The principle of mercy
The term mercy must be correctly understood. The term has good and authentic connotations, but it can also have inadequate connotations, even dangerous ones. It suggests a sense of compassion. The danger is that it may seem to denote a sheer sentiment, without a praxis to accompany it. It may connote “works of mercy.” Here the risk is that the practitioner of such works may feel exempt from the duty of analyzing the causes of the suffering that these works relieve. Mercy can connote the alleviation of individual needs but entail the risk of abandoning the transformation of structures. It may connote “parental” attitudes, but risk paternal- ism. In order to avoid the limitations of the concept of mercy and the misunderstandings to which it is open, we shall speak not simply of mercy, but of the principle of mercy — just as Ernst Bloch spoke not simply of hope, as if he were referring merely to one categorical reality among others, but of the hope principle.
By the principle of mercy, we understand here a specific love, which, while standing at the origin of a process, also remains present and active throughout the process, endowing it with a particular direction and shaping the various elements that compose it. We hold that this principle of mercy is the basic principle of the activity of God and Jesus, and therefore ought to be that of the activity of the church.
Mercy defines the human being
When Jesus wishes to show what it is to be an ideal, total human being, he narrates the parable of the good Samaritan. The moment is a solemn one in the gospel. More is at stake here than mere curiosity as to which is the greatest of the commandments: This parable is a presentation of what it is to be a human being. The ideal, total human being is represented as one who has seen someone else lying wounded in the ditch along the road, has re-acted, and has helped the victim in every way possible. The parable does not tell us what was going through the Samaritan’s head at the time, or with what ultimate finality he acted. The only thing we are told is that he did what he did because he was “moved to pity.”

The ideal human being, the complete human being, is the one who interiorizes, absorbs in her innards, the suffering of another — in the case of the parable, unjustly afflicted suffering — in such a way that this interiorized suffering becomes a part of her, is transformed into an internal principle, the first and the last, of her activity. Mercy, as re-action, becomes the fundamental action of the total human being. Thus, this mercy is more than just one phenomenon in human reality among many. It directly defines the human being. To be sure, mercy does not suffice to define Jesus: He is a being of knowing, hoping, and celebrating, as well. On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary that mercy come into his definition. For Jesus, to be a human being is to react with mercy. Without this reaction, the essence of the human is vitiated in its root, as occurred with the priest and the Levite who “saw him and went on.” . . .

Mercy, then, is the first thing and the last. It is more than a categorical practice of the “works of mercy.” True, the practice of mercy can and ought to include these works. But mercy itself is something far more radical. Mercy is a basic attitude toward the suffering of another, whereby one reacts to eradicate that suffering for the sole reason that it exists, and in the conviction that, in this reaction to the ought-not-be of another’s suffering, one’s own being, without any possibility of subterfuge, hangs in the balance.
The need to practice mercy
Despite the fact that his mercy is the cause of his condemnation, Jesus proclaims, “Blest are they who show mercy.” The reason Jesus gives his hearers in the Gospel of Matthew could seem to fall in the category of reward: “Mercy shall be theirs” (Matthew 5:7). But the deeper reason is an intrinsic one. She who lives according to the principle of mercy realizes — renders real — the profoundest element of what it is to be human, and comes to resemble Jesus (the true human being of dogma) and her heavenly Parent.

Herein, we may well say, consists the blessedness, the felicity, that Jesus offers. “Blest” and happy are you “who show mercy,” you “single- hearted,” you “peacemakers,” you who “hunger and thirst for holiness” or justice, you who are “persecuted for holiness’ sake” — you “poor.” Scandalous words, but enlightening. Jesus wants human beings’ happiness, and the symbol of that happiness consists in their coming together at the table of sharing. But as long as the great table of the brothers and sisters of the Reign of God is missing from history, mercy must be practiced. It is mercy, Jesus is telling us, that, for the interim, produces joy, gladness, and felicity.