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Quality of Mercy

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December 2012

You never know.  The son of a tenant farmer marries the daughter of an aristocrat.  They have eight kids, one of whom they name William.  He likes to write plays.  You know the rest. William Shakespeare is the most famous literary figure in history.  His 37 plays and 154 sonnets are more widely read than any writing other than the Bible.

Shakespeare’s works have stood the test of time because they bring out the worst and best of the human condition. In The Merchant of Venice, merchant Antonio guarantees a sizeable loan made by the moneylender Shylock so that Antonio’s friend can court the heiress Portia.  Shamed into providing a no-interest loan, and no friend of Antonio, Shylock imposes a cruel term: if Antonio defaults, he must forfeit a pound of flesh. When Antonio’s fleet of merchant ships sinks in a storm, Shylock is ready to exact full payment.  Enter Portia, who disguised as a doctor of law helps to save Antonio by showing that under the loan terms, Shylock is entitled to flesh but not blood.   In the process, Portia delivers one of Shakespeare’s most eloquent soliloquies.

The Merchant gives us great insight into how we treat the unborn. This past election cycle Republican senatorial candidates Todd Akin (Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) discussed whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape and incest.  Akin suggested that there can be “legitimate rape.”  Mourdock stated that sometimes God “intends” these things to happen.  Following their comments, both lost elections in states that Gov. Romney won.

To be sure, both misspoke.  There is no such thing as “legitimate rape.”  It is a criminal act of brute power.  And God does not “intend” bad things to happen.  He is always good.  But it is unlikely that either candidate’s choice of words sunk him.  In 2008 Barack Obama said that if one of his daughters became pregnant, he would not “punish” her with a child.  That misstatement did not cost him anything.  Something else must be at work here.

More likely, what hurt Akin and Mourdock is the notion that a woman should be allowed to deal with the aftermath of rape or incest in her own way, even if it means abortion.  So questions must be asked about the aftermath.  Why doesn’t the state give a woman a fully loaded .357 Magnum and allow her to shoot the person convicted of rape or incest?  Why don’t we give her tools that can crush his head or dismember his body?  After all, it happens to the baby.  We don’t do those things precisely because under our system of law, justice must be tempered by mercy.  The punishment must fit the crime.  Justice without mercy begets cruelty.

When Shakespeare’s Shylock demands his just due, Portia offers him a better way: “The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven upon the place beneath.  It is twice blessed; it blesses him that gives and him that takes.  ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.  His scepter shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.  It is an attribute of God Himself, and earthly power doth show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.  Therefore, [Shylock], though justice be thy plea, consider this: that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.  We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.

Whether in dealing with the tragedy of rape or abortion, or with any unwanted pregnancy, we have abandoned our sense of mercy.  Whatever the circumstance, the unborn baby is always the innocent one, not one deserving of death.  Sadly, in our willingness to play God with human life, we have forgotten that in offering mercy to the unborn we become most like God.

But in a case of rape or incest, where is God’s mercy for the mother?  It raises the age-old question: why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why does He allow twelve people to get killed at a Batman movie?  Or a teen to be paralyzed by a drunk driver, or a mother of five kids to die of cancer? It is so that His mercy may be revealed in a greater way-if we are willing to do things His way.  For the victim of rape or incest, God’s mercy is shown through the child He allows into being.  When a woman rejects the culture’s call to exact a cruelty on her unborn baby, she proves that she is the mighty one.  A criminal can only cause hurt, but a mother brings forth life.  In her mercy shown, she becomes like God.  Portia had it right.

In the beginning, two people who tried to play God found out in no uncertain terms that they weren’t.  Over the course of history, we haven’t done any better then Adam and Eve.  God could have written us all off as one big failed experiment.  But God doesn’t fail.  He just allows our failures to reveal His greater glory.  So He sent His only Son.  It was not an act of justice but of mercy that brought Christ to this earth.  He came as a baby.  He came through a woman who could have said no but who was willing to trust that God was at work in her and in her child.  He came in the poorest of circumstances.  Her baby came to die for us because His act of pure mercy was an act of pure love.  In His mercy constantly shown, He is the mightiest of all.

And so we are called to be merciful even in the most trying circumstances.  Twice blessed is the mother who allows her baby to live.   Even if she chooses to give up her child for adoption, she is blessed in knowing the she showed mercy to another victim.  She is blessed in knowing that her child is blessed.  God lives in those touched by His mercy shown.  Her child may grow up to be the next Shakespeare.  For God allows good things to happen, too.

You never know.  That’s the beauty of life.  You just never know.

Merry Christmas!

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics.  He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, and have six kids.

© 2012 Paul V. Esposito.  Culture of Life.  Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted.  Comments?  Visit us at

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