Justice, Mercy, and Lockerbie

Justice, Mercy, and Lockerbie August 20, 2009

The American media is giving intense coverage to the decision of the Scottish government to release the Lockerbie terrorist bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, on compassionate grounds. I was watching CNN in a waiting room this morning. The man sitting next to me declared that somebody should train a “scope” on him. Although I am not familiar with the lingo of firearms, it was clear that this person was calling for the man to be assassinated. He looked around the room, at us, for approval. He received none.  He said no more. But as I looked at him, I could recognize the macho swagger immediately. I was disgusted at seeing this face to face. It brought home everything that is wrong with America in this regard — the belief in punishment detached from mercy, the belief in the virtue of violence, the belief in toughness at all costs. And pretty much everybody on CNN would opposed this decision, from Obama on down. No nuance, and no compassion. 

And then I came across the statement of Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill. It moved me deeply. For a basic Christian belief is that justice cannot be divorced from mercy and compassion. We live by this principle. We believe that we will all face God’s justice someday, but we know that God is all-merciful and all-compassionate, and this gives us hope. And we look to the personal example set by Jesus. Jesus calls us to tend to those in prison, and he does not qualify this call based on the gravity of the crime. Of course, this is no license to open the doors of prisons, but we are talking here about a dying man. What good can be served by keeping him in jail for three more months? How does it protect society? Or is it more about anger and vengeance?

I am depressed by the US reaction. What’s going on here? I can think of two explanations, and they may even contradict. First,  sometimes I get the feeling that Americans simply don’t believe in God’s justice (why else the zeal for the death penalty?). If indeed the American religion is predominantly Gnostic, then there is no real issue with sin, and death is a liberation. So if God will not punish, then humans must punish. The second explanation is that American derivative Calvinism divides the world into the saved and the damned, with America in the former category of course. If God is going to wipe out the bad guys anyway, who are we to show mercy?

You can find none of this dodgy theology in MacAskill’s statement — the text is here and the video is here.  It’s worth a watch, particularly toward the end. Why is it that no American public figure can speak of justice in such eloquent terms? Here is the key part:

“Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain. However, Mr Al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.

In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people. The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live. Mr Al Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them. But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.

Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.

For these reasons – and these reasons alone – it is my decision that Mr Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.”

Despite the rampant secularization, and despite the disdain for religion that increasing pervades British society, at times like this it is clear to me that the well of Christianity still runs deep. The Christian heritage is not dead. God’s grace is still evident. The all-encompassing Christian culture displayed so loving by Eamon Duffy may no longer exist, but you can still see its roots — if you just care to look.

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