Friday, August 21, 2009

Is Compassion Misplaced?

The release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has scandalized and horrified many. al-Metrahi's hero's welcome in Tripoli has enraged the people who still grieve the loss of the 270 people who died as a result of the bombing that took place twenty-one years ago. The rage that has been expressed through the media has been constant since al-Megrahi's release.

I cannot fathom the pain that must be felt by those who lost loved ones in that bombing. The sense of injustice must be overwhelming for them. I understand the power of their emotions.

Secretary MacAskill defended his decision by saying,

"In Scotland, justice is tempered with compassion. That is why he has been allowed to go home to die.

"I'm showing his family some compassion. I accept it is a compassion not shown to families in the United States or Scotland.

"But we have values and we will not debase them and we will seek to live up to those values of humanity that we pride ourselves on."

As I read his statement about the particular Scottish value of compassion, my mind went to a story told by the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann of his time of captivity in Scotland and England at the end of World War Two. Moltmann had been involved in the aerial bombings of strategic locations in Holland and was captured toward the end of the war. When the war ended, he and others were kept in the camps for the purpose of re-education so that they might return home to Germany and create a new culture there.
When Moltmann and his comrades learned of the Nazi atrocities in the death camps (as regular military, they had not been aware of the genocides), their shame was overwhelming. Many refused to return to Germany. Moltmann, however, found forgiveness in a way that he could never have anticipated. In the preface to his book, The Source of Life, he reports this experience:

“In Kilmarnock the miners and their families took us in with a hospitality which shamed us profoundly. We heard no reproaches, we were accused of no guilt. We were accepted as people, even though we were just numbers and wore our prisoners’ patches on our backs. We experienced forgiveness of guilt without any confession of guilt on our part, and that made it possible for us to live with the past of our people, and in the shadow of Auschwitz, without repressing anything, and without becoming callous.”

I have to wonder: Is there actually something embedded in the hearts of the Scottish people that allows such forgiveness in the face of obvious and confirmed guilt? Moltmann goes on to give an account of his confrontation, after his conversion to Christianity, with some Dutch theology students who relayed the effects of the bombings in which Moltmann had participated. Yet, through tears, these students reached out in forgiveness and embraced their German brothers, claiming that it was only through Jesus Christ that such forgiveness could take place.

I don't know which is more troubling to me: The sense of injustice seen in releasing one convicted of the deaths of so many people, or the disturbing ring of the Gospel in the actions of Secretary MacAskill. Jesus pointed out the counter-intuitive nature of life in the kingdom of God:

"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 children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

I know nothing of Secretary MacAskill's religious leanings. But I have to wonder if it is possible that the permeation of the Gospel in a culture can actually produce a counter-intuitive response to hatred and violence that becomes scandalous and incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Certainly Jurgen Moltmann, even before his conversion, experienced forgiveness in that context and now, it appears, so has al-Megrahi.

I continue to grieve along with those who lost loved ones in the bombing of PanAm flight 103. At the same time, my hope is that the Gospel of Jesus will continue to permeate our lives and culture. The counter-intuitive nature of the kingdom of God will continue to disturb us, but perhaps that is how we Christians might be the light of the world.


Sonja said...

I heard an interview with a man who had lost his daughter in the bombing. He said that he didn't see any reason why the man should be held in jail instead of being released to be able to say goodbye to his loved ones. And this from a man who did not get to say goodbye to his daughter...

Mike McNichols said...

Wow. That's a serious kind of mercy.