Stumbling upon a tweet from Ivanka Trump that quoted a Bible verse on Sunday -- the day when politicians and their enablers get their holiness on -- I was moved to respond with a line from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice": "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."
Representing an administration that has worked relentlessly to dismantle civil rights protections, Ivanka Trump is not in a position to take the moral high ground on race relations. As curfews rolled across a nation embroiled in protests after George Floyd, a black man, died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, her father has been throwing tantrums on Twitter, lashing out against the "Lamestream Media" and trying to pin the blame for the unrest on "antifa" and the "radical left."
Ivanka's invocation of 2 Kings 20:5 -- "This is what the Lord said: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you" -- may have been heartfelt. But unsupported by compassionate policy, the sentiment rings hollow.
Quoting from the Bible doesn't clean one's slate. The Bible, like any great work of literature, sacred or secular, is a source of moral instruction, but only when its study is accompanied by an honest accounting of one's soul. As even Claudius, the villainous usurper in "Hamlet," comes to realize after an anxious moment of prayerful contrition, "Words without thoughts never to heaven go."
In retrospect, I wish I had replied to Ms. Trump's tweet with different lines from "The Merchant of Venice."
The spiritual eloquence of Portia's indelible "the quality of mercy" speech might have tempted the first daughter and senior advisor to the president to retweet an excerpt to her 8.8 million followers. This would have done some civic good as Shakespeare's meditation on the word "mercy" illuminates what has been missing in the Trump administration's conception of justice.
It's easy to imagine Ivanka Trump identifying with Portia -- a wealthy heiress with style and wit who is one of Shakespeare's most beloved female characters. Intelligence and generosity set this romantic heroine apart, but so too does self-awareness, even when she falls short of her own high ethical standards.
In disguise as a young male lawyer, Portia enters the courtroom in which Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, is insisting that the authorities honor the terms of his loan to Antonio -- the merchant of the play's title and the best friend of Portia's new husband, Bassanio. The contract stipulates that failure to repay on time will entitle the lender to a pound of Antonio's flesh. The law is on the side of Shylock, who bears a grudge for the way he has been spat upon by bigoted Christians. The stakes are high not only for Antonio: Venice's standing as a world capital of trade depends on this enforcement of contractual obligations.
But Portia reminds the court of an order of justice that supersedes the written code. "The quality of mercy is not strained," she stirringly begins. Her point is that mercy cannot be compelled. It exists on a higher plane, being "an attribute of God himself." Only "when mercy seasons justice," she contends, does "earthly power" resemble the Almighty's.
Therefore, she appeals to Shylock, "Though justice be thy plea, consider this/That in the course of justice, none of us/Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,/ And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/The deeds of mercy."