We humans are no good at mercy and justice. But God is.
You can understand the feeling: The poor guy came so close, why not let him in? I was puttering around the web, reading up on baseball, and saw an article from a few years back on a superstar who hadn’t got into the Hall of Fame by the narrowest of margins. The Houston Astros’ Craig Biggio had gotten 74.8 percent of the vote when he needed 75 percent. Two more sportswriters vote for him, he’s in. “In cases like Craig Biggio’s, should the Hall of Fame round up?” ESPN asked its readers. A big majority of 69 percent said yes.
There’s an end of Lent and Passion Week lesson in this.
Is it fair?
Biggio was a great player: top ten all time in all sorts of things, seven-time All Star, four golden gloves, plus he was the only player to have 3,000 hits in his career and not get in. He came so close. Is it fair he doesn’t get in? Not really.
So why not round up the number, because it’s just two-tenths of a point? We round numbers for all sorts of things, and the idea of rounding numbers is a good excuse for bending the rules to get the man into the hall. It’s a kind of mercy to find a reason to get a great player into the Hall of Fame.
An understandable feeling, but you have, as the expression goes, to draw the line somewhere. The Hall of Fame draws it at 75 percent of the sportswriters voting. Let’s round up, seven in ten fans suggest, because it’s just not fair that the guy comes that close and doesn’t get in.
Makes sense, as I say, but what does this rounding up mean? It means that someone who got 74.8 percent of the vote gets into the Hall of Fame and someone who got 74.79 percent of the vote doesn’t. Well, that’s not fair, so why not round up from .79 to .8? If 74.8 can become 75 (a jump of two-tenths of a point), 74.79 can become 74.8 (a jump of one-one-hundredth of a point).
But then the normal rules of rounding mean that you’d round up from 74.5 to 75. But that’s not fair either. What’s the difference between the player who gets 74.49 percent of the vote and the one who gets 74.5? Why should the second get in and not the first?
You can see where this leads. Wherever you draw the line, it’s not fair to the player who just barely misses it. By this logic, played out consistently, anyone who gets one single vote should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Of course no one believes that. Every baseball fan who voted to round up to get Biggio into the Hall of Fame would draw a clear line somewhere. He probably has no real reason to draw it where he does, except a feeling that the number he chose is about right and that going lower would be going too far. Wherever he draws it, someone’s going to fall two-tenths of a point short and have as much claim to get in as Biggio has.
The world’s mercy
That’s mercy as the world naturally understands it. You have to give people a break. Hard rules are too hard. Grade on a curve. Round up. But don’t go too far. Some numbers can’t be rounded up. Some people must be left out. They’re not good enough for help.
What’s the result? Unfairness and injustice. Wherever you draw the line, someone’s going to miss it by an inch, or a couple of tenths of a percent. He’ll have as much of a claim to special treatment as the guys who get the special treatment. And special treatment itself is unfair to the guys who got what they deserved without special treatment.
Unfairness and injustice and irrationality. Why should the limits of special treatment get decided on a whim or a feeling? What principle says this guy gets help and this guy doesn’t? Bigotry works this way. We find reasons to bend the rules for the people we like and hold fast to them for the people we don’t.
That’s the best we can do on our own, when we try to be both kind and fair. In situations like this, there’s no way to be fair to one person and kind to another. Someone’s always going to lose out. We can’t be perfectly merciful and perfectly just at the same time. We fail on one side or the other.
What does this have to with the end of Lent and Passion Week? We want the world to be full of mercy but we also want it to be full of justice, especially in the big things, and we can’t do that. We want hard clear rules that recognize and reward the good. We want being good to mean something. We also want everyone to meet the rules but know they don’t or can’t, and so we want mercy, for everyone to pretend we met them. The long slog of Lent shows us we all need mercy, and that we’ll never survive the justice we also want.
God can do what we can’t. He can be, and he is, perfectly merciful and perfectly just at the same time. His mercy won’t reduce his justice and his justice won’t prevent his mercy. That’s the Passion Week lesson.
How he does it is mostly a mystery, but we do know one thing. Jesus did it for us. The Cross is an act of pure mercy and of pure justice both, and God has made it happen, at a cost we should remember. God gives us a break, he grades on a curve, he rounds up, and yet treats us justly, because Jesus the Son died for us.