When you shoot hoops in Whitney Park, you play by neighborhood rules. That’s just how it is. For the most part, those rules are the same for everyone. Except Tamius. As a scrappy seventh grader, Tamius is noticeably smaller in stature but bigger in spirit than everyone else on the court, including his middle school peers. His hand-me-down sneakers seem awkwardly clownish on his slender frame, but he plays with a broader smile and has more fun than the tallest, the fastest or the strongest.
Here’s what you’ll need to know if you ever “ball” at Whitney: Tamius gets to travel and you’re not allowed to block his shots. Period. That’s not negotiable. Now, no one is going to tell you this. You’re supposed to figure it out on your own. At first it seems a little odd. He’ll take a pass, tuck the ball under his arm and scamper like a tailback. When he squares to shoot, everyone backs off and lets him gun it. Maybe he’ll make it. Probably he won’t. No one really cares.
You don’t have to play with these kids very long before you understand what’s going on. Mercy. This is not your garden-variety mercy, the type where we withhold the retribution or just desserts we think someone deserves. No, this is pure mercy born of love and offered with joy.
We are tempted to think of mercy as a generous gift offered post-judgment when someone has done something hurtful, harmful, sinful or dangerous. At these times we often feel quite justified in judging the action as wrong, but when exacting consequences we “have mercy” and reduce or perhaps even eliminate the penalty.
This may seem like a compassionate expression of human mercy, but it is still an exercise of one person exerting power over another. Whether we levy or suspend punishment, we are still the arbiters of power and control. True mercy is rooted on a plane far above the whole power equation. It is about respect and dignity. It lovingly honors the inherent sacred value of each person.
Most of the kids in the Whitney Park pick-up games have seen a lifetime of pain and struggle before they’re old enough to shave. They understand, but more importantly they respect the unique life challenges each person faces along the journey. While the rest of us may be merciful when exacting judgment, these kids are merciful instead of judgment. They offer mercy to Tamius not because he needs it or deserves it, but rather because they want it. He is one of them, part of them. The joy of the game and the time shared together has more value than the rules or the competition. In addition to being kind and generous, mercy simply lightens a darkened world.
The exception granted to Tamius is a metaphor for how these kids believe the world ought to work. Their mercy is not the fair thing to do nor the just thing to do; it is the loving thing to do. Viewed through their eyes, life is hard. The journey is difficult. People need a break. From this perspective, mercy toward one is hope for all.
Deacon Meyer is a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Green Bay.