The death of accused murder Steve Stephens brought forcibly home for me the complexity of the very idea of mercy.
I have been writing about the importance of mercy for several days, and about author Anne Lamott's new book Hallelujah Anyway, Rediscovering Mercy.
The book seems especially in this time of hatred, anger and argument.
Lamott believes mercy is the best hope for us and for the world. She believes humanity is starving for mercy. She is correct, I believe.
This morning, I was on Facebook preparing to promote my next book, and I saw a sudden river of posts, many from usually placid people, declaring the "joyous," and just, news that a murder suspect named Steve Stephens, who is accused to killing Richard Goodwin, a grandfather and self-taught 74 year old mechanic, while he was walking home from an Easter meal with his family.
Stephens, said police, then posted a video of the killing on Facebook so that his girlfriend, with whom he was angry, could see it and know she was to blame.
It was an especially chilling kind of killing, Godwin was a much loved and completely innocent man taking a walk on Easter, the live video transmission on social media was a horrific kind of cultural milestone. Facebook seems not to have imagined this kind of sharing and connectivity when it introduce live video feeds last year.
Haven't people often killed for attention?
The global social media site was alive with vengeance this morning, there was no hint of mercy. "I hope he rots in hell," wrote one man. "I wish he had been shot many times and suffered, I'm sorry he killed himself." It seemed there was almost a competition to see who could imagine the most horrible suffering and end for Stephens.
Justice was done, posted one woman on my Facebook page. Reading her message, I wonder what kind of justice it was when two men, one completely innocent and the other profoundly ill, lost their lives for no reason. I imagine most of the country would agree with her idea of what justice was.
What a test for me about this idea of mercy and it's importance for me, and for our world? Would I put my money where my mouth is? Could I possibly feel empathy for this man? Should anyone? My first emotion was relief, that no other innocent person would be killed by this man.
Mercy is a very broad term in our culture, it generally refers to benevolence, empathy and kindness. The concept of a "Merciful God" appears in many religions, and the performance of acts of mercy is emphasized in the caring for the sick, the helpless and the poor. It is one of those big ideas that is often evoked but rarely practiced.
But these ideas of mercy seemed strained and out of reach in our violent and disconnected time.
In our political culture, the idea of mercy has almost completely vanished, the ugliness and anger in the political system – the lack of any kind of mercy or empathy for opponents, the poor or the weak – is a big black cloud hanging over the country.
I saw no posts on Facebook calling for mercy for this killer. We may need mercy, as Lamott suggests, but there isn't very much to go around.
Mercy is easier said than done.
"An open, merciful heart," writes Lamott, "is a setup for pain, shame and being mocked. We are not stupid. Welcome to Vengeance World."
Can you imagine what might happen to a political leader if he or she expressed any mercy or sympathy for Stephens. Can you imagine the response on social media if I wrote that I felt mercy towards Stephens, who put a pistol to his head and killed himself after being pursued and trapped by a Pennsylvania State Trooper?
One of the saddest messages on Facebook came from a Muslim immigrant who thanked God that Stephens wasn't a Muslim immigrant. "Can you imagine what the President would have said, what people all over the country would have said?" How sad, I thought, that anyone would see the world in this way in our country.
We are starved for mercy.
I looked deep inside of myself and I see how difficult this idea of mercy really is, even though I fully embrace it intellectually, if not always emotionally. Here is what I felt.
I thought what a tragedy it was that two lives were lost in this way. I thought how awful and broken this man Stephens must have been to be so de-humanized and empty that he could take a life in that horrific way and post it for the world to see. He could not have been sane, healthy or content in any way.
What might the outcome have been if he had gotten help, or if there was any help for him to get? Mr. Godwin might be alive today.
Stephens could not have done this without being mentally ill. I can't grasp how any rational person could believe he was rational himself, or well.
At the moment I learned of his arrest, it was not possible for me to feel true empathy for him, I couldn't help but think of Mr. Godwin and his family, whose lives were shattered in that awful way. I just couldn't feel it. I could feel for the waste of another life, and for a culture so quick to judge, so reluctant to feel.
But I came partway across the divide, closer to the middle. How dangerous, I thought, to be too sympathetic to a man who could do that, was mercy really the appropriate response?
Yet I think it is.
The calls for blood and vengeance were perfectly understandable to me, we are all, after all, just human. Vengeance is a much more popular emotion than mercy.
I was touched by Godwin's children, who through their tears said they forgave their father's killer, they did not believe in vengeance. Who are we to hate the killer of their father if they forgive him?
And if they could forgive him, who was I and the raging righteous people on Facebook to howl for his blood and pain and death? Isn't that just another mob, grabbing their torches?
I thought these children, and perhaps they alone, grasped the true healing and redemptive power of mercy, I thought how much safer and healthier our society would be if we stopped hating and blaming the mentally ill for being crazy and throwing them into jail, and running them down.
If we took responsibility for helping them and protecting them, rather than simply hating them for being so sick.
Vengeance is a habit, it doesn't really seem to do much good, nor does it seem to protect people like Mr. Godwin. It does not square with the idea of a merciful God. It does not make us safer or better or wiser.
I know from my own life that mercy has always been ridiculed when I have expressed it, because mercy makes me look vulnerable, and also more alone. It sounds ridiculous sometimes, just to think of it.
But mercy is better than this, this whirring cycle of violence, bloodshed, cruelty and rage, more and more of it being displayed in the open because everyone can see it, for us and our children to see. Mercy deserves a chance, every day I believe it is, in fact, our salvation and hope.