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Welker lecture unleashes the power of mercy in Biblical law
By April L. Bogle | Emory Law | Apr 2, 2013 12:04:00 AM

World renowned theologian Michael Welker deciphered the meaning of the “mercy code” in the Hebrew Bible and outlined how human beings, regardless of culture or religion, can appreciate its “enormous normative shaping power” in the quest for justice and human rights. Welker, chair for Systematic Theology at the University of Heidelberg, delivered CSLR’s Alonzo L. McDonald Lecture in Law and Christianity March 27.

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“The first roots of human rights laws,” says Welker, can be found in the bracketing of the Book of the Covenant with the so-called “slave laws” (Ex 21:1-21:11) at the beginning and at the end with the protection of foreigners (Ex 22:21 and Ex 23.9), widows and orphans (Ex 22:22ff), the poor (22:25ff; 23:6ff and 10ff), and those who are ostracized, vulnerable and powerless (Ex 23-1ff).

“By making the protection of the weaker a focus of the law, it ensures that the practice of mercy is not tied simply to arbitrary or capricious inclinations of the stronger individual,” says Welker. “The pressures of expectation are applied to one’s behavior toward the acutely and chronically weak, a pressure that has the equalization of legal relationships as its goal.”

What’s more, Welker explains, the laws of mercy point to an evolution of law, one that “does not simply focus on overcoming acute, short-term legal conflicts, but rather focuses on long-term processes of transformation that reshape unequal relationships into ones between equals.”

For example, the biblical passage “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything” (Ex 21:2) “elevates slavery, a fact of life in Ancient Near Eastern societies and an integral part of their economic social order, to the status of a conflict in need of resolution,” says Welker.

Unleashing Mercy

So what do these laws of mercy expect from people, and how can the power of mercy be unleashed? In the case of the Hebrew Bible’s slave laws, they impose limits, and they “normatively expect a self-withdrawal from the use of these powers once each week [on the Sabbath] and after six years,” says Welker.

“The mercy code thus aims at what I have called the ‘free and creative self-withdrawal in favor of others,’” he says. “It blocks the dangers of ignoring or exploiting the poor and the needy. It encourages creative moral and practical benevolence. And it leaves open space for moral imagination and practical activity.”

Welker then outlined how society can accommodate the mercy code within the context of juridical law. First, people can draw upon their experiences of being part of a family. “Each human being is, at least as a child…and in most cases at the end of one’s life, in need of a creative self-withdrawal of others in his or her favor…thus the behavior and experience that the mercy code activates are by no means unfamiliar to human beings.”

Second, these experiences and behaviors can be expanded into a broader social realm, such as worship and a shared public experience. “Family experiences on the one hand and religious experience, memory and imagination on the other are connected to foster an ethos in which the striving for justice and mercy can flourish,” he says.

Welker explored how this shared identity, “you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners” (Ex 20:2; Ex 23:9 cf. Ex 22:21) “gives rise to historical experiences that mold the self-understanding of the community and their view of reality… Even those who were never personally in Egypt allow themselves to be addressed as those who were slaves and freed by God’s hand.”

At discrete points in time, people are incredibly unequal. “Yet this changes when we picture ourselves on an extended timeline, and see both young and old, sick and weak as not only with us but also in us. This fosters a sensitivity to the fragility of all human life,” he says, adding that "this motive clause expands a person's natural life experiences into historical dimensions and opens up new perspectives on the self."

Seven Powers of Mercy

To summarize and help people “fully unfold” their appreciation of the power of mercy in biblical law, Welker offered seven observations about the mercy code:

  1. It offers an instrument of short-term conflict resolution but also the power of long-term social transformation.
  2. It sustains values of social welfare, freedom and equality, enabling juridical law to become “a moral teacher.”
  3. It shapes moral and political moods while it also draws “impulses from, and recursively strengthens, the family ethos.”
  4. It connects religious orientation with clear legal and moral attempts to strive for justice and an expected care for the weak. This extends through time, not just in the here and now.
  5. It has enormous impact on individual personal identities, allowing people to move beyond self-preservation and connect with the broader spectrum of their existence to ultimately identify with others who suffer and prosper.
  6. It strengthens and challenges the competence of juridical law, setting minimum standards and demanding continual refinement that leads to universal application of the law.
  7. It helps deal with the “painful paradox that plagues all legal and moral evolution,” namely that in the process of transformation of the law its binding forces must not be destroyed. Here the mercy law provides a balancing function. Dynamics and stability are enabled when “justice and mercy, law and compassion are put in a creative tension and cooperation.”

Welker concluded the lecture by explaining the difference between mercy and love. While mercy is the “free creative self-withdrawal in favor of the other or others,” love is the same except that it is done “joyfully.”

“At first glance this definition of self-withdrawal sounds counter-intuitive. Do we not want to be as close as possible to the beloved person?” Welker said.

Yet often overlooked, he says, is the element of freedom in love. “Loves seeks the free development of the beloved person and a free response…Therefore, “true love moves ‘through thick and thin.’ It wants to elicit response and mutually igniting power, but it also lives in perseverance, faith and hope through phases of no direct response. This is the secret why love is as ‘strong as death’ (Song of Songs 8:6),” he says.

Welker is CSLR's 2013 Alonzo L. McDonald Distinguished Visiting Senior Fellow and is working with Director John Witte, Jr. in developing new projects in Christian legal studies.

The Alonzo L. McDonald Lecture in Law and Christianitywas founded in 2005 with a generous grant from the McDonald Agape Foundation. The lectures explore the fundamental issues at the intersection of law, religion and society from various Christian perspectives.