We live in unforgiving times. Today, very often, it is enough to be accused for one’s career to be over, one’s reputation destroyed. To be confronted by some-one entitled to claim the title ‘victim’ is sufficient to mean destruction. The pyramid of power has been inverted, but this inversion does not amount to a corrective.

Yet, there is no longer any public acknowledgment of sin as not merely wrongdoing but wrongdoing with the possibility of redemption. In our culture now, redemption is impossible.

This is disastrous.

“There is this paradox: it is not possible to be human without sinfulness. Human growth cannot happen without error.” Traditional faith has tended to see sin as aberrant and dysfunctional, but not only is there no way of avoiding sin (because avoidance of sin must necessarily involve some avoidance of life) but it is my own sins that allow me to understand mercy.

Pope Francis puts it like this: ‘[T]he privileged place of the encounter with Jesus Christ is my sin. The will to respond and to change, which can give rise to a different life, comes thanks to this merciful embrace. Christian morality is not a titanic, voluntary effort, of one who decides to be coherent and who manages to do so, a sort of isolated challenge before the world. No. This is not Christian morality, it is something else. Christian morality is a response, it is the heartfelt response before the surprising, unforeseeable—even “unfair” according to human criteria—mercy of One who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me anew, hopes in me, has expectations of me. Christian morality is not a never falling down, but an always getting up, thanks to His hand which catches us.’

Here, the Pope drew our attention to another paradox: by secular standards, Christian mercy is ‘unfair’. Think of the grumbling of the brother of the Prodigal Son, who saw his father’s welcoming of his sibling as an injustice. Yet, there was a greater justice, served by the father’s generosity of spirit.

Our world balks at unconditional mercy, rejects it as a way for the wrongdoer to escape judgment and punishment. Modern man tends to think of ‘justice’ primarily in terms of punishment and retribution, though none of this satisfies him. Hence, there is a chasm between ‘justice’ as understood in the civic realm and justice of the ultimate kind. Man is possessed by an infinite craving for justice, and yet cannot create systems that do other than produce verdicts characterized by vindictiveness, sentimentalism and caprice.

The ‘unfairness’ that seems to characterize the unconditional forgiveness offered by Christianity draws our attention to the limits of earthbound ‘mercy’. But there is no way of approaching the radicalism of Jesus other than by understanding this ‘unfairness’, understanding that human life is a continuum of error and forgiveness.

It is not just that we must forgive to achieve a practical resolution of disputes and prevent conflicts. We need to because the alternative is to asphyxiate ourselves with hatred, to choke on unforgiving. At a certain moment in even the most entrenched resentments, there is a relief that surges through the human body and psyche when the moment of reconciliation is glimpsed. And this moment is possible for me only when I surrender to the idea that I too am a sinner, and that my redemption depends on the lightness of my own heart.

But our attempts to generate merely human concepts of mercy are counter-productive: we become more rigid and punitive because we cannot admit to the motes in our own eyes.

Luckily, as the Pope says, the solution does not lie with our own efforts. Mercy is in the gift of Another. Without God there can be no forgiveness, because, without an absolute measure, man is unable to judge evenly. Luckily, mercy happens. We are not required to generate it, merely to become its willing instruments.

Written by John Waters