Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thoughts on the Lockerbie Bomber

I've heard and thought a lot about this story this week. Another blog I contribute to tackled the subject, with mixed results. How does religion (or more accurately, our theological views) jibe with what has happened? At first blush, it seems that Grace has won the day. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the terrorist act (blowing up a plane over Scotland, killing everyone on board and several bystanders on the ground), was released by Scottish authorities on "compassionate grounds." He was freed from prison to go home and die with his family in Libya. He has a terminal cancer, and has only months to live. There was enough outrage at his release due to its very existence. Then, he was greeting in Libya with cheering throngs...a hero's welcome. This left a sour taste in everyone's mouth.

So...what are we to make of this? The conventional "grace" argument is that it's an act of grace to free a guilty man. If that were as far as it went, that might be true. But Al Megrahi is dying! Would we think it graceful if Scotland released him a day or a week before his death? Probably not. How about 10 years? We might more readily say yes. So is there a time horizon for release to turn to

Another problem is that we might also argue that Scotland is in no position to offer grace. Al Megrahi harmed Scotland only in the abstract. His crime occured in their airspace and only a small percentage of the victims were actually Scottish. In any case, none of the victims (or their families), released Al Megrahi. The Scottish government did. The main sqwauk is coming from the families of the victims (mostly American) and the American government. The question, I suppose, then becomes: Is there a difference between Grace and Mercy?

In that Grace is the opposite of Law, the release of Al Megrahi does seem graceful. His penalty was abrogated in favor of release. It seems a little less than merciful due to the cancer. True grace would seem to entail the release of someone fully capable of repeating his offense. I've called this blog "Thoughts on Grace." In the end, my own views on this story are a little muddled. I feel fine about releasing an aging, dying, murderer so that he can die with his familiy. I was sickened at his reception in Libya. I don't however, feel like this is a great example of Grace. It is a nod to Grace when the cost is low. The cost is basically looking bad to one's constituents.

Grace, as discussed in previous posts, is extended to sinners who are fully expected to sin again. This is the profundity of it. Grace is love that is one way; love that is not expected to be returned. I'm not sure that Al Megrahi has been shown grace. I think he has been shown compassion. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. Compassion, yes. Grace, not so much. Mercy, I'm not sure. No one is saying that he is forgiven, or that he served his time or that his debt to society and to the families that lost their loved ones is paid; all that is being said is - you're dying and we will let you die with your family because that is the compassionate thing to do. Could that be justice? Or a form of justice?

  2. Why is it that Christian faith is always challenged in these kinds of extremes? Are we called to respond to any and all in need of grace? If so, why should we allow anyone to go to prison in the first place? Should we not righteously plead and fight for immediate grace? I am very conflicted by his release and also sickened by his hero's welcome. I find myself in complete sympatico with the families of the victims, but can't help but feel that in so doing I judge as I would not want to be judged. And are we fools to even engage in this theological debate when the prisoner's release was probably just a way for Scottish officials to dump the responsibility of dealing with the inconvenience details of his imminent death on his Libyan family. Are we being led to question our capacity for grace and mercy by the actions of those delivering neither?

  3. Very interesting, Anonymous! It seems like there is a place for "the law" in the world (prison for terrorists...the world would fall apart without this kind of civil red lights and stop signs...) In answer to your opening question, though, I think that Jesus was an extreme guy. He was always saying things like, "Calling someone a fool is the same as murdering them" (Matt 5:22). I don't think this is challenging to faith...but it might be challenging to our possibly tamed views of mercy and forgiveness. Oh, and by the way, I think that you're totally right, we are questioning our capacity for grace and mercy by the actions of those delivering neither. But, since the delivery of grace and mercy is so rare, it seems like it's only in situations like this where we CAN question it!

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