There’s deep mercy in refusing to believe the worst about someone – especially when she believes it about herself
“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.” Listen – hear the grudging tone, the underlying unwillingness? I’ll bet that most of us, when we say or hear this common phrase, get the sense that this “gift” is neither gracefully given nor gratefully received. We might hear, instead, “Look, we all know you’re a hot mess, but [sigh] I’ll give you one more chance, which you’ll probably screw up anyway.” We might think, instead, “Who is she kidding? [eye roll] Does she understand the noble sacrifice I’m making by defying all logic and experience and letting her nonsense slide?”
To give someone the benefit of the doubt (an idiom traced to the mid-1800s, and one that continues to prove perplexing to English learners) means to give the advantage to positive evidence in the case where negative evidence may exist, but does not outweigh the positive. Given a situation in which you know some good things and some not-so-good things about a person, offering the benefit of the doubt tips the scales in the person’s favor.
This week’s suggestion for how to practice mercy in the Jubilee Year – “Recall a time you were not given the benefit of the doubt, and extend one to someone else” — asks us, I think, to go even further in tipping those scales. Maybe we’re being called to kick over the competing stacks of evidence entirely, and give not merely the benefit of the doubt but the benefit of the faith. Maybe we’re asked to believe the best about someone, even – or especially – when she’s unable to believe it about herself.
We see an institutional version of this (very, very difficult) practice of mercy in American jurisprudence, where the defendant in a criminal trial is presumed innocent, and it is the prosecutorial burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We are all familiar with this concept from decades of televised trials, from Perry Mason to all the Laws & Orders to O.J. Simpson and Court TV. But when it comes down to it, we don’t believe in it. We can’t put our hearts into it. We don’t even like it much.
Last summer, I served as an alternate juror on a murder trial. Because the state was seeking to convict the two defendants not for actually committing the murder involved, but for instigating the gang activity during which the victim (a friend and member of their own gang) was killed, the judge called a huge initial jury pool. He believed potential jurors might have difficulty with the basis of the charges. A few did, and were dismissed – but the jaw-dropping thing to me was how many people honestly admitted that they could not presume innocence, in this trial or any other. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” was a more powerful axiom than all the judge’s instructions. These young men would not be in a courtroom on trial, the consensus went, if they were not guilty of something – if not this particular crime, something just as heinous.
I understand how this happens, even among intelligent, thoughtful, prayerful people. We are all, to some degree, programmed for skepticism when it comes to the motivations of others, and we tend to measure others’ worthiness by the brokenness at our own core. We have a deep fear of letting people “get away” with anything. It’s that fear, when it comes to the justice system, that drives our feeling that criminals get off on technicalities. It’s that fear, when it comes to Church teaching, that drives our worry about “too much mercy” on the pope’s part.
But we are not in a court of law with one another. We are not the recording angel, walking the borders of heaven. Let us try, in the little ways, to give one another the benefit of the doubt, even if someone very important failed once or a hundred times to give it to us. I myself have been given the benefit of the doubt, the benefit of faith over and over again, undeserved, and that mercy has saved my life. Another name for it is grace, and I pray for the ability to pass it on to others, with nary a sigh or eye roll.
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