Justice and Mercy

By Anne K. Kaler, PSBVA

Justice and Mercy are integral to our human minds, and, indeed, to our humanity itself. To be human means to balance these virtues in equal measure in all situations, using our human brains and minds and hearts to make the best decision – case by case.

Modern medicine assures us that the brain is physically made of two separate but distinct areas, each with its own structure and duties.

Modern psychology tells us that the actions of the brain’s structure and chemistry often determine whether we use Justice or Mercy in our decisions about people and events.

The left brain controls the reasoning and thinking processes while the right brain controls the emotional values and creative processes. Simply put, we are creatures with divided opinions on whatever is presented to us. So, when we speak of a particular action or incident, we use both parts of our physical brain to analyze and judge the situation.

Sometimes we express this ability in words such as Justice and as Mercy. Justice connotes the rigidity of judgment, law, order, punishment, while Mercy represents the themes of understanding, forgiveness, remorse, and salvation. In terms of gender, Justice is seen as a masculine force asserting power and Mercy represents the feminine instinct to nurture. And those two mental and emotional qualities battle within our brains, minds, and souls, if you will, seeking a balance which suits each individual event.

Currently in our society, that battle has become our daily headline or a flashing red alert across our television or computer telling us of still another Breaking News Bulletin. Shootings in schools, mass corruption in all areas of business and politics, rise in drug deaths and suicides – all those are hammered into our psyches every day through electronic means. The troubles of the world have become our personal guilt trips.

Take television shows as examples. The glut of action stories, multiple shootings, frequent threats of our society becoming a dystopia or post-nuclear war zone, law and order being overthrown, and all our beloved series which begin each episode with a murder just before we go to bed. How can we tell reality from what we see on the screens?

We try to blot out the presence of Mercy in seeking Justice. Why? Because it is easier to sit back in our chairs and shake our heads in disapproval than to acknowledge that rendering Mercy is hard work. You have to care for those who need sympathy and guidance and, yes, love, even when they are at their most unlovable. It is much easier to let those who get paid for rendering Justice to do so rather than to intervene.

There is a common characteristic of most of the people who seek help with their writing at our offerings through the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center. They are seeking peace, not war. Yes, they often deal with war situations; however their character’s goal is always to restore the disrupted order of society to its former peaceful state. (And that, my friends, is the definition of comedy – to restore order to a society gone awry.)

The selections within the Journal also seek to balance both Justice and Mercy because Pearl S. Buck, like all humans, had to balance her own struggle with Justice and Mercy. She possessed the strength of character to go against popular opinion when she knew she was right. She did not hesitate. Yet, according to some of her writings, that act of being forthright did not always please her critics. Nonetheless, she did what she felt was right.

As a parent, she had to balance many conflicting parts of her life, yet her writings reveal a strong maternal love which saw beyond apparent Justice into the heart of Mercy. Within her house, she always kept three statues of Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of Mercy, who always hears the cry of the poor. Certainly Pearl heard the cry of the world’s children even from her home at Green Hills Farm and we started this Journal to celebrate her continuing legacy.

The most meaningful description of these two opposing virtues for me occurs in Portia’s plea to Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The quality of Mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed.
It blesseth him who gives and him who takes. . .
. . .
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice…
[If] 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. . . .

MOV Act 4, scene 1

For your information, a fact I never knew about this speech – that truly nothing is ever new.

Original speech from Wikipedia

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd 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;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
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. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which, if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Professor Harold Fisch, formerly of Bar-Ilan University, argued that the words of Deuteronomy 32:2, “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb,” were echoed in the first words of the speech, “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath.”[5]


Anne K. Kaler, Ph.D. As a life-long reader, Anne (always with an “e”) is now attempting to read every book in the universe, while helping to publishing more. Surprised to learn that she was actually a teacher, she persisted in that field for nearly fifty years until she started volunteering at PSB.

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