The Quality of Mercy

The compassionate release of the Lockerbie bomber is the story that everyone is talking about right now.

I’ve been interested to listen to members of my own congregation discussing it. I’ve been aware of at least four responses within the congregation which have all been held with conviction. They are mutually contradictory

  • 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
  • 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 the Justice Minister was correct in releasing him on compassionate grounds.
  • 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

This last opinion is being taken to extremes in the press today. It seems to me that society is best served by having a criminal justice system which does not depend on a eye for an eye and that consequently, the human rights of prisoners are not contingent on their crimes. Once that is accepted, the logic of the Justice Minister’s position is clear. He has made a decision on a clear ethical principle. I’m surprised that he did not go for the politically more expedient option of letting the man serve his sentence out in Libya, and I suppose I must have a grudging respect for someone taking an unpopular decision on seemingly pure ethical grounds.

Pure ethics are one thing. The theology of Kenny MacAskill’s statement was grim:

“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.”

The notion of a God who skips about the world deciding who does and who does not get cancer is horrible. That kind of thing gives religion a bad name.

There is no God worth believing in who is so capricious.


  1. Elizabeth says

    It seems that Kenny MacAskill has missed the point that we all, in fact, share Mr Al Megrahi’s ‘sentence’. However, I agree that the surrounding sentences express a theology that is pretty grim and not one I share.

  2. True. But I appreciate his political nous in saying it. If only our (English) politicians were as clever in their dealings with the US. Obviously you send the stupid ones down to Westminster and keep the ones with a brain cell or two up in Edinburgh.

  3. I don’t read this quote from Kenny MacAskill’s speech in this way. I think he was simply talking about the sentence of death and final judgement that faces us all.

  4. Sorry, Eamonn, I’m with Elizabeth & Kelvin on this. Death is something that will happen to us all, but I do not believe that God imposes it as a sentence.

  5. RosemaryHannah says

    I had the privilege of knowing Jim Whyte, who was Moderator of the General Assembly at the time of the bombing and who led the memorial service. I remember his sermon, as must all who heard it. It contained both recognition of the enormity of the crime, and a plea that we do not retaliate, because retaliation, the seeking of vengeance, did not make us more human but less human.

    Jim Whyte died very slowly of cancer.

    I think some of us forget we all die. I think most of us forget the enormity of the crimes of which we are capable. It is fatally easy to get sucked into forgetting that we are responsible for how we behave, and not for how others behave. My daughter made some good points on this on my blog.

    And all the links generated pointed to discussions of guilt and innocence. Not mercy. It is not easy to argue for mercy in today’s society – though I have been doing it all week.

  6. fr dougal says

    I tend to agree with the mob here: a theology that sees God as capable of sending a cancer as a personal punishment is a God of vengeance. But that is sadly one Biblical theology. I don’t think it’s a Christian theology because the New Covenant of Grace and mercy replaced it. But it is a world view our historically Calvinist culture has ingrained deeply in the Scottish psyche.

  7. RosemaryHannah says

    It is not a Christian theology, indeed it is one Christ himself specifically denies (Luke 13:1-5). Nor is it the only theology of the Hebrew Scriptures – Job and Jeremiah both speak loudly against it.

  8. ‘Sentence’ is a metaphor, Kimberly, which tries to say something about inevitability, and about our limited time here. In using it, Mr MacAskill was, as I see it, encouraging the public not to get too steamed up about the release of someone who was facing that inevitability.

  9. Even though he is dying,he should not be trusted and he should still be monitored.

  10. Robin says

    > The notion of a God who skips about the world deciding who does and who does not get cancer is horrible. That kind of thing gives religion a bad name. There is no God worth believing in who is so capricious.

    Indeed. But surely Mr MacAskill meant that the “sentence” passed by a “Higher Power” was that Mr al Megrahi, like all of us here on earth, would at some time die? I don’t think he meant that God had explicitly condemned Mr al Megrahi to die of prostate cancer in the next few months.

  11. Jimmy says

    I’m just glad someone said “No” to the Americans. Their only concern is that the truth might come out. In this case the buck stopped with Kenny MacKaskill.

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