Mercy Triumphs Over Judgement…Or Does It?

Today the man convicted for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing was released from his Scottish prison. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi’s horrifying crime destroyed a Pan Am Boing 747 in Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. He has been released because of his terminal illness, and has now returned home to Libya to be with his family.

Reaction from the U.S. (home to many of the victims) was swift and severe: President Barack Obama has labelled the decision a “mistake”, and the US Attorney General said “There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist whose actions took the lives of 270 individuals, including 189 Americans.”

Lockerbie bombing, 1988

Lockerbie bombing, 1988

The incident reminds me of one a couple of years ago, when convicted Australian mass murderer Ivan Milat was given a TV in prison, which provoked outrage from the families of his victims and was overturned by the NSW state government.

The bible speaks of a God thus: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34). The apostle James says “Mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2.13b).

It is distressingly true that al-Megrahi remains unrepentant, and claims the guilty verdict was a “disgrace.” He was welcomed by a large crowd on his arrival in his home country.

The first half of that verse from James, in a passage encouraging Christians not to judge one-another but show mercy, says “judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy” (James 2.13a).

The Scottish Justice Secretary has said “Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown.”

I for one can’t help being impressed by the compassion shown to this man. Compassion is so often lacking in our justice systems. Nevertheless, the guilty man’s own lack of mercy makes the decision troubling.

Who is right? Should mercy be shown in this case?

UPDATE: The Scottish Justice Minister continues to defend his decision against heavy opposition. Read and see his speech to parliament here. Notable quotes:

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. But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.


19 thoughts on “Mercy Triumphs Over Judgement…Or Does It?

  1. My immediate and quite naive reaction is that mercy should be shown, but if he is unrepentant then what are the chances of him organising such a bombing again?
    Even so, it is an interesting comment on the value of life, the opportunity to ‘say goodbye’ to family and friends, and the idea of finality of life.
    I wonder if we react in such a judging way because we do not understand God’s promise of judgment?

  2. “I wonder if we react in such a judging way because we do not understand God’s promise of judgment?”

    Maybe, yeah. “But that day belongs to the LORD, the Lord Almighty— a day of vengeance, for vengeance on his foes” (Jeremiah 46.10). God desires to show mercy, and calls us to show it; and we can, becase we know that in the end his perfect justice will be shown to all.

  3. Do Christians actively portray this in all that they do? Are we forgiving? Are we merciful? Or do we continue to condemn those around us? I think we tend to judge without even thinking about it. Why are there so many people in Christian community who are living in the depths of sin and not repenting? Why are we so afraid of seeming sinful and weak when we know that that is exactly what we are? I believe it is because Christians are judgmental rather than gracious and merciful. This seriously needs to change. Scottish govt. seems to be taking a big step in the right direction.

  4. Hey Richard,

    Really interesting thoughts on a recent issue. For me, this whole issue turns on philosophy.

    Is a rehabilitative or punitive/retributive philosophy of punishment more just/apt? In the west, most systems are punitive – that is, they dish out punishment as retribution/vengence which is deemed to be appropriate. A rehabilitative theory of punishment holds that punishment is meant to ‘cure’ the punished – to help them be a better peron, to live a better life, but also to heal society in some way. On this system, a prisoner can be released as soon as they are better, or a different punishment can be deemed appropriate given their progress.

    I am more attracted to the first, and so therefore think that the prisoner’s current disposition/progress should have no effect on the punishment. So the issue of whether what’s-his-name was repentant is not an issue. Do you think either is closer to the thought you were having from scripture??

  5. I think the discussion that comes from what Kiri was suggesting is instructive. There is certainly a place in this age for Christians to support civil justice (Romans 13, for example). And yet we know ultimate justice is reserved for God alone. So, we can pursue a rehabilitative justice in the present, thus showing mercy and compassion, in the knowledge that the unrepentant in the present will fall under God’s judgement.

    I think, actually, that in the quote from James I used, the point being made is this: God will judge, and those who have been unmerciful will be shown no mercy; so then, be merciful! Especially in Christian community, but in our practices and relationships outside as well. Wrongs against ‘us’ are also wrongs against God, and it’s hard for us to maintain purity of justice if we start dispensing it as we see fit; so, mercy just makes sense!

    I have, over the course of the day, become convinced that what the Scottish government have done is indeed a wise and right thing; that doesn’t mean (again, refer to Romans 13) that deciding the other way would necessarily have been wrong.

  6. Covering this over the last few days on the BBC, it’s clear that this is a very complex issue. On deciding whether or not this was a sound decision by Kenny MacAskill, there are many factors that need to be taken into account.

    Firstly, did the compassionate release come about through following legal process or through moral and social obligation? Both have been argued for by Kenny MacAskill, depending on who he’s defending himself against. To the United States (from where most of the victims came), he is abiding by Scottish legal process which makes some provision for compassionate release. To his fellow countrymen and the rest of the UK, he seems to be saying that it is the right thing to do to let a dying man return to his family, and has tried to bring the Scottish parliament and the senior clergy onside.

    I’m not going to get technical with either of these points, apart from to say that the legal argument has faults, which were addressed yesterday (read the transcripts from the Scottish parliament 24.8).

    Then there are the complicating factors.
    Was Al-Megrahi guilty? He has maintained his innocence throughout his sentence, and his ongoing appeals have never yet been finalised, and now never will be. His was the lone Lockerbie bomber conviction, yet the evidence used to bring about that conviction is not what I’d call concrete. So he remains the scapegoat.

    Did the British government pressure the SNP to release him to firm trade deals with Libya as Colonel Gaddafi is claiming? Was the Queen and Prince Andrew involved? Doubtful. But it’s put Gordon Brown on a tightrope where he is too worried to make any sort of statement on the issue.

    And what strikes me as incredible naive is the seeming inability of Kenny MacAskill not to foresee the type of reception that Al-Megrahi was to receive in Tripoli. A real slap in the face for the families of victims.

    Kenny MacAskill is right – God will judge. And God has judged Al-Megrahi, striking him down with cancer that will end his life shortly. But I’m not sure it’s right for the secular Scottish government to abrogate justice to God, especially seeing as in this case, the expectation was clearly that this would be a retributive sentence and he’s only served 8 years. In terms of individual Christian ethics, compassion, mercy and forgiveness are crucial. But I’m unconvinced as to whether the ‘compassionate justice’, really was justice for the families of victims and those affected by Lockerbie.

    Can we find the balance between the firm hand of security and terrorism deterrence and Christian values of mercy, forgiveness and compassion?

    Judged by the outrage, I’m not sure this is it.

  7. Btw… apologies, I’m sure it’s not good blog ethics to write a comment longer than the actual blog post.

    And just to clarify, I am actually quite encouraged by the example of Scottish decency shown here, and I’m feel for Kenny MacAskill – under huge pressure in what must be the world’s most thankless job.

    And I do find the American criticisms of Scottish justice a bit hard to stomach following things like the release of the torture memos and Bill Clinton’s bending of the knee to North Korea last month. If I had to select one or the other, I know which one I’d prefer…

  8. I’m not convinced. The God of the Bible, especially in Old Testament prophecy, is a God who brings justice to the wicked. God’s people cry out for justice and he promises it. He is merciful, but outside of Jesus there is no escape from just punishment.

    I don’t think releasing a man whose actions were responsible for the deaths of over 200 people is a compassionate act worthy of praise. This is not a loving act to the families of the victims – it is an injustice. Compassion for offenders must be balanced with compassion for victims.

    I’m not saying the principle of judicial compassion should be neglected, but in this particular instance – a crime of such wickedness and a totally unrepentant criminal – it is unjust in my eyes.

  9. Jono,

    Great thoughts, you know more about it than me. So, don’t worry about length!


    Nice to hear from you 🙂 I do hear what you’re saying, but I’m not convinced (either way, actually!). He is clearly unrepentant (if indeed he’s guilty). But the just punishment we can only be saved out of in Jesus is bigger than human legal systems. No human justice is total justice for the victims of the families, so to say that releasing this man is unjust is hard, I think. But as I said, still unsure.

  10. I was thinking about this tonight, during our sermon on Hell. I really appreciate all of your wisdom/thoughts. I’m with you, Glover – I’m still not sure either way.

    Random thoughts:

    – If God honours human freedom by not just forgiving all of humanity, but giving them the right to choose whether they wish to accept the forgiveness held out by Jesus or not, then does that mean that we are to not forgive people who do not ask for our forgiveness, or does Jesus’ words to forgive seventy-seven times apply even to those who are unrepentant?

    – Is it mercy if the person hasn’t repented of their action? It may be grace, but is it mercy?

    – If we are called to point to the Kingdom of God where justice will reign, then shouldn’t we fervently be pursuing justice? Can’t you pursue justice without passing judgment on a life, a judgment which God alone has the right to do?

  11. Also – is there a difference between how we’re called to act individually vs as a society/government?

    i.e. Whereas as individuals we’re told to turn the other cheek, at a corporate level, when injustice is being committed, we’re “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.” (Bonhoeffer)

  12. It’s clear in the NT that governments have real, God-given power to dispense justice, and (probably) the right to take life as punishment. However, they can also make a decision to display compassion and mercy.

  13. This has been a topic that i’ve been thinking about since it happened and as yet i still don’t really know where my thoughts stand.

    As a Christian I know ultimately God will judge him in a more appropriate and lasting way then we here on earth could ever do. The fact that God knows definitively whether he was involved or not – which i have no comment on – also reassures me that the appropriate and due justice will be served when he dies…

    However i do think there seemed to be a lack of foresight in how his release happened. It appeared to all that the relevant govt’s weren’t really warned of his release (i mean maybe they were but who knows) and the reaction of the people when he stepped off the plane must have been hard for the surviing relatives to bear. One may think that particular part could have been handled better.

    I don’t know just some random thoughts.

  14. Thanks Sare. Yeah, the release was handled really badly. Apparently the Libyan goverment had promised his return would be low key, and then reneged on that promise. Be that as it may, I think we can make an assessment of the release and where it stands ethically apart from the disgusting scenes on al-Megrahi’s return.

  15. A belated thought: while this isn’t a decision I’d make, it strikes me as falling more in the province of Senecan clemency than mercy (the wider the remit of an polis, the more capacity it holds to demonstrate lofty impassiveness with respect to its interests.)

  16. Perhaps. The Scottish justice department have been using ‘compassion’ as their catch-word for it, which is I think better than ‘mercy’ in this circumstance.

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