Justice or Mercy?

What do you do with a student who is .6 points away from passing the course? If you’re a teacher, your mind is already filling with additional questions, withholding your answer until you’ve gotten a fuller picture. “Why is she only .6 points from passing?”, “Were there any outside factors like illness?”, “Was she absent a lot?”, “Were the assessments fair/valid?” and so forth. All valid questions and whatever the answers to them are, there comes a moment of decision, a moment when you will either choose to act justly or mercifully. How do you decide? How do you know when to be just and when to be merciful?

A student from my class finished the year just .6 points away from a passing mark. As is customary in the host culture, other students approached me to intercede on her behalf. One day, Student .6 waited outside my office door with a group of about eight supporters to speak with me about her situation. The next day, I got a visit from the Program Director who wanted to know “what we could do” for Student .6. At the end of that day, as I sat on the bus headed home I began to think about the question of justice versus mercy. As a Christian, I’m supposed to be transformed in my thinking and conformed to the likeness of Jesus who always knew when to be just and when to be merciful. Should I have been just with Student .6 and let the failing grade stand or should I have been merciful and rounded her mark up to passing?

No answer came to me until I got home and was changing out of my work clothes. It was a light bulb moment and I’m not sure of the reasoning that brought me to my answer but here it is: give people what they ask for. Student .6 came to me complaining that it wasn’t fair for her to fail the course when she was so close to passing. She reasoned that it would be a waste of her time to repeat the course for want of 6/10 of a point. She asked me for justice, not mercy, which lead me to another realization: mercy is only possible where there is confession.

Had Student .6 come to me and confessed that she had not taken the course seriously, the situation would have been different. Had she confessed that she spent more time talking to her friend and daydreaming during class, that she chose to do other things instead of studying for the tests, that she had memorized bits of texts to use in her assignments instead of producing original work, then there would have been an opportunity for mercy. She would have seen herself rightly and understood that the passing mark was not the product of her clever argumentation, her meritorious work or even my weakness of character.

Maybe I’m wrong, but perhaps this is why confession is so important when it comes to receiving mercy from God. (Don’t get confused. I’m not using mercy as another word for grace. I see that as something significantly, though not altogether, different.) We are not ready to receive mercy from God until we rightly understand that we are justly condemned. Confessing our sin, our failure, our mark-missing is the sign of our understanding of our situation. Sure, Student . 6 could have “confessed” while thinking to herself, “I’ll say what he wants to hear if it means that I get what I want”, but that only works with humans. God, knowing the heart, knows when a confession is an attempt to manipulate and when it’s sincere. Without a confession, it’s impossible to receive mercy. Mercy may be shown, but it may not be perceived as mercy. Should mercy be shown even when it will not be perceived as mercy? I think only God really knows and we just have to do the best we can.

As for Student .6, she came to me looking for justice and I think that is what I gave her. Sadly, decisions may be made higher up which will subvert justice. Happily, one day God’s justice will prevail…which is why I’m asking for mercy today.


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