Masks have made the slippery concept of “virtue-signaling” oddly literal. The virtues of care and the safety of others or freedom and individual liberty now can be visibly signaled simply by wearing or abstaining from a mask. Mundane tasks like getting groceries can feel politically charged. The constant pressure to show your allegiance, combined with the apparent stakes of the debate, make it easier than ever to spot, condemn, and dehumanize our political opponents. Zealotry, not mercy, is the order of the day.
Zealotry is not new. The struggle between hard justice and mercy is the subject of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The play centers on Isabella, a nun so austere that she wants her convent to adopt stricter rules, as she is caught between a dissolute brother, Claudio, and a well-regarded but lascivious ruler, Angelo. Angelo sentences Claudio to death for pre-marital sex but then makes Isabella a salacious offer: if she sleeps with him, he’ll free her brother.
When Isabella tells Claudio about the offer, he cajoles her: “Sure, it is no sin, / Or of the deadly seven, it is the least.” And, after all, a sin to save a brother’s life, “becomes a virtue.” Enraged, Isabella promises to pray a thousand prayers for his death. When Claudio protests Isabella’s harshness, she cuts him off:
O, fie, fie, fie!
Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade.
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd:
‘Tis best thou diest quickly.
To this point, Claudio has shown himself to be a fornicator and a coward, and Isabella claims that showing mercy to someone so wicked makes mercy a bawd, complicit in the evil to come. Execution to preclude further sinning would be better. Isabella, as the moral Christian in the family, makes the judgment to cut off mercy.
Masks are just one recent instance of our much-discussed tribalism and hierarchies of moral purity. Tribalism creates pressure to be like Isabella. We want to make sure that we’re on the right team with the right platform, and the quickest way to draw the line is by condemning the sins of others. We define who we are by who we are most certainly not. Isabella’s approach is not unlike our modern Twitter mobs.
It’s worth noting here the source of the title, Measure for Measure, as it is actually from Jesus’s teaching on mercy:
Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. Give, and it shall be given unto you: a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over shall men give into your bosom: for with what measure ye mete, with the same shall men mete to you again. (Luke 6:37-38; GNV).
Judge not, and ye shall not be judged is the part of this passage usually quoted (often used to silence a critic), but the rest of the passage clarifies that Jesus calls us to more than a life of permissiveness.
“Judge not and ye shall not be judged” casts life negatively. To avoid the discomfort of judgment, keep your head down and your mouth shut. A life of avoiding judgment isn’t much of a life at all though, so Jesus gives us positive commands as well. “Forgive” and “give” to get the pleasant reward of forgiveness and receiving. Then, he pushes the concept one step further by proposing that when we forgive and give, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over shall men give into your bosom.” Ancient merchants would press down and shake their grain to ensure the maximum amount could fit in the measuring cup. A measure “pressed down, shaken, and running over” is generosity that literally goes above and beyond. By its nature, it cannot be quantified or cleanly reciprocated. There’s no gaming the system, no using generosity to your advantage.
With that in mind, let’s skip ahead to the play’s climax. Angelo’s hypocrisy is revealed, and he’s sentenced to death. Mariana, who is both Angelo’s wife and Isabella’s newfound friend, asks Isabella to intercede for Angelo, that mercy might spur him to a better life. Isabella pleads for Angelo, and the judge relents. Her approach to mercy has changed. She has all the power and justification to deliver judgment, yet she pardons Angelo. Instead of domination, she chooses generosity that is pressed down, shaken, and running over.
The rebuttal is clear: what if Angelo leaves Mariana and continues to do more harm? This approach to mercy seems naïve and enabling. Of course, there are instances where unlimited mercy would be abused, and perhaps even in this case, Isabella is wrong to pardon Angelo. But, even if we disagree with her decision, her transformation is worth contemplating because it points to the broader implications of life with and without mercy.
Isabella at the play’s start is the ultimate judge and partisan, confident and harsh in her verdicts. Ironically, she attempts to ration mercy when she has no place for it in her own life of pride and perfectionism. She cannot accept God’s free mercy; she wants to earn it by her austerity. Consequently, she has no mercy to give to Claudio, Angelo, or even herself. Her sanctimonious life is a lonely, dismal one.
By the play’s close, her cold self-righteousness has become a loving and hopeful engagement with her community. Her identity is no longer composed of those she hates and despises ─ milquetoast nuns, bawdy brothers, and hypocritical rulers. She’s instead marked by love, forgiveness, and friendship. She’s less concerned with her perfection and its potential for self-aggrandizement and more concerned with Jesus’s perfection and his power of renewal. Her ministry has become incarnational ─ entering into conflict and messiness rather than holding herself aloof.
In John 8, Jesus exemplifies his elusively nonpartisan approach to ministry. A woman is caught in adultery, and the crowd tells Jesus that Moses commanded that such women should be stoned. Hoping to trap him, they ask him what they should do. Instead of taking a side, Jesus writes in the dirt and then says, “Let him that is among you without sin, cast the first stone at her.” Slowly, conscience-stricken, the mob files out until only Jesus and the woman remain. Finally, Jesus turns to her and says he does not condemn her either; “go and sin no more.” Jesus threads the needle between rigidity and flaccidity, challenging all to pursue greater holiness without reinforcing political divisions. His mercy is disarming, unexpected, and life-giving.
Covid’s politicization has pushed us to quarantine not only from a disease but from our political enemies. During the past months, we’ve strengthened and justified our distrust of and contempt for the rival tribe. We’re long on judgment and short on mercy. Isabella offers a reminder that sacrificing mercy, even for reasonable concerns, comes at a high price. When we strive to present ourselves as flawless and condemn those who fall short, we end up lonely, anxious, and graceless. If we instead choose engagement, hope, and mercy, forming our identity around Jesus’s perfection rather than our own, we may end up like the wise man who built his house upon the rock. When the floods of criticism, self-doubt, and fear come, we will not be shaken.