“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
For many who go to church every Sunday, these words roll off the tongue like a drop of dew on a morning leaf. Most of us don’t even think about the radical forgiveness we are committing ourselves to granting, every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. We acknowledge through the words we speak, however, that the forgiveness we receive from God is tied closely to the forgiveness we grant others. Nothing, I believe, can be tougher yet show more of God’s love than a true act of forgiveness. For that reason, it behooves me to add a slightly different, questioning voice to the debate raging over the recent decision by the Scottish government to release Abdel Al-Megrahi, a convicted terrorist, on grounds of compassion.
The news was splattered across every television screen and newspaper around the world, sending the blogosphere into a torrent of typing. Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi — a man convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988 — was heading home to Libya, a free yet dying man. And before Al-Megrahi even set foot on the tarmac of the Glasgow Airport in Scotland, the world’s ire was zeroing in on one man, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, who stood in front of the cameras and delivered a bold statement:
“It is my decision that Mr. Abdel Basset Mohamed Ali Al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and be allowed to return to Libya to die,” MacAskill said.
Criticism from politicians and family members
The criticism came quick and swift.
“The news today from Glasgow turned the word ‘compassion’ on its head. The bombing of Pan Am 103 was unforgivable,” Senator John Kerry said in a written statement.
“This man was convicted of murdering 270 people. He showed no compassion to them. They weren’t allowed to go home and die with their relatives in their own bed and I think this is a very bad decision,” said British Parliament leader David Cameron.
FBI Director Robert Mueller even weighed in through a letter he sent to Mr. MacAskill over the weekend.
“Your action makes a mockery of the grief of the families who lost their own on December 21, 1988,” he said. “Where, I ask, is the justice?”
Political anger paled in comparison to the fury expressed by many family members of loved ones on the doomed flight, who claimed this action brought back the immense pain they experienced two decades ago.
“It is like an undertow, a riptide of despair,” Maryland resident Rosemary Mild said. Her daughter, Miriam, died in the bombing. “I am a writer, and there are not enough adjectives to express my revulsion. This is a whole new kind of grief.”
Why can’t we forgive?
I don’t pretend to know what it is like to have lost a loved one in a heinous crime like the one that happened all those years ago in the skies over Scotland. But I also question what if anything would ever make the hurting stop. The pain of death stays with you forever. Its finality ensures there will never be a return to the way things once were. Keeping a dying man locked up would relieve as much pain, I would imagine, as keeping a chokehold on an unconscious assailant after you, the victim, were shot. The blood will still be running no matter what you do with your enemy.
This is to say nothing of Jesus’ command to “love thy enemy.” For this reason, I ask one question. Why can’t we forgive? Perhaps it is forgiveness that is the bandage we are looking for to stop the bleeding. And, if — and this is a big if — the decision to release Al-Megrahi was made solely on compassionate grounds, free of all potential trade deals, diplomatic wrangling, and politics in general, why can’t MacAskill’s actions be seen as a radical act of forgiveness? Are justice and forgiveness mutually exclusive?
Sure, it didn’t help his cause when news flashed around the world showing thousands of Libyans gathered on a tarmac to welcome the convicted bomber to his home country in what would be described broadly as a “hero’s welcome.” But that has more to do with an extremely distasteful lack of respect shown by the Libyan government toward family members of the victims… something MacAskill himself criticised. Compassion should not be withheld on account of the expected actions of others.
God calls us all to forgive. He calls us to love our enemies. He calls us to a radical conversion every day to grow closer to Him. The question is, how do we put that into practice? How should I personally feel when confronted by stories of potentially unwarranted compassion? Is there even such a thing as unwarranted compassion?
Following God when it isn’t easy
Most prisoners are locked up out of compassion for the rest of society, fearing those convicts may hurt others if released. While possible, I find it hard to believe a man dying of cancer like Al-Megrahi would still try to hurt others, especially if he had received the compassion he failed to show toward the passengers of Flight 103.
So, does this mean we should simply release all prisoners once they are no longer deemed a threat? Not necessarily. But it should also not be ruled out. Isn’t the whole idea of parole, in effect, compassion in action?
And for all the insults one can hurl at MacAskill, you have to at least hand it to him; the man is brave. He made an immensely unpopular decision, doing what he believed to be right, and faced a tsunami of criticism head-on. As if the international hatred wasn’t enough, on Monday he had to explain his decision to a room full of skeptical members of his own country’s parliament.
I believe God calls us to follow Him not when it’s easy and convenient but, rather, when it’s hard and unpopular. And perhaps it’s in these times when the true test comes as to whether or not we can confidently say the Lord’s Prayer, knowing we live out every word.