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Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

To Be A Neighbor is to Practice Mercy

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There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered well; do this and you will live.” But because the man wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied… (Luke 10:25-37)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story we’ve heard many times before, and yet like all of Jesus’ parables, it is not just a story. In this case it is Jesus’ mysterious response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Now Jesus could have been very direct and said, “Brother, sister, friend and enemy…all of these are your neighbor,” but instead he leads the scholar to the realization that the one who acts as a neighbor is the one who shows mercy. In other words, Jesus helps the young man to see that the real question he should be asking is: “Am I treating others with mercy?”

Mercy, or the lack thereof, is one of the themes addressed in the documentary Bully, which I recently watched for one of my classes at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. The film features five families whose children have been the victims of bullying, but the primary focus is a boy from Sioux City named Alex. At 13-years-old, Alex doesn’t like going to school. In addition to being taunted on the playground and called “fishface,” his bus ride to and from school is a nightmare. While one boy stabs him with a pencil, strangles him, and repeatedly slams his head into the back of a seat, another threatens, “I will end you.” 

Over the years there have been many responses to the question of bullying, why it happens, and how to stop it. Some have suggested that it’s just a phase, that “boys will be boys” and will eventually grow out of it. Others have taught that the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to him, or to ignore him entirely. Finally, there are those who believe that the only way to get a bully to stop being a bully is to teach him about compassion. Anyone who has been a victim of bullying or cyberbullying* would probably agree that this last option is the best one, for no one wants to wait for their bully to "grow out of it," and often standing up to a bully or ignoring him can make things even worse.

So how does one teach a bully about compassion? Surprisingly, the process begins with the victim showing mercy. Now this doesn't mean condoning the bully's behavior. A bully still needs to be shown that his/her actions are harmful; it would be unjust to do otherwise, and mercy never undermines justice. Mercy, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, is a certain kind of fulfillment of justice (ST, I, 21, 4 ad 2). In this case then, showing mercy means not returning like for like, not responding to physical and verbal abuse with further violence. For Alex, the young man in the film, this is extremely difficult. At one point he notes that, he "wants to become the bully." Yet to do so would only result in a further perpetuation of the problem. The young boys who bully Alex might learn about suffering, but it's high unlikely that they would learn anything about compassion and empathy. 

Mercy, justice, and compassion...these are virtues one must practice in order to be a neighbor, and in order to love one's neighbor. Without them, the possibility of inheriting eternal life is a long way off.

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*Cyberbullying involves the use of e-mail, text messages, and various forms of social media to harass and humiliate other individuals, and may include the spreading of rumors by way of a blog or website, the posting of embarrassing photos, and/or the use of hate speech in online conversations or posts.