A couple days ago I wrote what might have seemed like a “hang-em-high” post against the mother of a two-year-old who died when he fell into a septic tank.  Well, yes and no.

I have had the blessing of having several good counselors and mentors over the years.  One of them, a guy named Rich, explained that there are competing good things going on in a lot of people’s reactions.  The first is truth vs. love.  The Bible calls us to speak the truth in love.  It’s not either/or.  It’s both/and.  Too much love, and the truth gets lost.  Too much raw truth, and people get hurt – not that we should be untruthful, but there are gentler ways of presenting the truth that are better received.

On the other axis is mercy vs. justice.  Zechariah 7:9 says

This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’

And in the New Testament, after pronouncing woe on the religious leaders of the day for tithing on the little things, Jesus says

But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Again, the extremes are bad.  Mercy without justice means you don’t have to build any jails, because everybody would be released.  Surprisingly, justice without mercy also means no jails – but because everybody would be executed for any offense.

Put these two axes together and you get something that looks like this:

The idea is to stay as close as you can to the center – speaking the truth in love, administering justice with mercy.

At the end of Thursday’s post, I said (in disagreeing with the county sheriff) that there had been foul play, criminal activity, criminal negligence, or some combination of those.  I don’t think, based on what I read, that there was foul play.  This was not murder.  I don’t think there was criminal activity – nobody got shot during a bank robbery.  But criminal negligence – yes, I believe that comes into play.  This boy’s death is not an accident – a tree limb falls, and someone dies.  There was activity, either committed or omitted, to allow the top to come off the septic tank hole.  Either somebody took the screws out (took the paving stones off, whatever it was), or they didn’t add them.  Either way, somebody messed up, and that baby died.  Negligence?  Yes.

That’s the truth part of the vertical axis.  The love part doesn’t enter into the situation so much – I don’t know the family, and haven’t been to Marietta in decades.  I feel sympathy, but can’t do anything about it.  Love is an action, and I cannot act.

The horizontal part of the graph – mercy and justice – appeared to be heavily weighed towards justice, and completely absent of mercy.  But I didn’t pronounce a sentence.  I stopped at the finding of fact.

I am a merciful judge (I’m not a judge, but still . . .).  Part of it is that I want people to like me.  Another part of it is that I will be judged as I judge others.  James 2:12-13 says

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Way back when, I wrote about a local mother who had left her infant daughter in the car.  I advocated mercy in that case.  And I do the same in this case.  It appears that the mother should have known about the open top to the septic tank.  The responsibility is hers.  But I would not burn her at the stake, nor jail her, nor fine her.  Maybe a suspended sentence, maybe an encouragement for her to talk about the dangers of open pits.  But nothing mandated.  She will continue to suffer her loss for the rest of her life.  Punishment on top of that adds nothing.  It’s not merciful.

If she was doing something stupid – daring the kid to walk on the edge of the open hole – that is different, and I think would deserve some punishment.  If a worker was out draining the septic tank and didn’t cover it up again, that is culpable and punishable.

But this case?  There’s a sports saying: No autopsy, no foul.  The meaning is that rough play (short of death) is acceptable, although I doubt that anyone would take the saying to the point of death.  But in Marietta, there was an autopsy.  There was death, and there was that foul – a two-year-old is dead.  But there is not a need to further punish a grieving mother.

She’s doing that well enough all on her own.