Where Mercy and Truth Kiss: How Sphere Sovereignty Helps Us Serve Society Well
Mercy and truth have met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed.
Note: This essay was written during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
ONE of the highlights of my seminary education was to discover the theology of a twentieth century “Dutch master,” Abraham Kuyper. Particularly valuable to me were some principles he advanced for properly balancing the competing demands of justice and compassion in society. Perhaps a little reflection on Kuyper’s insights would be useful now, as we Americans try to navigate the public storm in which President Clinton’s moral failure has currently engulfed us.
Basing his views on the Bible, Kuyper distinguished between three God-ordained spheres of authority in the world: the family, the state, and the Church. In essence, the family exists for the mutual support of husband and wife in their respective callings, including especially the procreation and nurture of children. The state exists for the administration of justice, through the swift and impartial implementation of divine law in a fallen world that sometimes requires a forceful response to evil. The Church exists for the compassionate administration of God’s grace, through a proclamation of the divine forgiveness, acceptance, and spiritual renewal that is found in Christ.
So long as the occupants of each sphere remain within the proper boundaries of that sphere, all goes reasonably well. However, we get into trouble, says Kuyper, when we assign the right task to the wrong sphere, or when we allow authorities in one sphere to exercise authority where, in fact, they have none.
The state, for example, should not attempt to parent children, though it can administer justice in ways that support strong families. (This means, by the way, that Plato, who called for mandatory education of children by the state, got it wrong) More to our point, the state should not abdicate its responsibility to administer justice by attempting to show grace to criminals. That is the work of the Church—though again, wise magistrates, eager for the reformation of crinimals, will strongly encourage the work of the Church among those who break the law.
The balance of these spheres was well preserved, I think, in the case of Carla Tucker. There, the state rightly administered the divinely ordained penalty for murder, which is death. But it compassionately encouraged the work of the Church, whose representatives helped Carla to find God’s forgiveness and the gift of eternal life. To use a phrase from the Psalms, in Carla’s case “Mercy and Truth (or Justice) kissed”.
Corresponding to these three spheres are three roles that many of us occupy. Relative to the family, many are Dads or Moms. Relative to the state, most are active citizens. Relative to the Church, many are involved members. By understanding these roles– as well as the responsibilities that properly attach to each–we can address an alleged crime (and criminal) in a way that will satisfies our heart’s competing demands for both justice and mercy.
As a way of illustrating all this, let us consider the very visible example of Congressman Henry Hyde who, in all three roles, is presently called upon to address the misdeeds of President Clinton.
In his role as husband, father, and grandfather, Mr. Hyde has several biblically indicated responsibilities. Thus, he will want to protect his entire family, and especially those of tender years, from exposure to certain lurid details that have found their way into the media. On the other hand, he will also want to help his family learn all they can from this sad development, lest they themselves stumble in time of temptation. And finally, Mr. Hyde will want to lead his family in prayer, both for the spiritual restoration of the individuals involved, and for an outcome that best serves the nation.
As an American citizen–and especially as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee–Rep. Hyde is obligated by another set of duties. In these roles he must lay aside his personal feelings (whether of compassion or revulsion) and, along with his colleagues, seek to determine whether or not laws were indeed broken, and, if so, what penalty will best suit the crime. Interestingly, someone recently reported that Hyde has said concerning the President, “No man is above the law, and no man under it.” These wise words reveal a man who understands the objective character of the law, its divine dignity (if indeed the law is a godly one), and his corresponding need to administer it justly, regardless of personal feelings.
Finally, we have Mr. Hyde in his role as a member of the Church—and not just the Roman Catholic Church, but the communion of concerned Christians everywhere. Here, his duty once again is to join with other Christians in prayer for the spiritual restoration of the President and his family, and also for that of Ms. Lewinsky and the other parties involved. As a Christian who is involved in government, he has a special opportunity to reach out personally to the President in order to offer him the comfort of the Gospel, just as Senator Mark Hatfield did to a lonely President Nixon in the dark days after his resignation. That Rep. Hyde himself has apparently rebounded from his own moral failure of some 40 years ago can only enhance his compassion for, and credibility with, the fallen President.
Thankfully, the current crisis does not require most of us to wear as many hats as Henry Hyde will. It does appear, however, that Providence has brought us all to this hour, and that the saints have a special opportunity to respond in a way that glorifies the Lord.
Let us do so, then, by exercising and balancing our duties in each of the three spheres where He has placed us. This will provide a strong, gracious, and attractive model for the many Americans who are angry and confused, and may even help to bring our country through the present storm to a safe harbor where justice and mercy kiss yet again.