Christian citizens of the United States will probably respond with as much dismay as did the official White House spokespersons and, later, President Obama to the release of Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds by the Scottish Secretary of Justice, Mr. Kenny MacAskill. Most of the 270 victims killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in December, 1988, were themselves citizens of the US.
US citizens are particularly keen on retributive justice, also known as revenge. Not surprisingly, the US is the only western industrial democracy that continues to administer the death penalty. Evangelical Christians largely support it. Despite opposition to the death penalty by recent popes and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it appears that a majority of US Catholics also support it. No wonder, then, that God-fearing, righteously indignant, and indeed grieving people would at least want to see Mr. Al Megrahi spend his few remaining days on earth locked in a Scottish prison cell.
But on Thursday afternoon as I listened to the live press conference and later interviews with Mr. MacAskill, I was impressed by the repetition of two words that he employed to explain his action which, be it noted, was not a pardon – the conviction stands, despite grounds for an appeal which Mr. Al Megrahi’s lawyers withdrew early this week, apparently in order to facilitate his release.
MacAskill spoke of compassion and mercy, values which the Scottish people hold dear, as well they might, considering their long, difficult struggle for freedom. Others have spoken of compassion differently — some say that because Al Megrahi showed no compassion to his victims, he deserves none. Nor mercy.
But is this the proper measure of compassion and mercy?
As MacAskill spoke, I could not help but recall the words of Jesus —
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. [Matthew 5:38-45]
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. [Luke 6:27-29]
Could Mr. Al Megrahi be innocent, as he — and others — claim? He would not be the first person wrongly convicted as a terrorist in a ghastly bombing — it took 15 years to clear the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six of the IRA bombings in England in 1974. But even if Mr. Al Megrahi is in fact guilty, does that disqualify him from compassion and mercy? If it does, then who of us dares ask for God’s forgiveness, “as we forgive those who sin against us”?