Brooks Harrington, No Mercy, No Justice, Cascade Books, 2019
Brooks Harrington has worked as an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of Columbia and has seen the dark underbelly of criminal activity and violence in the United States. He now serves as the director of a justice ministry connected to the Methodist Church in Texas, which provides legal assistance and practical help to victims of family violence and child abuse. He is well qualified to write this book which challenges the justice system, and indeed, the prevailing “law and order” assumptions in America.
Very quickly in the book he outlines what he calls the “dominant narrative” for the ideas of justice and mercy, which he says has shaped both character and behaviour in the United States. Taking Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann as his starting point, he defines the dominating narrative of a culture as its “story of life’s meaning, values, marks and measures of success and failure, approved and disapproved manners of behaviour, and paths to honor and happiness,” as well as its boundaries for insiders and outsiders.
For Harrington, the American dominant narrative is one of hailing success and the acquiring and consuming of things and experiences as the ultimate goal, with the individual and his or her pleasure and fulfilment at the centre of everything. “An individual must be unfettered in his or her pursuit of these things,” he says, with individual appetites and urges the norm for every activity and institution. This narrative, says Harrington, is “dominating, pervasive and silencing of all other narratives.” And it robs us of community, substituting instead intense competition. Sadly, Harrington finds that much of the US Christian church is blinded by this dominant narrative, often with more interest in the well-being and comfort of already well-off members than with the poor and marginalized.
Under this controlling narrative, justice and mercy are unconnected. Harrington defines justice as “what is due” and that, under this narrative, “we are each due whatever we can get,” while mercy is just occasional and optional. Under this narrative, Harrington suggests that “what is due will always favour those in positions of power and privilege, and disfavour those in need on the fringes.”
To illustrate his point, Harrington goes on to tell a number of stories of people and families he has encountered as part of his ministry. I confess I found it difficult to read the chapter entitled “The Toll of the Dominant Narrative,” with the stories of unrelenting human misery, poverty, failure, violence, abuse and addiction. I know there are problems in societies everywhere, but I came away from reading this chapter with the sense that the United States is truly broken as a society. There clearly is a huge gap between rich and poor, often drawn on ethnic or racial lines, and a systematic failure to address this. Simply trying to deal with it by a criminal justice system and the letter of the law clearly is not working. Of course society needs to be protected and laws enforced, but that will not address the systemic, build-in inequalities and lack of opportunity that is endemic in a large swathe of society.
For Harrington, there is an alternative – God’s counter narrative, where justice and mercy are not in competition. He explains that everyone is both due mercy and due being made merciful – this, he says is God’s justice. Mercy, he says, depends on the situation – it can be free and unconditional, or sometimes accompanied with accountability. All this he explores in a long chapter entitled, “God’s Justice and Mercy Proclaimed,” where he examines thirteen of Jesus’s parables. Harrington’s interpretation of the parables along the justice/mercy lines seemed to me to work better in some than others – sometimes it felt somewhat forced. That ought not to take away from the main point he makes, that in scripture, justice and mercy are two sides of one coin, not in opposition.
Harrington’s book is a challenging one for sure. It challenges the very substance of society in the United States, challenges notions of what justice and mercy actually are, challenges the practice of many US churches and challenges many interpretations of biblical texts. His critique of “the dominant narrative” is sharp and well targeted and his conclusion sound – “The counter-narrative of God and Jesus proclaims that the merciless injustices of human life and of the dominant narrative are evils that need to be transformed and from which we all need to be saved.”