22 November 2013

When Mercy Seasons Judgment

One of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays is The Merchant of Venice.  The plot follows Antonio, a merchant who has placed virtually all of his money in some ships at sea that he is sure will be safe.  A friend, Bassanio, comes and asks him for a loan to assist him in the wooing of a woman named Portia.  Antonio instead seeks out a loan in his own name through the Jewish merchant, Shylock.  Antonio has long mocked and made fun of Shylock, who sees his chance to get revenge on the Christian Antonio and tells him that he will give the money so long as Antonio puts down a pound of his own flesh as collateral on the loan just in case his ship doesn't (literally) come in.

Of course since this happens within the first act of the play, Antonio's ships all run into trouble or we would have no story.  The climax of the play occurs in the courtroom where Shylock demands justice upon the bond that he has claim to and Antonio begs for mercy.  The lawyer Balthazar (actually Portia in disguise), tries to convince Shylock of the benefits of mercy (not least of which because Bassanio is married to her now and can pay off the bond three times over), but Shylock sticks to his guns.  He is tired of being usurped by the conniving and mean Christians.  Tired of being mocked and used because of his faith.  In the end he stands by the absurd demands of the contract to the letter.  Even when Portia asks him to have a doctor on hand for the inevitable need of Antonio after he's lost a pound of his flesh, Shylock refuses, stating that he does not have any legal obligation to provide one.

So Portia decides instead to give him a taste of his own medicine and says that if Shylock is to take any more or less than an exact pound, then the bond his forfeit.  What's more, should he take anything other than flesh, the bond is forfeit.  No blood - not a single drop - can be spilled.  It's an impossible situation and Shylock leaves the play with no justice - and under court order to denounce his faith and to be baptized a Christian.

Although the play also includes a rather silly (and perhaps even pointless) subplot involving Portia's love life - what interests me most about this play is the way history has evolved our views on it.  In Shakespeare's day, Shylock was a pure villain.  In our post World War II world, Shylock is much more sympathetic.  His demands for justice are read more as the attempts of a marginalized man to gain some respect (even if it is through rather extreme ways) than as the devil himself battling the quality of mercy.  Instead of a pure hero and pure villain, we end up with two men fighting head to head like rams - neither are pure anything.  Both have done good, and not so good things.  It amazes me how easy it was for both men to assume and judge and criticize and demand.  How easy it is for any of us to refuse to see and appreciate the difficulties we place on one another.

I read another essay with my students at the end of the year by Emerson that is called "Circles" that touches on this principle.  It's brain-bending essay that suggests that the truth that we know should always be expanding.  Sometimes, Emerson says, truths trump truths.  Both things are still true - but our understanding of how to act on and apply these truths shifts.  The example I give is of Nephi and Laban in The Book of Mormon.  Nephi, who has been raised to follow the Law of Moses, has been taught that to kill is wrong.  But then he's told to kill.  It is true that killing is wrong.  It is also true that if Laban is not killed, then "generations will dwindle in unbelief" - and the second truth overcomes the need to follow the first in this instance.  So what is the real truth?  The real truth here as far as I can see is that you follow God.  Following God allows an individual to obey both truths, even when they seem to contradict.

I've thought about this principle of following the higher law a lot this year.  When I attend Sunday School and they talk about how the standards of God never change.  When I watch my fellow sisters "protest" with pants or by asking to go to the Priesthood meeting.  When I read stories of the homosexual LDS community and the way that they are striving to live the gospel in a church that, on the whole, still contains a membership that doesn't know what to do with them.  I look at all of the debate and all the frustration and all the holier-than-thou and "I obviously know more than you" on both sides of the table and wish that somehow we could all just stop being so busy being right for one second and understand that ultimately we're all shooting for doing what God wants us to do.  What if we stopped to consider that it is totally possible for God to answer the prayers of two people differently on the same topic?  To tell one person to vote democrat and the other republican.  To tell one person to protest and the other to stay home.  To tell one person to watch a movie and the other not to.

I don't consider myself outside of guilt on this topic.  Only last week I sat through a Sunday School lesson where ideas on topics that I don't share (re: rated R movies and the limitations of the priesthood) were presented as doctrine and I had to hold back some frustration.  What I am suggesting is not that we refrain from all judgement, but that we more often season our justice, as Portia suggests, with mercy.  Give each other the benefit of the doubt.  And, most of all, allow individuals the right to worship "how, where, or what they may".

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