I’ve been following the case of a young woman who in an episode of severe postpartum depression stabbed her toddler son and then herself in January 2014. (Her son survived.) She has been in prison awaiting trial for the past year. Just this morning she pled guilty but mentally ill to aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child, and was sentenced to 5-10 years in prison plus 20 years of probation and no contact with her son. I know her personally, although not well, and have been writing to her for almost a year. Before this happened, when we were participating together in the same activity, I never would have guessed that she suffered from postpartum depression. She always seemed like a highly intelligent and articulate young woman who spoke lovingly about her young son. Since she has been in prison, her letters to me have confirmed my initial impressions – she writes about books she’s reading, poems and stories she’s writing for her son, Bible studies she attends, classes she’s taking at the prison, and the progress of her case.
Her situation reminds me of a case from 2001 that was even worse, when Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub. She too was suffering from postpartum depression. Then there is the local woman who repeatedly attempted to abandon her baby recently, but was finally caught by an observant passerby. Fortunately, the baby was not harmed. This mother also suffered from mental illness.
I am not condoning the actions of these mothers. When innocent children are involved, I understand the instinct to condemn, and I agree that children must be protected. But I don’t condone the attitudes of some who have responded to news articles about these and other mothers. This morning, when a local news station reported on its Facebook page that the young woman I know and have been writing to had pled guilty but mentally ill, there were some who were understanding and compassionate in their comments, but others were hateful and nasty, calling her evil and saying she should rot in a cell by herself for the rest of her life. I almost cried as I read the comments (and I’m grateful she probably doesn’t have access to stuff like this in prison). Andrea Yates, who is serving a life sentence in a mental hospital, has requested permission to leave the grounds for supervised events with other patients. However, because of pressure from the public, judges have never granted permission, and she remains the only person at the mental hospital who has never been allowed to leave the grounds.
The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are familiar to most people. The one that comes to my mind in this context is “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” There is a certain quid pro quo going on there – if we want to receive mercy ourselves, we need to show it to others. The prophet Micah named three things that God requires: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. When Jesus was attacked by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he quoted the Old Testament, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” thus critiquing the Pharisees for putting the letter of the law above showing mercy to people, even undesirables. Mercy, lest we forget, means “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”
Sometimes it is hard to balance the kind of justice required by the criminal justice system (or the kind of justice that requires people to take responsibility and accept consequences) with mercy that understands the possibility of mitigating circumstances and takes them into account. When mental illness is clearly involved, however, it seems like it is even more important for the balance to tilt toward mercy. Recovery from mental illnesses like depression is possible; people do get better, and they can receive treatment and stay well with good medications and talk therapy. Despite this, however, the stigma against mental illness remains, making it difficult for people to ask for help when they need it.
So often these days it seems like there are many who don’t want to show mercy; instead, they want revenge, retaliation, retribution, and ongoing judgment. In our rush to judgment and condemnation, do we forget that sometime we ourselves might need to rely on the mercy of others? Do we forget the simple truth of the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would have them do to you (or to paraphrase it a little: treat others the way you would like to be treated).
Ever since I received a letter a few weeks ago from my acquaintance in prison telling me that her hearing was scheduled for today, she would be found “guilty but mentally ill,” and there were those in her family who thought she should be sentenced to life in prison, I’ve been mulling over the meaning and implications of “blessed are the merciful.” I’ve thought about what it means to show mercy in everyday situations as well as larger more difficult circumstances. Never having been the victim of a violent crime myself perhaps makes it easier for me to suggest that mercy is a better response to her and others like her than retribution and revenge. I can’t know for sure how I would actually respond if one of my family members were physically harmed or killed, but I can prepare my mind and heart to be more likely to want to be merciful and kind, to try to understand what happened and why, to be able to forgive, to look for restorative justice possibilities rather than retributive justice that feels like it simply perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.