The Doing of Mercy

In the previous essay, I concluded that the only productive and worthwhile response to the reality of our social being-together, the only response which does not perpetuate the violence of the systems in which we live, can be a response of mercy. I asserted that mercy is ”the force beyond our similarities that insists in the differences, the gaps, between people, the force that transcends blood, and interest, and geography, and constitution, the force that is fundamentally open to all that the other is and seeks to be.” This is certainly a nice idea, but here I want to back it up, or rather, explore the concept of mercy and attempt to draw out the implications of such a counterintuitive philosophy. Thinking nice thoughts alone will not bring about change; as I argued, in our world, which is to say specifically, in our culture and in our laws, there are always “bodies on the line.”1 Our thoughts and our concepts can only be invested with interpretive force if they are grounded in the embodied here and now.

So how is mercy embodied? Or, more simply, how is mercy done? What distinguishes the practice of mercy from the practice of law? In my undergraduate thesis2 I wrote that the law, in effect, is an economy of blood. The generative pattern or ”mythos” of law inevitably gives way to the ”jurispathic” force of empire, the ”world-maintaining” realpolitik that characterizes so much of our legal meanings. And though this situation might seem undesirable, for most, the ”reality” of realpolitik is intuitive. The economics of empire—the exchange of the blood for the protection of ”interest”—is generally accepted. We believe in liberty so long as our rights are protected.

What we find, then, is that imperial law (don’t be confused by the term—the state, by definition, is imperial) centres on the ”my” and ”mine” of right. The basic principle of the ”social contract,” which undergirds so much of modern democracy, rides on this right to property. Human interest, the desire to own and build and protect, depends on the mutual affirmation and protection of other humans’ interests. This interest can simply be the desire to have a meal or to protect one’s family, but it is interest all the same. When a group of individuals comes together (or so the theory goes), they mutually agree to support one another in their interests, and thus form a community (what Cover would term a nomos, bound together by ”interpretive commitment”). The stability of the communal ”we” flows from the immediacy of the needs and desires of the individual ”I.” I am hungry and so are you; help me climb this tree and then we can eat what we pick. Or another way: I have family that I want to protect, and so do you, so let us agree that we will help each other protect our families from them. This is the ”social contract” at work.

Here we see that the contract is always a matter of negotiation, the balancing of interest with cost. In the latter scenario sketched above, the cost is a serious one: if ”they” are coming for my family and ”we” don’t protect them, my family will die. The cost of a partnership with another individual and her family is far less than the cost of fending for oneself. But what about today? For the most part, families do not have to worry about the privations of others. We have democracy, and civilization, and Starbucks—what is there to fear?

This is the nature of empire. When enough families come together you have a tribe, and a big enough tribe a village. As the village grows it becomes a town or a city, and when enough towns and cities decide to cooperate, you get the beginnings of a state. But where the negotiation of interest between two individuals is relatively straight forward, the same process of negotiation at a national level is exponentially more complex. Interests and commitments will always differ when you bring that number of people together. How does such a community hope to remain united? The world-maintaining force of empire provides a solution. Empire interpellates its subjects, hailing them as such, redirecting their individual commitments to one another through the body of the state. Selves become citizens, and the fears of those citizens become enmeshed with the state body. But what, then, does the state fear?

In the scenario above where two individuals agree to protect their families, their agreement implicitly accepts the necessity of violence to be done to the threatening “them.” This is the only naturally occurring ”right” of man. Our human rights, intended to make our lives so much better, are guaranteed, somewhere down the line, by the commitment to protect them—which is to say, by bodies on the line. So, when the two individuals become many, a body-politic, and their relations become mediated by the state, this inherent, basic right—the right to violence—is transferred to the state, which becomes the sole ”rightful” executor of violence against the threat of “them.” The state fears the other just as its subjects and seeks to do violence to this ”other” in the same way as its subjects for the preservation of its own interest.

This line, the mediation of violence by the state, is the line that Daredevil walks, which I discussed previously. But this is also the line that we skirt up against when we come face to face with those others who are seen as ”them” by the state to which we are subject. Do we, by our acquiescence to the state’s authority, condone the violence it performs against other humans? Do we agree, as I think we all intuitively do, that criminals should be punished in some form for their violations of our communities? Or, when we do not agree with the state’s rule, do we attempt to take our right to violence back into our own hands, as the so-called Citizens for Constitutional Freedom did in January of 2016? What is our response?

And so we return to where we began, to the concept, the question, of mercy. What do we do when the system that ensures our safety, our comfort, our privilege, demands to much of us, or does something that appals us?

In Martin Heidegger’s ”Words”3  from his later work On the Way to Language (1959), ”being” (Heidegger’s constant concern) is found in the saying of the word. Things become things through the presence-bestowing force of the word, the force that draws the material apprehension of a thing into conscious awareness as both thing and concept, as something which the beholder can understand, know, and speak. This process, which is for Heidegger the belonging together of ”Saying and Being, word and thing” (200), is not something to be possessed, indeed, cannot be possessed, because that first and fundamental union of word and thing is a mystery beyond the word, a mystery beyond knowing. We cannot say how first words and things became so entangled, though we can propose any number of theories, but we can say that we do not cause words to mean, and instead implement them as meanings.

Looking back, then, to our discussion of Robert Cover’s theorization of the nomos in the previous essay, we can recall that the nomos is, at bottom, a corpus of words, a body of meanings, in which we, along with our others, interact and relate. But this nomos, this body in which we live and these relations in which we share, cannot be possessed, cannot be owned, because the force of its being always comes before. My country, my family, my name—all of these are conceptual spaces into which I am thrown, to which I am given, and through which I find my voice. I have no right to any of it, but only the privilege to be called a part. And so for us, as for Heidegger, there can be only one response, what he speaks of as “renunciation” or ”self-denial” (196), and which we can refer to here, metaphysical philosophizing aside, as mercy.

If mercy and justice are two poles of a dialectic, and justice is defined by or grounded upon the right to and execution of violence, then mercy, as its opposite, can be defined as the renunciation of this violence, the laying down of one’s fundamental right. The violence of law is undesirable, but we cannot simply choose to ignore it—we must choose to respond with an action of equal measure.

This is not an easy measure. As I write this, part of me is uncomfortable with the idea. I have still to reckon with the justice of certain violent causes that I consider necessary, those extremities of the past and the present and surely the future that required and require and will require extraordinary action. The dialectic is never resolved by a single counter-proposition. But in the day to day, moment by moment, I believe that mercy is something that can be done, something that is truly possible. The renunciation of my right, of my interests and my desires, is the only way for true change to become possible. So long as we see it necessary to fight for what we call ”ours” we will inevitably find ourselves embroiled in conflicts of our own making. So long as my wants, my privileges, my rights are the most important, bodies will continue to be spent by the economy of law in which I find myself. Only in renunciation, in the denial of the self, in mercy, can we be free of those deeply seated hungers that drive us to our destruction.


  1. Cover, Robert M. “The Supreme Court, 1982 Term – Foreword: Nomos and Narrative.” Harvard Law Review 97.1 (1983): 4-68. PDF. 

  2. Stein, Eric. ”Narratives of Blood: Justice, Empire, and Billy Budd.” 2015. PDF. 

  3. Heidegger, Martin. ”Words.” On What Cannot Be Said. Ed. William Franke, Vol. 2. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. 185-201. Print. 

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