The Quality of Mercy and the Sword of Justice

Comparative Arts and Letters professor Julie Allen explores the necessity of justice and mercy in the context of the Danish film In a Better World.

The seemingly opposite forces of justice and mercy are a topic of interest for many Latter-day Saints. We devote scripture study, Sunday School lessons, and conference talks to these subjects as we learn of and try to emulate the Savior’s ability to satisfy both of them. However, we ourselves often walk a fine line between these two qualities and find ourselves advocating for the particular force that we believe would be most beneficial in the moment: We want mercy when we make mistakes and want justice when we have been wronged. Striking a balance between these two forces is a struggle, one that is intimately portrayed in the 2010 Danish Oscar-winner In a Better World. In her recent lecture to BYU’s International Cinema, professor Julie Allen examined the relationship between mercy and justice in this film and postulated how these two concepts are best applied in everyday life.

Allen opened her lecture by pointing out the many ways in which In a Better World serves to embody both justice and mercy. The film’s English title suggests a latent positivity and can easily be interpreted as advocating for the quality of mercy. Conversely, the film’s original Danish title Hævnen translates to “Vengeance.” This is one example of the juxtaposition of these concepts, but the themes of justice and mercy run heavily though director Susanne Bier’s work.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

“[Bier] does a great job of raising [difficult] questions and not providing simple answers,” said Allen. “Instead she provides really emotionally complex struggles with these topics.” While it is perhaps frustrating that the film does not directly showcase the appropriate balance of justice and mercy for its audience, the film succeeds in that it offers numerous examples of the ways in which like-minded people struggle and work through these same questions.

In a Better World offers three distinct sub-plots that explore different approaches to extending justice or mercy. The audience may also reason, as do the characters in the film, that the approaches are either right or wrong. Again, the film does not offer the answer; rather it continually offers a series of questions that allows viewers to explore the debate for themselves.

Allen suggested that the difficulty behind much of this debate stems from our innate desire to see people punished for their crimes. “We want the emotional satisfaction of punishment,” explained Allen. However, she also pointed out that inflicting pain in order to enact justice may satisfy our thirst for vengeance, but it does not make us any more whole.

Allen cited examples from throughout history where oppressed peoples were handed the reins of justice and enacted violent retribution. These examples, as well as several found within In a Better World, could be labeled as just, but that does not make them right. “By punishing violence through violence, the system perpetuates its own flaws and makes it difficult for mercy to gain any traction,” she explained. She then offered examples of other historical situations, such as post-genocide Rwanda, that had peacefully resolved their issues through mercy.

Men and women, from Portia in Merchant of Venice to Javert in Les Misérables, have all debated and contested the necessary lengths of justice and mercy, but a universal answer has yet to present itself. It is perhaps for this reason, as Allen pointed out, the Lord directs in Romans 12:19 that “vengeance is mine.” With our imperfect judgment and finite understanding of the world, perhaps the answer to the justice and mercy debate is left out of our hands.


Eric Baker (News Media, ’18)

Eric Baker covers events for BYU’s International Cinema. He is a senior pursuing a degree in news media with a minor in political science.