China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2007/Apr

Mercy Sunday: a message for the world today

Recently a rich man was driving his new car slowly on a crowded street in a Chinese city. The bicycle of a poor man made contact with the auto’s shiny paint. Who was at fault? Anyway, the poor man was not injured. He got back on his feet and raised his bike to the vertical position. Then he noticed a scratch on the new car and was terrified. The rich man emerged from his car, saw the scratch, pointed an accusing finger at the cyclist and yelled, “I can have you killed. I can pay someone to murder you. And if the police ask me any questions, I have enough money to pay them!” The poor man fell to his knees and begged for mercy. The rich man said, “Get out of my sight!” and shoved him away with a curse.

People were watching and they spread the news. Was this New China, or the old society before 1949? In 2007, how could a rich man be so arrogant as to threaten to kill someone because of a damaged sheet of metal? Who was he to think that he could get away with murder? The story appeared in print as a “negative example,” a warning to other rich people not to overreact and intimidate. At least the rich driver did not commit murder, but in no way could his threat be called merciful.

Wide or narrow forgiveness?

Father Frederick Faber (1814-63) wrote a hymn beginning, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” In Chinese, “forgive” is kuanshu (寬恕). It’s used in the Our Father in “forgive us our sins.” The first character means “wide” and the second “to excuse.” When Faber composed that hymn in 1854 in England, the Taiping Rebellion (太平天國) was raging in China. It was the most massive peasant rebellion in human history. Other outbreaks followed in other provinces. The land of the Great Qing (大清國) was as far from peaceful as possible.

One estimate is that China’s population declined from 430 million in 1850 to 370 million in 1873, falling by 60 million. Swords, muskets and a few cannons, plus widespread disruption of farming and the resulting famine, killed as many people in China as more coordinated violence and more sophisticated weapons later killed around the globe during World War II. Mercy was one of the victims of foreign invasion and internal chaos from 1839 to 1949. After the civil war ended in 1949, there were old scores to settle, political campaigns, and then a tsunami of trauma during the Cultural Revolution. Everyone talked about waging class struggle against counter-revolutionaries, not about forgiving sins.

Mercy, cibei (慈悲) is composed of the character for “kind” or “fond” as in a mother’s fondness for her children, plus “lament” or “pity.” Western psychology says that to abandon a long-lasting feud and be reconciled, people need to move from anger to sadness, to look with some kindness on the other party, and to lament that the fight happened in the first place. Catholic prayers often address God the Father as merciful, renci (仁慈), the combination of a key Confucian term meaning “benevolence, good will,” and “kind” or “fond.” A key to interpret the Christmas story is the song of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those of good will.” (Mt. 2:14)

The Feast of Divine Mercy

However, we are now in the Easter season. In 2000, Pope John Paul II decreed that the second Sunday of Easter should be celebrated worldwide as the Feast of Divine Mercy. The Holy Father said this on 30 April 2000, when he canonised a Polish mystic, Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938). In the threatening years before World War II, Sister Faustina received visions and a message of mercy from Jesus, including “The Feast of Mercy emerged from my very depths of tenderness…Yes, the first Sunday after Easter is the Feast of Mercy, but there must also be deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink form this or try to absolve yourself from it.” Mercy Sunday includes displaying the image of Divine Mercy and an indulgence, but our devotion must be put into practice afterwards.

The key to devotion to Mercy Sunday is “Jesus, I trust in you.” In whom else or in what else do people trust? People trust in money, or in having powerful friends. Jeremiah 17:5-8, echoing Psalm 1, contrasts the dryness and barrenness of trusting in people with the freshness and vitality of trusting in God. Idols of silver and gold are lifeless, and “their makers will become like them.” (Ps. 115:8)

Almost 30 years ago, China launched the Four Modernisations and all eyes eagerly looked ahead to the year 2000. The slogan was “Look to the Future,” (向前看) i.e., to the hi-tech, prosperous, glorious future of the nation. But the common people soon made a pun in Mandarin, “Look to money,” (向錢看) i.e., to their personal or family income.

To get rich was glorious, and since some people got rich before others, a certain amount of cynicism was perhaps inevitable. Yet Oscar Wilde said, “A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” What is really important in life? When buying and selling, consumerism and ostentation, become the reasons for living, then human relationships tend to suffer.

Chasing money takes its toll on love and romance. As the Song of Songs noted ages ago, “If anyone were to offer all he owns to purchase love, he would be roundly mocked.” (Song 8:7) In many nations, divorce rates have climbed faster than disposable income.

Mercy and friendship

When the pace of life becomes too hectic, people have no time for friendship. In contrast, some Catholics from North America visited a big mainland city a few years ago. They hired a van and a driver for the day. They stopped at the church, and some people invited them into the office next door for tea and conversation. Afterwards the driver asked, “Who are Catholics? You are foreigners and strangers, yet all of you were smiling and laughing like long lost relatives! What is your secret?”

Maybe part of the secret is a sense of trust in fellow Catholics. This is not naivete. Everyone in that room knew of cases where Catholics had cheated Catholics. Not all Christians live up to the name, yet all say, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and God of all consolation.” (2 Cor. 1:3) This unites believers in a family, despite the language barrier. Neither the tourists nor the local Catholics planned to make a good impression on the driver. They probably forgot he was in the room, yet they gave a joyful witness without putting on an act.

In the race to get ahead, who has time for mercy? Pope John Paul II said, “There is only one hope for the world, and that is the mercy of God.” An atheist would disagree, arguing that we all have to struggle hard to solve our problems rather than wait for God to solve them for us. But the pope was not urging passivity in the face of human selfishness. He often denounced injustice. However, the problems of the world are so deep rooted that we cannot solve them without divine help.

We often make our own problems. Occasionally we fail so miserably that we cannot undo the damage and no apology to our victims will be adequate. That is too painful to admit, so we are tempted to sweep the mistake under the rug. But denial and repression exact their toll on us. Rationalisation and even saying, “I forgive myself,” are not enough. Finally turning to God for mercy, we can lay those burdens down and move forward with joy. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Mt. 5:7) And having received mercy from God, we are happy to share that wealth with others.

Fierce versus gentle animals

The alternative is to be tough, neither granting mercy nor expecting to receive it. But such heartlessness was never praised in traditional China. “The rabbit dies, the fox laments” (兔死狐悲), means that there is compassion even among animals, so a human devoid of compassion is worse than a beast. China had generals and conquerors, to be sure, but they ranked low in the Confucian hierarchy.

A disturbing development is the popularity of a few recent books about wolves. The authors give so-called good advice for surviving in business by thinking and attacking like wolves. This is Social Darwinism. There is a market for such books, but ruthless competition does not promote a harmonious society. Such an “I live, you die,” attitude can lead a self-made millionaire to threaten murder in revenge for minor damage to his car.

Christians do not have a vocation to be timid Easter bunnies. Neither should we be fierce wolves. Instead, Jesus tells us when we find ourselves among wolves to “be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves,” (Mt. 10:16) and to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Lk. 6:36)