Bernie is out of jail.
The title character in Richard Linklater’s small but popular movie “Bernie” has been released from prison on $10,000 bond. He will live now in Linklater’s garage apartment in Austin, far away in distance and culture from East Texas, where his conviction for the murder of the cranky and stingy Carthage socialite, Marjorie Nugent, took place in 1997.
The movie, starring Jack Black, Shirley McLaine and Matthew McConaughey, pictured Bernie Tiede as a sympathetic figure. He was a mortician by profession and a friend to many in that small town. When Nugent was widowed, he began a weird and complicated relationship with her that included her signing over her estate to him but also subjecting him to levels of emotional abuse that were factors in his shooting her four times in the back and stuffing her body in a freezer.
Recent revelations about that abuse, and new revelations of abuse he suffered in childhood, have contributed to the judge’s decision to mitigate punishment and set him free under conditions of supervision.
So did justice or mercy prevail in the end?
Seems the attitudes of people in Carthage have turned against Bernie over time, although in the immediate aftermath of the murder and trial, they were generally supportive of the man who had become a generous benefactor with his victim’s money.
Justice and mercy live in creative tension. Justice without mercy is coldhearted; mercy without justice is softheaded.
The Bible weighs in for both justice and mercy. And the application of them among the communities of Israel and the church over time proves the need for compassionate judgment. For example, the Old Testament rule of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was an improvement over the culture of disproportionate revenge that created generational cycles of violence. But proportionality was often still out of whack, since capital punishment was not limited to the crime of murder but could include things like the stoning of a chronically disobedient son. Gratefully, the community rarely carried out such permissible punishment, as the cause of mercy trumped the claim of justice.
Jesus taught caution about meting out judgment, lest we ourselves be judged by the same standards. He urged that mercy prevail in order that restoration rather than retribution might rule our relationships.
The law makes distinctions for those who take another life. Homicide can be first, second or third degree murder; it can be manslaughter; or it can be justifiable homicide (which is not a crime), all depending upon the circumstances. We make judgments that include motivation and situation.
This could lead to lost accountability for bad behavior. It could undermine responsibility. It could endanger the community by exposing it to future risk. All those “coulds” could be true.
But mercy also could give hope. It could create conditions for productive lives. It could produce forgiveness that relieves the burden of guilt and teaches responsibility.
Reasons are not excuses. There is no excuse for murder. There may be, however, mitigating reasons that make it understandable, albeit still inexcusable.
We all know people who need our best judgment and great mercy. Come to think of it, we ourselves are such people. Thank God none of us truly get what we deserve from God. And there begins the lesson …
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