Why is mercy the best policy

Call to action - "Be merciful!": The annual motto for 2021 fits in with the times

Duden editor-in-chief Kathrin Kunkel-Razum confirms: Mercy is an upscale term, it is more written than spoken. And just in the Bible: The annual motto of the Christian churches for 2021 is in the Gospel of Luke: "Be merciful, just as your father is merciful!" (Chapter 6, verse 36).

With "compassionate" and "showing understanding for the plight of others" the Duden describes what is meant by the adjective "merciful". For linguist Peter Schlobinski, mere compassion is not enough. "A compassionate person is - like the good Samaritan from the Bible - not a person who only has pity, but someone who also takes action and helps", explains the professor of German linguistics at Leibniz University in Hanover.

Schlobinski traces the word back to the Bible, from whose translation the Old High German word "armherzi" (8th to 9th centuries) and the Middle High German word "barmherze" (11th to 14th centuries) emerged. The word "merciful" was composed of two words: from "poor" in the sense of weak or helpless and "heart". So it's about a heart for the poor.

But how well does mercy fit into the 21st century? The Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, is certain that merciful action - even if it may sound like yesterday for some - will be urgently needed in 2021. "In this pandemic year, mercy is a key resource that will determine whether we will come out weakened or strengthened from this experience," he says. How well the corona pandemic is coped with depends largely on the extent to which society is able to show mercy.

The Protestant theologian Margot Käßmann focuses on politics: "Mercy 2021 will also mean, looking back at the pandemic, admitting that others have made mistakes - in politics for example," she says. "Because people inevitably make mistakes, especially when faced with dramatic challenges."

When it comes to mercy, she also thinks of people on the Greek islands who cared for refugees: "They have a heart for others." The Hanoverian regional bishop Ralf Meister warns: "We need mercy more than ever. We need a society of open hearts for one another."

The President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Thomas Sternberg, hopes that the suffering of others will be more perceived by society in the new year. For example, real empathy is needed for people's insecurity and fears in the Corona crisis. According to the assessment of the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Osnabrück and deputy chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Franz-Josef Bode, mercy will show itself in concrete action in 2021 - for example in "continuing to behave according to the rules, strengthening one's neighbors and giving everyone the vaccine to be sent first to those who need it more than I do ".

The old-fashioned-sounding term is secondary for Lower Saxony's Prime Minister Stephan Weil (SPD). It's a lot more about the content, he says. "What constitutes mercy is more relevant than it has been for years. In difficult times, especially in crises, we need solidarity as a very important pillar of our community."

It is a coincidence that this year's annual solution applies so precisely to the circumstances in 2021. The respective Bible verse is selected four years in advance by the Ecumenical Working Group for Biblical Reading (ÖAB). At that time there was no thought of a pandemic, the ÖAB committee suspected much more that mercy in connection with the influx of refugees to Europe was a good keyword, explains ÖAB chairman Wolfgang Baur. Ultimately, however, it does not matter which theme dominates the new year. The annual motto for 2021 calls on people to act socially.

In 2021, compassion is needed, says Bedford-Strohm. Just put yourself "in the position of the 87-year-olds in their retirement home on the outskirts of Bremen or in the position of the nurse in the clinic on the right of the Isar, who is at the end of her strength in view of the many Covid 19 patients". And precisely because the word "heart" as a human organ is part of the word "mercy", the President of the Evangelical Church in Bremen, Edda Bosse, wants to stick to this term: "I like to be a bit old-fashioned."