Mercy for the mayor?

Toronto mayor Rob Ford promised to end the gravy train at city hall but no one imagined a train wreck like this.

It’s been a scandal like nothing seen before in Toronto the good.   This past week there’s been a snickering snort in our noses and a condescending smirk on our faces as we speak of high-minded things of politics and corruption.  But every time I’ve joined the choristers of ridicule (and I’ve been a choir boy way too many times this week), I’m confronted, held back by myself.

I like to talk about the Mayor doing the right thing but the reality is that most of the time, in the ease and luxury of my privacy, I can hardly bring myself to do the right thing.

I want to be a voice for the higher ground but with every new revelation, every titillating video leak, I find myself a rubbernecking voyeur.

I’d like to voice some righteous rage but mostly what comes is a sad lament.  For the demons of addiction that shipwreck so many lives.  For all the ways that power corrupts.  For the public humiliation of Rob Ford.  For his wife and kids.  For the Mayor’s stubborn foolishness and all the so-called friends and advisors who encourage him to cling to power instead of seek healing.  And for the easy judgmentalism, the smug self-righteousness in me.  For all the times I hide and evade responsibility.  For all the ways I silently perpetuate the very things I criticize.

In the midst of this giddy Rob Ford pile-on, I was confronted with the biblical text that our church will be dwelling on this Sunday.  The timing of this fifth beatitude within this week’s political circus was astonishing.

“Blessed are the merciful,” says Jesus, “for they will receive mercy.”

Van Gogh - The Good Samaritan

Seriously Jesus, mercy?

In the face of these words of Jesus, I can feel a resistance movement organizing.  “What about justice?  Where is the accountability?  Isn’t mercy a free pass when something has to change?”

I’m struck by how deeply we trust condemnation as the most effective means for seeking and motivating change.  The desire for justice, honesty, transparency and good government are right.  Yet when those are threatened we resort to rejection and condemnation because we want no mistaking that what is happening is wrong.  We use condemnation, ridicule and harsh judgment as the means to insulate us from what is wrong and produce change in whoever is causing the problem, getting people to shape up through condemnation (really, now, has anyone been condemned into a better way of living?).

Think of the dynamic condemnation kick-starts – it forces you into a defensive posture, encasing you in a protective emotional armour, cutting you off from the possibility of receiving mercy.  Isn’t this the very situation Rob Ford finds himself in?  He’s been so pugilistic in his demeanor, polarizing sides and demonizing others, insulating himself from others and protecting his position so closely.  It’s left him incapable of receiving mercy, unable to see the mercy being extended to him in a resignation or a leave from office, only able to perceive it as a threat instead of a gift.

As I’ve lived with this beatitude, I recalled how Jesus was criticized for the company he kept.  And the company he mostly kept was the Rob Fords of his day: the loathed tax-collectors, the socially despised, the immoral, the outcast.  He was merciful to people who didn’t deserve it.

Mercy is not what Rob Ford deserves.  He deserves to be lambasted for the divisive folly of his leadership.  He deserves to be shown the door for demeaning the office of mayor and pissing all over the trust given through his election.  He has earned all the jibes and jeering sent his way for the absolute fool he’s made of himself.

But in the upside-down moral economy of Jesus, we don’t get what we deserve.  And so “Blessed are the merciful …”  Blessed are those who come alongside the despised, the outcast, the wretched, the foolish and extend to them undeserved grace.

The really unnerving thing about this beatitude is that it’s less about the recipient of mercy and more about the giver.  The crazy truth Jesus is exposing is that we need to give mercy as much as we need to receive it.  The giving of mercy to Rob Ford is the healing that might prevent us from finding ourselves one day in the same space Mayor Ford now inhabits.

But that’s so tough isn’t it.  Have you noticed how being merciful doesn’t feel very moral?  Come on, admit it – it feels really good to find some high ground, point fingers and get all righteously worked up.  It’s like some moral adrenaline gets mainlined in us.  But mercy – well, I’m not always sure what it feels like but what it does is put you at the same level as those you point the finger at.  That’s just plain humbling.  And that just may be mercy’s healing.

Obviously there are so many important questions about this whole mess that need answering, like why is the Mayor partying with alleged gangsters?  What is he doing in clandestine meetings with drug dealers? How can we trust a serial liar?  And there are questions about mercy too, like, how does mercy play out in the public square?  How can we give mercy without enabling?

But another important question I’m taking away is why am I so quick to judge, so wary of mercy’s power to season justice?

So while I remain longing for and insisting on so much better for Toronto, I’m praying mercy for the mayor.

Let me end with one of the best commentaries on this beatitude of Jesus, Portia’s mercy speech in 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 that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The throned 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 enthroned 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.

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  1. #1 by maryannevoelkellam on November 8, 2013 - 5:06 pm

    Such a good word, Phil—-and one that our hearts have felt for Miley Cyrus—asking God in His great mercy to meet her and free her.

  2. #2 by Gerald on November 8, 2013 - 6:08 pm

    Thanks Phil… mercy from all of us implies love.

  3. #3 by Tim A. on November 8, 2013 - 9:27 pm

    Beautiful, right, sentiment. I love the high concept stuff. But you left off a few paragraphs. I have no idea what mercy for the mayor looks like (aside from asking him nicely, for his own good, to get some help, a la Jon Stewart et al). Please continue…

    • #4 by phil on November 9, 2013 - 8:46 am

      Yes, that’s the challenging space we’re in. How does something like mercy get extended in the public square? I think it starts internally – in my attitudes towards him, keeping in check the easy, well-resourced tendency to ridicule, and maybe the harder admission that he’s not that different from me. I think of the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) where JEsus shows this mercy to the social outcast and the result is justice – I wonder if we dwell long enough in that story we might find a way.

      • #5 by Tim A. on November 9, 2013 - 9:06 pm

        I guess my sense is that it’s easy to think about my attitudes. Sure, love everyone. That’s not the hard part. I’m not into mocking the guy for his addictions (to booze, to drugs, to food). These are compensation for an inner unhappiness. They always are. It’s sad. But I don’t see this being ignored in the city, or the world (I’m encouraged by the heartfelt pleas for Rob to get help, from Doug Holyday to Jon Stewart). However, Rob has pursued an office that has significance over millions of lives, both present and future. I’m far less interested in stopping at introspection than I am in being a people who take a firm stand against divisive politics, and an appeal to the “I want to pay as little tax as possible so I can renovate my kitchen” narcissism that Rob tapped into to win election. I want politicians who name selfishness and encourage responsibility. The big picture might start in a small way with my own attitudes, but the prophetic voice demanded of us in this place goes well beyond that.

      • #6 by phil on November 10, 2013 - 8:06 am

        Tim, I’m with you here on this. But it’s a matter of timing. The prophetic critique was needed (and hopefully offered) throughout the previous election, in all the ongoing actions of city hall, and in the current agenda of city hall. I can’t agree more that we need to call for better leadership that serves a greater vision for a common good. The point I was trying to make was, in this lamentable moment in Toronto’s life, let’s err on the side of mercy.

        My bigger fear is de Tocqueville’s words that we get the leaders we deserve. If we are so easily swayed by simple slogans and base appeals to personal bottom lines, we’re in far worse trouble than we think. Perhaps the most prophetic thing now is to generate a city wide reflection and conversation: how did we get to this place? Who have we become that we are such suckers for self-interest based electioneering? Where is our vision for the common good in this city? Why aren’t we generating or supporting candidates with a beautiful vision for the common good? Where is the wider civic spirit and vision? To me, that’s the prophetically needed conversation while we mercifully help Mayor Ford get the help he needs.

  4. #7 by Mike Wilkins on November 9, 2013 - 11:05 pm

    I think that there is more Bible that we need to struggle with here. Jesus was not easy on the (religious) leaders of the day. John the Baptist was imprisoned and finally beheaded for calling King Herod to account for his immorality. The prophets spoke the standards of God to the leaders of the day. Daniel (with great reticence) spoke God’s standards to unbelieving kings. We Christians have a pastoral role to play to the people that govern us – offering mercy and forgiveness that is accepted through confession and repentance, and always praying for them. But, we also have a prophetic role to play, and that is calling them to a higher standard of leadership. This does not include mockery and wishing them ill, but it does include calling them to a high standard and helping them reach it.

    • #8 by phil on November 10, 2013 - 7:49 am

      Thanks for this Mike. Without a doubt this is part of a biblical response. Two things I think are key – timing. There’s a time for prophetic critique, absolutely. I’m not sure now is that moment (I do hope, in the post-mortem, all of Toronto takes a long, hard look at itself and asks why it elected a mayor like Ford, with his reputation as a pugilistic councillor and questions about his personal character. If we are so easily swayed by an election slogan like “stop the gravy train” and a minor promise to end the vehicle registration tax, then our troubles are far worse that Rob Ford). And the second is I don’t think mercy and justice are opposed. The point I’m making is holding out for the seasoning of mercy in this tragic, lamentable moment in Toronto. How do we hold out mercy for the person and accountability for the office?

  5. #9 by Bruce S. on November 10, 2013 - 9:19 am

    Enjoyed reading your words Phil. You have provided much food for thought. I am honored that I once had the privilege of giving you a drive. Blessings.

  6. #10 by Dianne Mantyka on November 11, 2013 - 12:03 pm

    Beautiful. Thank youJ.

  7. #11 by John Luth on November 21, 2013 - 9:03 pm

    Hi Phil, To join two threads here, google Mary Gauthier ‘Mercy Now’. I saw Mary at Folk Fest in Edmonton a few years back. A wonderful, compassionate, incisive and insightful woman.

  8. #12 by John Luth on November 21, 2013 - 9:05 pm


    Here’s the link.

    • #13 by phil on November 21, 2013 - 11:56 pm

      Nice – thanks for the link John.

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