketing, social networking, creativity and (supposed) humor, tune in next time.

This is a post I've been meaning to write for awhile. But a piece from ZenHabbits (by way of LifeHacker) about "Practical Tips for Living the Golden Rule" got me in the right groove.

One of the comments on the link at LifeHacker comes close to the point of my thoughts. ANDYFROMTUSCON says:

My view is that the golden rule is that it is not some goody-goody thing for patsys. The golden rule is the number one practical tool for getting things done... Every single thing you do depends on the cooperation of others in one way or another. People who are treated the way they like to be treated are more cooperative. The more cooperative the people you deal with are, the more you get done. Thats it.

If you do unto others as they do unto you (i.e. tit for tat, revenge, etc.), then you end up putting your time and energy into a contest of wills that may hurt the other person but will probably not have any tangible benefits for you... If you refuse to deal with people you don't respect then you are only hurting yourself. 

As I said... that's pretty close to where I want to go. But not quite.

We tend to think of many of the sayings and teachings of Christ as (to paraphrase the above) something for patsies, wimps, the bleating, passive, goodie-goodie sheep of God. "Yeah, yeah, yeah... The meek will inherit the earth. That's all well and good. But it'll happen in the Great Beyond. Or after the Second Coming. Or something. Whatever."

But what if the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount aren't all airy-fairy, pie-in-the sky stuff? What if they are, in fact, guidlines that are, as ANDYFROMTUSCON says, "practical tool(s) for getting things done"?

I think it all comes back to the concepts of mercy and grace. Mercy is, simply put, showing compassion. But it's more technical than that, I think. When you show mercy (or have it shown to you), you are allowing that it is better, overall, for a debt to go unpaid, or a wrongdoing to go unpunished or unreturned. The word itself comes from the Latin, "merces," meaning "price paid." That's interesting: not "price overlooked," but "price paid."

So the point is not that you simply forgoe your due... but that you behave as if the due was paid. You assume a balance that does not exist.

How is this a good thing? Why would we want to ever not get our due? Well, here we get into grace.  As a theological term, grace usually refers to the fact that God (in the Christian faith) provides salvation, though it is unearned. But it's also interesting to look at the more everyday use of the word. Grace and gracefullness refer to the ability to do something so well, that it seems impossible or at least unlikely. We don't expect people to walk and move like dancers or gymnasts; it's a level of expertise and beauty that surpasses the normal.

I believe that mercy is the mechanism by which grace is earned... both spiritually and in the very real, very mundane world.

Yes, it is Christ's mercy that delivers God's grace. And why would He do that? There must be some good, universal reason for saying, "Look. I'm not going to require perfection as the requirement of salvation. Just ask for mercy. Ask that price-paid be enough for you, too." 

In the "real world," though... what if mercy is just best-pracice, benchmark behavior in all cases? What if "the meek will inherit the earth" doesn't mean "in the sweet by-and-by..." but right now, today.

Modern marketing (oops... it is about marketing, too) strategists found out in the 60's and 70's that the cost of getting one new customer is about 6-times that of keeping a current one happy. And how do you keep the current ones happy? You adopt total quality processes; you have customer retention programs; you accept feedback and returns cheerfully. None of these is built into the official "price" of products and services. When you buy a widget, you have bought the right to use that widget. Not the right to quick service-after-the-sale, quality improvements, etc. etc. But businesses now provide those things as a matter-of-course because they've found that it makes better, practical business sense.

A merciful returns policy and customer service program will provide graceful profits.

I read "The Lessons of Terror," by Caleb Carr (WorldCat, Amazon), a few years back and was struck by the relationship of his findings to ideas of mercy and grace. Ths sub-title of the book is, "A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why It Has Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again." I won't go into details, but the basic premise is that "limited war" is more effective than "total war." The former restricts military action to military targets; yes, there may be collateral civilian casualties, but they are, to be repetitive, collateral to the mission. The latter involves any purposeful military action taken by a government or group against a civilian target; yes, this would include not only our modern, US ideas of terrorism, but the firebombing of Dresden and the atomic strikes against Japan in WWII.

His point isn't that limited war is better because it is more moral. He doesn't look at the morality of war or its types at all. His point is that total war just doesn't work as well. It doesn't provide as good long-term benefits. He looks at historical examples going back to the Roman Empire and shows, again and again, how total war ends up backfiring against the agressors.

It struck me that he was giving us another example of what I now think of as "the quantity of mercy."

The "Quality of Mercy" is, of course,  the famous Shakespearean piece from "Merchant of Venice." It describes mercy in poetic terms. Go figure. The Bard does say, "It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." So that's pointing at the "quanity of mercy," I suppose. But "blesseth" still feels kinda... patsy-y.

I'm looking for other examples of this all the time. Where mercy leads to grace. Where the mathematical equation "1 - 1 = 0" is replaced by "1 - 1 = chocolate." Or whatever it is that you love.

This is one of my main thoughts about the reason for God, Christ and all that other theological stuff. That Christ came to teach us not just about salvation in the long run, but about the best, most fruitful ways to run our businesses, lives and governments. I don't think the Big J would have agreed that there's a "good" or "better" way to run a war... and only killing soldiers on purpose may fall under the category of "less un-merciful" as opposed to actually merciful.... but it's still an equation I'm interested in pursuing.

What can I do to receive grace? To get more than I clearly deserve, or more than is even reasonable? I can extend mercy and be a conduit for it. Rather than asking for justice or fairness or equality, I can stop counting the cost, and just do... what is right for everyone concerned.

I don't know how practical that would be at the level of governments and nations... but we certainly see where "eye-for-an-eye" gets us. Maybe it's time for a Federal Bureau of Mercy, or a Central Mercy Agency. 

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