May 25, 2005


Lord Have Mercy; What About Lord Vader? (Douglas Kern, 05/24/2005, Tech Central Station)

Mercy is not a good unto itself. Mercy is a counterbalance, a brake against justice as it brushes up against the edge of vengeance. Evil wreaks harm that ripples far, far beyond the intended harm of the evil act itself. Justice permits the doer of evil to be held accountable for every iota of harm that ensues as a result of the evil act, and that reckoning can be terrible indeed. Mercy requires men to punish evil with only the minimum degree of punishment and retribution consistent with justice, so that repentance and reconciliation may restore the evildoer to society, and so that the vengeful spirit of victims may be allayed. But notice: mercy requires the minimal degree of punishment consistent with justice.

Evildoers and their enablers always forgot that "consistent with justice" part. In my prosecuting days, I would occasionally receive letters from deluded clerics, telling me that - since God is love, jail time doesn't restore virginity, and fines don't unbreak bones - we should cut Bubba some slack and give him probation. I once had a rapist quote scripture at me during a sentencing. (I shared a few thoughts about whited sepulchers in my response.) And many was the domestic violence victim who just couldn't understand why I sought to punish Willy Wifebeater, when she had forgiven him and God had, too! They all wanted me to realize that justice without mercy is inhuman and a boon to tyranny. That's true. But I wanted them to realize that mercy without justice is a sickening evil unto itself, one that corrodes the souls of victims and victimizers alike. God is indeed love, but love without responsibility is just a pretty bubble on the wind. I heard too many demands for "mercy" that were just softly-scented pleas for sentimental injustice. Real mercy respects justice enough to submit to it. Real mercy seeks atonement, not excuses.

Through superb characterization, Tolkien earns mercy for Gollum. Gollum is a murderer and liar, but he is also a broken-down, pathetic creature, whose torture at the hands of Sauron's minions atoned for many sins. His unfulfilled addiction for the Ring tears at his very sanity, subjecting him to pains that none save Frodo can fully understand. To extend mercy to Gollum is to recognize that his potential for evil had ebbed, and that a rough justice had already been visited upon him. Sam could have killed Gollum justly, but Gollum's misery and broken spirit created a space for forgiveness.

By contrast, Lucas cheats. He spends two-and-a-half movies proving that Darth Vader is an appalling monster. Yet halfway through ROTJ, Luke tells Vader (and, indirectly, the audience) that "I can feel the good in you, father." It's easy to pick worthy objects of mercy when your goodness-sense is tingling. But nothing in episodes IV and V suggests that Vader had any good worth saving. The Force convinced Luke that Vader deserved mercy, and that's more than the script and character development could do.

Lacking the Force, or a kindly narrator to ensure that every act of mercy is blessed, rewarded, and bestowed upon a worthy recipient, how should we dispose of our villains? Should we reckon them to be frail, unwitting victims of evil's seduction, like Gollum? Terrible monsters to be preserved in the name of their potential for good, like Darth Vader or Saruman? Or grotesque embodiments of evil to be destroyed, like the Emperor or Sauron?

The answer is: all of the above. Evil can seduce the small and mighty alike. Mercy makes allowances for the weakness of will that afflicts all men. But some men embrace evil as a lover. Every police officer and prosecutor encounters a few such men: soulless abominations that delight in torment, betrayal, and wanton suffering. Such men have murdered whatever good they might have offered the world. They defile whatever mercy is given them. They deserve none.

It's not necessarily that Vader shouldn't be shown mercy, just that Lucas is a crappy mythologist. Absent mercy, of course, we'd none of us be around,
Genesis 3
1 - Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

2 - And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3 - But of the fruit of the tree which [is] in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4 - And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5 - For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

6 - And when the woman saw that the tree [was] good for food, and that it [was] pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make [one] wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

7 - And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they [were] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

8 - And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

9 - And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where [art] thou?

10 - And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I [was] naked; and I hid myself.

11 - And he said, Who told thee that thou [wast] naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

12 - And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest [to be] with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

13 - And the LORD God said unto the woman, What [is] this [that] thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

14 - And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou [art] cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

15 - And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

16 - Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire [shall be] to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

17 - And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed [is] the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat [of] it all the days of thy life;

18 - Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

19 - In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou [art], and unto dust shalt thou return.

20 - And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.

21 - Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

22 - And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

23 - Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

24 - So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Book of Genesis: Chapter 4
4:1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.

4:2 And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

4:3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.

4:4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:

4:5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

4:6 And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?

4:7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

4:8 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

4:9 And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

4:10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.

4:11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;

4:12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

4:13 And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

4:14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

4:15 And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

4:16 And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

Genesis 8
1 - And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that [was] with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters asswaged;

2 - The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained;

3 - And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated.

4 - And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.

5 - And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth [month], on the first [day] of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen.

6 - And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made:

7 - And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.

8 - Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;

9 - But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters [were] on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.

10 - And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark;

11 - And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth [was] an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.

12 - And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.

13 - And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first [month], the first [day] of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth: and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and, behold, the face of the ground was dry.

14 - And in the second month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month, was the earth dried.

15 - And God spake unto Noah, saying,

16 - Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons' wives with thee.

17 - Bring forth with thee every living thing that [is] with thee, of all flesh, [both] of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.

18 - And Noah went forth, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons' wives with him:

19 - Every beast, every creeping thing, and every fowl, [and] whatsoever creepeth upon the earth, after their kinds, went forth out of the ark.

20 - And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.

21 - And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart [is] evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

22 - While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

And that's just the beginning. A smarter God would have figured out we aren't worth the trouble awhile ago.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 25, 2005 12:00 AM


Like you once said, we've botched things up so badly that He would be supremely justified in destroying the world and starting all over again.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 25, 2005 11:51 AM

I always figured that Vader assumed that Luke would become Emperor, and it was just his selfish genes that made him kill Palpatine.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 25, 2005 12:13 PM

Seriously, though, why did God diss Cain for being a farmer?

Posted by: b at May 25, 2005 12:23 PM

It's because the true evil was always that mealy mouth green and wrinkled muppet Yoda, the only character who shows dishonesty and outright lying.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 25, 2005 12:38 PM

It wasn't that he was a farmer, it was that his offering wasn't up to scratch.

Posted by: Roy Jacobsen at May 25, 2005 12:45 PM

Raoul: What about all of Obi Wan's lies?

Posted by: David Cohen at May 25, 2005 12:48 PM


Because farming was a post Fall pastime. Cain was Man Fallen, Abel lived as we had pre-Fall.

Posted by: oj at May 25, 2005 2:20 PM


His offering was man-made produce. Abel merely gathered God's bounty.

Posted by: oj at May 25, 2005 2:34 PM

So, Orrin, the fruit gathered from the trees in the Garden wasn't God's bounty also?

Instead, I think this is an echo of the conflict between the nomadic herders and the urbanizing farmers in the Middle East as early civilizations arose. The Jews, being herders, would naturally have a God that favored their activities.

Posted by: jd watson at May 25, 2005 4:33 PM

RE: Prisoners Undergoing religious conversions before the sentencing judge make for interesting reflection. My favorite story of one such goes back to the mid-70's, in ***** County, Pennsylvania. The prisoner was standing for formal sentencing, the death penalty having already been decided upon by the jury. When asked by the judge if he had anything to say, the man wanted to court to know that while awaiting sentencing he had found Jesus, to which the Deputy D.A. replied, in a pretty good stage whisper, "Not yet!"

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 25, 2005 4:40 PM


Yes, that's the point. Abel lived as Man had in the Garden.

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou [art], and unto dust shalt thou return.

Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
3 - And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
4 - And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
5 - But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.

Posted by: oj at May 25, 2005 4:45 PM