Here is this morning's sermon about the release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie Bombing. Much of what I said is in the text below.
As I am preaching this morning, I want to take you on a journey. Not a journey from one place to another. Not a journey particularly from one idea to another. Rather a journey from one poet to another. We are going from Shakespeare to Burns today.
And can I say that I feel very comfortable attempting Burns this week. One of the most interesting things I have done in the last few days is to take part in the filming of something called the Glasgow Gospel. It is an attempt to retell the gospel in Glasgwegian. I was delighted, I can tell you to be cast as one of the religious leaders whom the child Jesus met with in the temple. And proud beyond measure when they gave me a speaking part. It must be because of my obvious local accent
I’m going to take the first reading, Solomon’s appeal for wisdom and use it quite unashamedly as a starting point, a place to leap off from. Like leaping from a diving board into the main news of this week which has caused such comment here in Scotland over a deed that was done in the skies over this diocese.
Let us begin with Shakespeare.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
That speech from Portia in the Merchant of Venice was what came immediately to my mind when I was listening to Kenny MacAskill’s statement about the man convicted of the Lockerbie bomber this week. Shakespeare was saying something rather important and doing so in a more eloquent way than any modern politician is likely to manage.
It also struck home to me that there is barely a service here in church anytime in the year in which we do not pray, out loud, for mercy. Lord have mercy, is the prayer of the church. Christ have mercy is the plea of everyone who comes here to this place to pray.
I’ve already said this week that I know that there are a number of very different opinions within this congregation of what should have happened this week.
I’ve had the following put to me this week from people connected to this place. Each arguing a coherent ethical position. Each trying to make sense of how a decision like this can best be made.
• Firstly, I’ve heard someone say that the “bomber” should be released because he did not do it in the first place. (This is accompanied by detailed theories of who did, which make clear that Libya had nothing to do with it).
• Secondly, I’ve heard someone say that the bomber should have been repatriated to Libya to serve out his sentence there. (After all, we expect British nationals to be brought home from gaols in foreign climes). That, I must admit is what I thought would happen.
• Thirdly, the position that the bomber should have been left to serve out his sentence and that the nature of his crime meant that compassionate release was inappropriate.
• Finally, I’ve heard people say that the Justice Minister was correct in releasing him on compassionate grounds. This argument is the one that won the day in the end – that if we release prisoners on compassionate grounds before they die, then the same rules should be applied to anyone.
I have to say that I’ve weighed all these up. I’m not sure that any of these is entirely wrong. However, after a few days mulling it over, I have to confess to a grudging admiration for the decision that was actually made. It was always going to be unpopular, especially in the USA. The fact that America is strategically important to the SNP makes the decision more commendable than I would have expected to find it. I don’t think anyone could claim that this particular decision was made on political grounds alone. That is one of the things that makes it particularly interesting. It is a genuine ethical decision that tests out what ethical standards we think we live by.
It seems to me that once you establish a belief that all people have inalienable rights, human rights, things change about the way in which you perceive justice.
In very many press articles this week, and even today, the principle of an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth is being hauled out by those who think that justice and vengeance are coterminous. I don’t believe that they are. I want to live in a society where justice is, as Shakespeare said, seasoned with mercy.
I want to pluck out the idea that an eye for an eye will solve anything. I want to pull out and discard the notion that a tooth for a tooth will make peace in any dispute.
As I stand here, I know that unlike some of my predecessors, I am not a pacifist. I believe that some freedoms needs must be defended with force. Though not before we have first tried all the higher arts – poetry, drama, politics, comedy, diplomacy, persuasion, rhetoric and even, yes, even prayer.
If you go to Edinburgh and visit the Scottish Parliament, you may get a chance to see the ceremonial mace which is present whenever debates take place. Inscribed in the silver are four words Wisdom, Compassion, Justice and Integrity.
Wisdom, the thing that Solomon and every leader worth the name goes seeking. Compassion, that elusive quality which has been more discussed this week than I can remember. Justice, foundational to both Christian and Muslim alike. Integrity – that virtue that has seemed so lacking in leaders recently.
Having reached in our minds the chamber of the Scottish Parliament, I want to finish with words from Scotland’s national poet which were sung at the moment the Parliament was reconvened. I remember not a single speech made that day, but I do remember Sheena Wellington singing.
In the same way that I needed to edit out an anti-semitic reference in Portia’s speech a few moments ago, we need to forgive Robert Burns his gender exclusive language and hear not only the music but also the sentiment immediately behind the words.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
In the name of God, creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Amen.