Justice versus Mercy – a clash of values

My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea! Nelson Mandela.


I explained in my last post how I grapple with the concept of choosing between justice or mercy. While some situations are clearly one or the other, in most instances I struggle to choose, wanting to apply both.

Justice is fairness in that people get what they deserve, no more, no less. If someone works hard or behaves in a correct manner, they should be rewarded. The reward should match the actions. If someone does something wrong, they should be punished. The punishment should match the wrong-doing.

Mercy is forgiveness. It is often applied by someone with authority over another; for example a judge in a court of law, or an employer over an employee. Forgiveness or compassion can also be applied by a victim to their perpetrator.

It has been reasoned justice and mercy cannot be simultaneously applied or at least harmoniously practised because, if mercy or forgiveness is shown to someone who has done wrong, then justice has been denied to the victim.

(Note: For the purposes of this blog-post; I will put aside this concept in the area of criminal  justice, which is an entirely different aspect than issues I am confronted with.)

I constantly battle with the choice between justice and mercy; on social justice issues, in business and in my personal life. I believe in justice and fairness. I loathe seeing weaker or less fortunate people being taken advantage of by those of superior strength or position. I despise violence. I am intolerant of immoral or corrupt behaviour. I believe if you work hard, you should be rewarded for your effort. Yet…….. I am compassionate. I see the staff member with the disadvantaged background, I empathise with the person who tries hard yet cannot get it right, I feel the pain of the person who feels left out and thus behaves inappropriately.

I grapple with this choice between mercy or justice that seems impossible. Mercy invariably wins out, and I am gripped with the guilt of not being fair. I become a walkover in the way people treat me in order to get their own way. They know I will see their humanity. They know I will show compassion. They know I will care too much to allow them to suffer. They abuse that knowledge for their own means.

A personality test showed me as ‘INFJ’ (introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging). Apparently others of this type also battle with this; wanting fairness, yet feeling compassion for perpetrators of wrong-doing. Some famous people in this personality profile have struggled with this turmoil, such as Martin Luther King Jnr and Nelson Mandela. Reading that such exemplary figures have also struggled with this put my mind somewhat at ease. I am not alone. What become clear to me, as I read the biographies about them, is how they coped with their inner turmoil. They coped by standing up and speaking out for justice and fairness, never wavering on that issue. At the same time, however, they also preached non-violence and the letting-go of the desire for revenge on perpetrators.

There are others with different personalities who have also done so. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, struggled with this inner turmoil through South Africa’s apartheid years, and he is supposedly an extrovert. However, introverts struggle with both the turmoil of the clash of values and becoming outspoken about it.  Extroverts are more easily able to say what they think with confidence. Introverts want to hide away from attention and controversy. To read that some of those people who have battled this same inner turmoil and have become outspoken about it, are also quiet introspective people as I am, has both stunned and empowered me.

To learn they are/were introverts has stunned me. To know they found the courage to not only acknowledge this inner conflict but to also fight their own introversion in order to stand up for their belief in both sides of the coin, has empowered me. It means I can do that too.


Image courtesy:Freedigitalphotos.net[Kittisak]

23 thoughts on “Justice versus Mercy – a clash of values

  1. some of the best speeches I have ever heard were delivered by introverts. I think often people associate introversion to shyness and it’s not the same. I have met shy introverts and shy extraverts. It’s all about where you get energized. Introverts are energized when they are alone and extraverts are energized by people. Both can be great speech makers!

  2. Oh I missed the main point haha…the struggle between justice and mercy! One of my favourite bible verses is Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? I suppose one could spend a life-time exploring what that means.

    • Yes, a lifetime I think. I am certainly no clearer even pondering it for sometime.
      ( And Mandela himself grappled with this concept for many years before he took the road he took in forgiveness on his release from prison.)

  3. As a previous commenter said–this is a very thought-provoking post. I’d never really thought of justice and mercy as being related until I read this post–but it’s very interesting how mercy may result in justice being denied.

  4. I think the world is too complex for complete fairness, and when we try to enact justice, we take into consideration only a handful of factors. When we are compassionate, we scoop up maybe two handfuls of factors.

    The catch for me is being compassionate toward others while maintaining self-compassion. Bypassing self-care had its own perverted reward. I’m looking for healthy rewards now.

    • I hear you loud and clear because that is where I have been for too long (ie bypassing the self-compassion). I too am looking for a healthier more peaceful place.
      thanks for your comment.

  5. I think it takes a lot of guts to be those famous people and still be introverts! That is a great example of doing the “right thing” against their nature but better judgment!

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  7. Excellent post Elizabeth. The title captured my attention partly due to my interest in the Myers Briggs Typology. As it happens I am an INFJ as well :-).

      • Yes we are a rare breed! When it comes to mercy or justice I have a definite leaning toward mercy – probably too much so. I would never be good as a police officer or the like! I would want to give everyone another chance!

      • You sound EXACTLY like me. The most difficult thing for me was running the business by myself – once my husband left. I was too soft on the staff. They ended up getting away with far too much!

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