Fifteen years ago, while I was visiting my girlfriend Liz (now my wife) in Austin, Tex., where she lived, she introduced me to Mary Gauthier’s beautiful, plaintive song, “Mercy Now.”
It’s been in my heart ever since. If you don’t know it, look it up online and listen. You’d have to have a soul of anthracite to not be moved.
Here’s a verse that spoke to me this week:
“Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now[end italics”
What brought “Mercy Now” to my mind again was the latest of a million or so cases of cancel culture playing out in the news. I’m not even sure now which case it was, as they seem to pop up at the rate of two or three or nine cases a day.
Conservatives accuse progressives of engaging in cancel culture. Progressives accuse conservatives. Fact is, they both do it, constantly.
The way it goes is, some person—often a prominent figure, but maybe a nobody—commits some social or political faux pas, real or perceived.
That unfortunate person is then beset by an outraged mob that hounds him relentlessly on the internet and on TV and on the street until he disappears from public view.
The person’s whole previous body of work—her very life—becomes null and void, buried in infamy. It’s as if the mob is saying, “If you disappoint us on any level, you haven’t just stumbled, you’re dead to us. You cease to exist.”
You’ve seen it. I’ve seen it.
And yes, I know, some people deserve cancellation. I’m not disputing that.
Harvey Weinstein comes to mind, a Hollywood mogul who for decades used his power to bully his employees relentlessly and pressure actresses into unwanted sex. He was convicted of sex crimes and sentenced to prison.
But most people, even those who err in egregious and public ways, aren’t Harvey Weinsteins. They post something on Twitter that’s in astoundingly poor taste. They get caught up in a messy divorce. They support the wrong candidate.
They could sure use some mercy.
As a society, we seem to have lost that moral thread of decency, if we ever had it.
There’s a premise I believe is foundational to Christianity: we humans all are broken people, living in a broken world. I try, with mixed success, to keep that in mind.
At times we behave nobly. That’s the glory of who we are, creatures made in the image of God. But we’re also destined to screw up sooner or later, as surely as Adam and Eve in the garden. That’s also part of who we are.
As St. Paul put it, the good we’d like to do, we find ourselves not doing. The evil we want to avoid, we commit despite ourselves.
That human stain applies to gas station attendants, to accountants, to preachers, to professors, to Oscar-winning actors, to soccer stars, to members of Congress, to billionaires, to janitors. They’re all just human.
To get along in this life in a spiritually productive way, we ought to hold a couple of contradictory truths in our head. That is, humans often manifest sublime, divine gifts. But they’re not divine. They also will, absolutely, make mistakes that hurt us, themselves or others. It’s inevitable.
Contrary to common tabloid wisdom, their blunders usually aren’t about hypocrisy or unmitigated evil. They’re about humanity. People, even the best, are complicated and wrong-headed and self-contradictory.
And when they fail, we should take care not to join the mob allied against them. Because the mob may be coming for us next.
Knowing this, we can appreciate the gifts someone possesses without requiring that he or she be perfect. We can learn from people, and give thanks for their talents, while praying for discernment enough to not wallow in the dross we’ll inevitably find next.
Whether we’re great or obscure, we’re all on a journey. None of us possesses all wisdom or virtue, ever. We ourselves can go off the rails at any moment.
When we err, we pray to receive grace and mercy. Therefore, we’re obligated to show those qualities to others. We must love people as they are, and offer compassion when they come up short.
God uses broken vessels. They’re the only kind available.
And all broken vessels need a little mercy. Now.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at email@example.com.