“What happened to your mercy?”
“I’m a count. Not a saint.”
In the 2002 film version of The Count of Monte Cristo, Fernand Mondego asks this of Edmond Dantes, just before Edmond is about to kill him in revenge. Edmond gives his reply, echoing something that Father Feria had said to him a long time ago while still imprisoned.
Mercy, by definition, is not something deserved. It is dispensed entirely at the discretion of the person being asked for mercy. A person who decides to withhold mercy when they are genuinely wronged is perfectly within their rights, otherwise it would not be mercy. Though it is something that we are free to dispense or withhold at our will, nevertheless, mercy is something we extol and often even expect from others. Most people would agree that generally it is better to be “merciful” than not, but when it becomes something we expect others to do, it ceases to be mercy.
One of the most moving stories in literature is the story of the man who, after being wrongly accused of treason by jealous friends, escaped prison, and returned to take his revenge upon everyone who wronged him. The climactic scene is the one in which Edmond finally has Fernand at his mercy; the same Fernand who betrayed Edmond and married his fiancee.
As audience members, we do not want Edmond to show him mercy. We want Fernand to die; he is a despicable character in every respect and we certainly think he deserves the dreadful end he is about to receive. When he asks Edmond, “what happened to your mercy?” he is referring to a moment earlier when Edmond asked that Fernand spare Mercedes from death. Edmond did not ask for mercy for himself, but for the woman he loved, showing Edmond’s desperate love for Mercedes (whose name means “mercy,” incidentally). Nevertheless, there is some justice in Fernand’s question: why should Edmond ask for it before from Fernand, and then fail to display mercy himself later? Besides the poetic turn of phrase and the echo of Father Feria’s words early, it is something that we ought to find deeply disturbing, even if we get to see Fernand die as a result of his poor character.
What we see in the Count of Monte Cristo is the unnaturalness of mercy. Sometimes, the very idea of showing mercy to someone who we believe wronged us can be utterly repugnant to us, especially if that person does not believe they were wrong. We can sometimes envision ourselves showing mercy when we have that person on their knees begging for it. Perhaps we might even go so far as to consider ourselves magnanimous for showing mercy in such circumstances, but it is merely our pride that speaks, and not our mercy.
We extol mercy as this great and noble thing, and view acts of mercy as we would view some extraordinary exotic creature in the zoo – because it is strange and so distinctive from anything we encounter in our ordinary lives.
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the notorious usurer Shylock is in court demanding his “pound of flesh” from the noble Antonio, who has defaulted on his loan. Shylock acts out of spite and a sense of wounded pride; in the past, Antonio had spit on him and insulted him for being a Jew. Even when he has Antonio on his knees, brought as low as any ordinary man was ever brought low, he still could not show mercy. And according to our definition of mercy, he certainly does not have to dispense mercy. However, according to their paradigm, he is almost expected to. In the end, Antonio gets off on a mere technicality, and Shylock receives from the disguised Portia a speech about the “quality of mercy.”
Portia says many pretty things about mercy, but we do not see real mercy. Shylock relents because worse punishment would fall upon him by spilling a single drop of Venetian’s blood, which he would have to do in order to secure his pound of flesh.
Though mercy is “twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that taketh,” nevertheless, Shylock is not swayed by this speech. Even if we want to read anti-Semitic overtones in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock (which are difficult to deny), I see a parallel between Shylock and Edmond Dantes. Mercy is unnatural for them.
A counterexample is the bishop in the beginning of Les Miserables, who shows Jean Valjean extraordinary grace when Valjean makes off with his silver. Jean Valjean is caught and brought in on his knees, with the imminent possibility of being sent back to prison. The bishop showed a little more mercy than Javert would have, and even let him have the silver, on the condition that he use it to make an honest man of himself. It takes time, but Valjean ultimately manages to do some good in the world in penance for his former sins. The bishop showed a strange quality in allowing Valjean to get away with the silver. It is something that Valjean cannot even begin to comprehend until he himself is in a position to show mercy to Javert, who has never shown mercy to anyone himself. It throws Javert into a dilemma of duty, causing him to commit suicide to escape facing it. Mercy is unnatural, and causes us intense discomfort. Javert received mercy from a man he had been hunting for years in the name of justice and the law, and when he had received that mercy, he felt he could not bring him under the law, but also felt that he could not ignore his duty. Mercy is unnatural and disruptive. It disrupts our internal peace and thwarts our duties.
When a bully is nice to us when he does not have to be, we are inclined to turn a blind eye to his other misdeeds because he was nice to us. Mercy at its most twisted and grotesque.
We want to live according to justice. We want wrongdoers to suffer because of what they do to us.
This is why the act of the cross is so bizarre. The Pharisees could never, without the grace of God, understand what was happening at the cross. Even two thousand years later, when mankind has supposedly evolved to a higher plane of understanding and knowledge, we still have no comprehension of the true mercy that was displayed there.
It is incomprehensible to us because it is utterly repugnant to our nature as human beings. I have an enormous corpus of world literature to support this claim. Achilles could not be persuaded to show anything resembling mercy except when forced by a deity. Odysseus refuses to spare a single one of the interlopers that squatted in his palace in Ithaca, despite the fact that kings are supposed to be merciful as well as just. Aeneas ignores Turnus’ plea for mercy, and by his killing of Turnus sparked a fierce debate that rages on two thousand years later. Antigone is trapped between duty to her family and duty to her state, and Creon cannot be prevailed upon to show mercy for a young woman torn between the two. Orestes is goaded by a deity into killing his mother, in an act of retributive justice that goes easily excused after a trial. Once the verdict is reached, Orestes is never again bothered by it. The Furies in Aeschylus’ Eumenides are obsessed with exacting justice, and will only show mercy because they are promised honors and new sacrifices.
“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one might dare to die” Romans 5:7. Let alone dying for someone who does not think they are wrong.
Only a higher being could show true, self-disinterested mercy that resulted in wrath, death, and resurrection. That is an idea that, even in pagan literature, generally only begins in the mind of a deity. Only a deity could hang on a cross, expire, and receive punishment for the sins of others. No human being would ever do that, nor would they be able to.
Yet, the fact that this notion exists within the realm of secular humanity suggests a certain transcendent divinity behind the notion of mercy. It is something that we cannot often bring ourselves to practice, though we can still recognize it and even applaud it when we see it, even in its most grotesque contortion. It suggests that there is indeed something far outside of ourselves, if mercy exists as a universally recognized notion and yet remains foreign to us in our day-to-day lives. If it really were something that arose out of humankind, why is it so impossible for us to comprehend it, let alone practice it?
In an evolutionary mindset that does not recognize divinity, the notion of mercy is an irksome and difficult thing to explain away because it is so unnatural. Retributive justice has a more obvious and more attractive payoff; the sense in which Portia says “it is twice blessed; it blesseth the one who gives and the one who taketh” is not necessarily something we want except when we understand it through a Christian lens. We want to see Fernand die, we secretly cheer when Javert throws himself in the Seine, we are deeply satisfied when we hear of Shylock’s misfortune after the way he treats Antonio. We understand Achilles a little too well in his behavior towards Agamemnon.
So then, the statement, “I’m a count. Not a saint,” rings true in a stranger way than it seems upon the first glance. Sainthood implies being touched by God (whether you are Catholic or Protestant); mercy proceeds from a heart that is changed by God and a recognition of one’s debt to God’s mercy. It is only in that recognition that we can ourselves dispense mercy. Hence, when we are wronged as Christians, we are called to do as Christ did to his enemies: die on the cross for those who would eventually believe in Him as the savior. He showed us mercy in a way that we cannot comprehend, and continues to remain mysterious and incomprehensible. Yet, we cannot escape that it exists and is something we ought to pursue and practice ourselves. We are not to count its costs, for Christ did not concern Himself with the fact that his mercy would cost Him His own life.
Such is the strange, mysterious, and magnificent nature of mercy. It is not anything owed, but given entirely at the discretion of the person from whom mercy is asked. It cannot be expected, but must be given as a gift. And it’s purest expression is in the cross where Christ was crucified.