Justice and mercy in Christian and Muslim traditions

By Filipe Domingues

ROME — Some might think that justice and mercy are contrary to each other. However, Christian and Muslim sacred scriptures show the opposite to be true.

Reflections on the topic were presented on 3 May, during a conference organized by The Lay Centre, under the theme  “Justice and Mercy: Christian and Muslim perspectives.”

The event was part of The Lay Centre’s 30th-anniversary celebrations and the annual visit of Cambridge Muslim College and the Center for Islamic Theology of Tübingen University. The conference was moderated by Lejla Demiri, deputy director and professor of the Center for Islamic Theology, and by Donna Orsuto, director of The Lay Centre and professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

"Justice and Mercy: Christian and Muslim perspectives" conference

From left to right: Tim Winter, Lejla Demiri, Donna Orsuto, Adela Yarbro Collins and John Collins (Photo: Clarissa A. Oliveira)

In the Old Testament, God “is merciful, but judgment often seems to take precedence,” said John Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School.

“We must bear in mind, however, that what we have in the Bible is not the direct words of God, but human attempts to formulate expressions of the divine,” he said. “One is based on inference from what actually happens, revelation in history, if you will. It is not difficult to see why the biblical writers inferred from history, in which their land was repeatedly ravaged and their cities destroyed, that God is a God of judgment.”

Nevertheless, that is not always the case, he observed. Offering a Christian perspective on the Old Testament, he said the Book of Jonah is exceptional “insofar as it ends with a triumph of mercy over justice,” suggesting that God may see things differently from human beings. Even those who committed atrocities to Israel and other nations, such as the Assyrians, were forgiven, he said.

“Human beings are not always capable of acting in accordance with their best intuitions. God, presumably, has no such limitation,” he said. “Jonah, too, conceives of God in accordance with the best human ideals.”

In the New Testament, “the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes justice in the sense of doing what God requires,” said Adela Yarbro Collins, Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School.

Jesus, she said, “refers to the commandment to love your neighbour, but goes beyond it by telling his disciples to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. If they do so, they will be perfect as their heavenly father is perfect. Perfect in this context means something closer to merciful than to flawless.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, she said, “the only criterion for separating the righteous from the unrighteous in the scene of the Last Judgment is whether individuals have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, offered hospitality to the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited those in prison.”

According to Adela Collins, the Gospel “implies that these acts of mercy are the most important duties of the individual, whether Christian or belonging to some other group. It makes a connection between personal responsibilities and social justice.”

Tim Winter, dean and founder of Cambridge Muslim College and Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge, said “the One God of the Qur’an, like the God of the Bible, is a God who loves justice.”


“Justice and Mercy: Christian and Muslim perspectives” conference (Photo: Clarissa A. Oliveira)


“The world has been created in balance, and as a balance: and we are commanded not to upset that balance. Hence justice applies not only to the human order, but also in our dealings with the natural and inanimate dimensions of the cosmos,” said Winter.

Therefore, “to do justice is to be in the image of God, to be God’s deputy, khalifa, upholding and restoring equilibrium in his superb creation,” he said.

Winter added that “the Qur’an, again and again baffling the ancient Arabian conscience, urges that the sanctity we experience in doing justice can be strangely enhanced rather than damaged when we seem to set it aside in favour of forgiveness and mercy.”

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