Noblese Oblige and Mercy …
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)
That man was made in God’s image can be horrifying; it conjures up images of man acting God-like, with God-like powers but without God-like wisdom. And indeed, many of us feel this way when we witness sickening ecological degradation or the idiocy of weaponry and war.
But being God-like, if we try our best to understand God, can mean many positive things too. One of the greatest God-like things we can be is merciful. As a moral practice, noblesse oblige, ‘obligated nobility’ sums up the practice of mercy well. To act with noblesse oblige is to act not out of some worldly sense of reciprocity, but out of a sense of obligation based on the simple fact that we, like a nobleman or noblewoman, can. Just as God can do whatever God wants, being omnipotent, in medieval times nobility too had omnipotent power over their peasant-subjects. Noblemen and noblewomen had the power to harm or help, and the peasants who were their subjects had, for exchange, nothing. Noblesse oblige, thus, was about giving without receiving, just as mercy is about giving without receiving.
You may suggest that the relationship between nobility and a peasant-subject was unique, but analogous relationships exist everywhere that we find the powerless subject to the powerful. Like our relationship with God. And if we are truly willing ourselves to live up to our being created in God’s image, we will, likewise, try to also enact mercy whenever and wherever we can.
‘Mercy’ doesn’t mean we ought to give ourselves over to other’s wills, or that we act as judges of other’s behavior, but only that, all other things considered, we seek to err on the side of kindness and forgiveness instead of sanctimony and retribution.
For as much as justice and fairness are hard-wired into the human animal, God, in creating us in His likeness, asked us to be merciful and love above all else.
But, unlike for God and medieval nobility, mercy doesn’t always come without a cost to us. Sometimes, because we do not know what the truth may be, we must, on the principle of mercy, give mercy even where it may be otherwise inappropriate. We err on the side of the ‘subject’ recognizing that it may be a mistake. I am well-familiar with this, as when I taught university students, I would invariably in every term, be faced with the dreaded ‘high maintenance’ students. Some were operators trying to cheat their way to a credit, some were merely lazy, and some suffered misfortunes beyond their control. As their professor, the stories they told me were all about the same, and I could guess that some were truthful, and some were lies. But, in some way, all were suffering. And, with no better knowledge than they were suffering and needy, I almost always acted in a merciful way.
I cannot say that we should never judge, or even that God does not judge (I don’t know, nor do you). What I can say is that, of all the modes of behavior towards others, mercy and the love from which it comes, is the most important mode of all.
Peter’s Thought for This Day!