There I was, standing in front of a class of undergrads discussing Johnny Cash’s legendary “Live at Folsom Prison” and getting absolutely zero response from the students. Cash has long been dead by now and I wondered aloud whether he was too far afield for this group 18-22 year olds.

As I continued to pick at their malaise, the reason for the lukewarm response became clear: prisoners deserved to be locked up and they don’t deserve our sympathy. Maya Angelou’s caged bird rightly longs for freedom from her oppressors (the topic of the previous class), but Cash’s protagonist got himself into his own mess. He shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Such a man should be imprisoned and granting him the freedom he longs for would be both unjust and dangerous to society. Mercy, it was insisted by the class, should not be extended to him. However much the murderer pleaded that he would reform and stay “far from Folsom prison”, he was not to be believed. Extending pardon to the criminal (grace!), I was told, patently does not have the power to transform a sinner into a saint.

I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by the response of the class to Johnny Cash, but I was thunderstruck nonetheless. He is, after all, a southern white guy crowing about his sorry lot. But beyond the questions of class, injustice, and privilege, I’m inclined the think that their indifference to the idea of grace and its salvific effects reflects a broader value system where mercy is not a cog in the social machine, but a wrench.

Worldly antipathy to mercy isn’t a new thing, by any means, but the reasons for such opposition are new and certainly deserve our attention. Few today would outright denounce the idea of mercy; it is simply omitted from the conversation altogether. When an offense is committed, however great or small, the loudest voices and most retweets are always those whose reproach is surpassed only by indignation. Bonus points for witty snark. As Alan Jacobs said at the recent NYC Mockingbird Conference, the deadly sin of our culture is not pride or lust, but wrath. Now, Thomas Aquinas deemed wrath to be a moral response if it is justified by reason (Summa I-II, Q47, A7) yet such justified anger in the hands of sinners (namely everyone) irresistibly becomes a tool of vengeance precisely because it is justified.

The turn away from mercy toward judgment perhaps not so coincidentally parallels the rise of a new, dare-I-say Puritanical, moralism. Far from the dystopia of moral relativism predicted with the advent of postmodernity, the mortal sins of the old regime of patriarchy and white supremacy have been exposed and more sharply defined, implicating all but a few. Power is rarely given up freely, and the creaking of the old system to maintain the status quo has been deafening. Within such a context, the call for forgiveness of one’s enemies is received by all sides as treasonous – in the same way that opposition to minimum prison sentences was viewed as being “soft” on crime. All intellectual, social, or moral pursuits must be pressed into service in the social struggle, lest you be deemed the enemy of freedom. When the winner-take-all battle lines of morality are so firmly drawn, there is no room to extend mercy.

Such a populist turn toward wrathful vengeance reflects an honest exasperation that the world cannot and will not provide justice to the victims of sin. Police officers who murder black men go free and sexual abusers are rarely punished. Yet this forlornness equally expresses a contempt and rejection of divine justice. In a culture that denies both God’s existence and the Christian belief that God might one day rectify all wrongdoing, the business of judgment is left to us alone (see Romans 12:19!).

More fundamentally, the current trend away from mercy signals a wider belief that people are unable to change when mercy is offered. Once a cheater, always a cheater. Once a racist, always a racist. The sins of the past leave an indelible mark on one’s character that is impossible to overcome. This belief has two perhaps unsavory effects. If you deem someone to be harmful to your welfare, you can realistically cut them out of your life without any personal consequences. The increasingly mobile and unstable network of modern relationships only exacerbates this reality. Why do the hard work of reconciliation with someone who won’t change if the utility of the relationship can be replaced for a better model with little to no cost?

Likewise, the belief that people don’t change, coupled with the continued unwavering belief in social progress (despite all evidence to the contrary) produces a context in which this upward progress is not accomplished by persuasion, but through the systematic exclusion of transgressors (Puritanism again!). When even such an instrumental use of mercy is rejected, the Christian call to extend mercy regardless of whether it “works” can only be seen as foolishness.

While all have sinned and stand in need of mercy, realizing the extent of opposition to mercy today dispels the myth that one’s reception of the gospel is simply an issue of rhetoric. The message of grace is immoral and unjust to modern ears. Sin is not simply an error of deeds, but the corruption of the mind itself, blind to its ignorance by self-righteousness. To genuinely know oneself as a sinner is to question everything you’ve previously thought was true. Christianity is, and always has been, and upside religion in a world that insists it sees clearly; it is light amid darkness. However new and persuasive the message of mercy might be packaged, it will still be heard as a stumbling block so long as the universal religion of vengeful justice for sinners remains intact. Yet the gospel is the siren song of Christ, drawing us out of the wrathful cacophony in which we live. To the world, such a withdraw may look like a shipwreck; but to those who are being saved it is the sweetest of songs.