« The Logic of Unconditional Love: Mercy through the Eyes of Refugees »
by Deogratias M. Rwezaura
Index – Verzeichnis – Indice – Índice – 指數
The Extraordinary Year of Mercy which ended on 20 November 2016 called for a deeper reflection on God’s merciful love and its consequent action. The invitation to be merciful like the Father challenged me to reflect on mercy as a name and an action. God is mercy because God loves mercifully. In this essay I reflect on the meaning of mercy from the context and experience of working with refugees over the years. I see my reflection as a way of raising refugees’ voices and allowing them to be at the center of seekers of mercy rather than remaining mercy’s pitiable recipients.
1. What Mercy Means
It is not easy to define mercy, but it helps to describe what mercy means. George Kaitholil, who has written extensively on mercy holds that “God’s mercy to human beings means His compassion, kindness, pity, clemency, forgiveness, understanding, leniency, benevolence, gentleness, grace, mildness, and meekness.” He goes on to say that “Human beings should also show to one another charity, compassion, mercy, kindness, pity, sympathy, clemency, forgiveness, understanding, leniency, benevolence, gentleness, mildness and meekness.” Each of the words used by Kaitholil carries a rich meaning and is directed towards the Other. Each is a virtue in outward motion to embrace the Other.
Like unconditional love, mercy flows freely from God towards others, especially the downtrodden. From its Latin root, misericordis, mercy “means opening of one’s heart to wretchedness.” Mercy in the words of Pope Francis “is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive.” On experiencing mercy that springs from God’s care for humanity, one learns from one’s heart what it means to be forgiven and acts with compassion which in Pope Francis’ words “means to suffer with, to suffer together, to not remain indifferent to the pain and suffering of others.” In sheer joy, one learns how to act compassionately towards those in need – the wretched. In this way mercy becomes a mission; itgoes beyond mere justice, although it does not exclude justice.
Mercy, like any other virtue, is acquired by doing. In order to be merciful like the father we have to learn to be just that – merciful. But this does not come with ease. We first have to experience God’smerciful nature in a personal and existential manner. The experience of the unconditional mercy of God elicits a response of gratitude that in turn generates a desire to forgive, not necessarily because the Other deserves it but because together we stand in need of peace.
My experience of working among Burundian refugees 15 years ago bringsout the above description of the dynamics of mercy. In 2001 I was asked to facilitate a retreat for Small Christian Community leaders in Nduta refugee camp, western Tanzania. I chose to use words from the Gospel of Mattthew: “You have received freely, give freely(10:10).” Even before I could introduce the topic, a catechist confronted me with a question: “We have lost everything including dear members of our families, what then have we received freely that we should give freely?” Rather than respond to his question, I asked each participant to mention what they considered free gifts from God. In response, one lady in the group (whom I will call Chantal) said that despite the hardship she had gone through in the cause of flight, she had come to terms with the unmerited mercy of God. “Many died in my sight”, she said, “but God gave me a chance to live and here I am.” Others picked up from her testimony and mentioned many other gifts few of which were material – fresh air, life, breath, good health, sight, new friends, energy, intelligence, and numerous talents. At the end of the prayer session, the retreatants had realized how gifted they were and they formed a group to assist the most vulnerable members of the refugee community. God’s free gift of mercy had given rise to a compassionate response to the most vulnerable amidst them. Mercy empowered them to be merciful. They started visiting the sick in hospital, as well as those in tents; fetched firewood for the vulnerable and the elderly; reached out to the unaccompanied minors and adopted some of them; and helped in the distribution of clothes and other items to the weak.
 George Kaitholil, Mercy: Human and Devine, Mumbai: St. Pauls, 2015, 9.
 Kaitholil, 9.
 Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli Trans. Oonagh Stransky (New York: Random House, 2016), 8.
 Ibid., 8-9.
 Ibid., 91.
 The exact words attributed to Jonathan Lockwood Huie are “forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness but because you deserve peace.”