Sunday, August 23rd, 2009


This is one of those days when you have to be glad you aren’t a government minister being asked to make lonely and hard decisions which, by definition, will elate some and enrage others. The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber, from Scottish custody ‘on compassionate grounds’ has appalled many people in Britain and the United States and divided opinion worldwide.

MegrahiThe Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is adamant that he reached his conclusions on the basis of Scotland’s due process, clear evidence, and the recommendations from the parole board and prison governor. But, in an unprecedented move, Robert Mueller, chief of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, has written to Mr MacAskill and condemned his decision in extremely strong terms: “Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice…”, making a “mockery of the rule of law” that “gave comfort to terrorists”. (Mr Mueller is a former prosecutor who played a key role in investigating the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people.)

The anger and outrage are entirely understandable. The bombers did not show compassion to those who fell out of the sky in 1988 and their families cannot welcome home their long-lost loved ones. So, what does it mean to show compassion to a convicted mass-murderer while thereby showing a total lack of compassion to those who were so violently bereaved?

LockerbieIn this context it is important to read also the statement issued by Megrahi on his release and hear the anger of those who, because of the dropping of his second appeal, will now not be able (a) to challenge his conviction or (b) identify those who did organise, authorise and perpetrate this appalling crime. I guess that had he been tried and convicted in a US court, Megrahi would by now have been executed – regardless of doubts about his guilt.

But, put the fully-justified righteous anger to one side for a moment and pick away at the assumptions underlying the argument and the language. Mueller uses the word ‘compassion’ almost as a term of contempt.

I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of “compassion.” Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law.Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury after the defendant is given all due process, and sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed by one man’s exercise of “compassion.”

Your action rewards a terrorist even though he never admitted to his role in this act of mass murder and even though neither he nor the government of Libya ever disclosed the names and roles of others who were responsible…

Although the FBI and Scottish police, and prosecutors in both countries, worked exceptionally closely to hold those responsible accountable, you never once sought our opinion, preferring to keep your own counsel and hiding behind opaque references to “the need for compassion.”

You have given the family members of those who died continued grief and frustration. You have given those who sought to assure that the persons responsible would be held accountable the back of your hand.

Strong stuff, indeed – and, I imagine, hard even for tough Scottish ministers to hear. But it also begs serious questions.

1. Why does Mueller see compassion as weak? Why does he see compassion as a concession – something that is only offered to ‘reward terrorists’?

2. Does Mueller see justice as always or inevitably devoid of compassion – being merely the imposition of a legal/penal response to a legal decision?

3. How does Mueller know that this ruling ‘gives comfort to terrorists’? And are we to continue to allow the USA to determine who is and who is not a terrorist? If we are to extrapolate from this particular event to others in recent history, then there will be a fair number of US politicians and military personnel who might also require dispassionate ‘justice’. Or do those who were shown no ‘compassion’ in Central America in the 1980s not deserve justice because US-backed aggression is somehow justifiable? That is, ‘terrorists’ are always and inevitably those who attack the US, but never the Americans who attack others?

Jim Swire4. There are bereaved family members who back the Scottish decision and who have not been caused ‘continued grief and frustration’. Jim Swire is one among a number who believe that Megrahi is a scapegoat and that the loss of this latest appeal prevents the real culprits from being identified and brought to justice.

Isn’t it conceivable that a mark of civilisation and moral maturity is the ability or willingness to transcend even justice (narrowly defined) and show those virtues we claim to espouse? Or, when the ‘nice stuff’ is stripped away, do we really believe that a tooth should always be extracted for a tooth and an eye blinded in recompense for an eye – which, as someone once pointed out, always leaves us all blind and toothless?

These are not easy questions and I don’t assume easy or obvious answers. Life is more complicated than that. But there are as many questions to be asked of the American response to Megrahi’s release as there are about the grounds for his release itself. And we might want to ask if there would now be peace in Northern Ireland if some people had not had the courage to go beyond the cry for mere justice towards an outrageously generous compassion for all who suffer and not just ‘our own’. The South African transition from apartheid might raise similar comparisons.

Passion PlayIn the end, I do want to recover ‘compassion’ as something strong and costly, deserving of respect and honour – not to be spat out as a term of derision, implying weakness or cowardice.

Was Jesus being pathetic when from the gallows – he cried for forgiveness for those who had put him there?

In my last post (as it were) I offered a brief suggestion of what question it is that the Bible is answering. I did so in relation to an incarnational representation of political argument by giving that argument a character and placing it/him/her in a story. This is what, in a form of shorthand, I wrote:

Hence the simple (simplistic?) formula I have stated elsewhere for handling the Bible whose fundamental question is ‘What is God like?’: “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like, read the Gospels … and then look at us (the Christian Church).”

Andrew Marr - My TradeI was provoked into thinking about this by a number of factors, one of which was an observation by Andrew Marr about newspaper columnists in his excellent book, My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism. Writing about the art of writing a good column, he says:

Every column is … an argument, a case, a piece of logic. In general, it needs to be about something that can be expressed in a single headline-sized phrase or sentence. If the columnist cannot say [it] concisely, … then it is likely that the column will be confused, and therefore dull. If it isn’t a statement, it’s a waste of time. (p.371)

What Marr says of good writing is also true of any good communication. The purpose of good communication is not to reveal how clever or well-informed the writer/speaker is, but to enable the reader/hearer to grasp simply and clearly the essential thrust of the argument. It isn’t about making complex matters simplistic, but making complex matters simply comprehensible. Which brings us back to the Bible and communicating what it and Christian faith are about in ways that can be understood without needing a dictionary, a degree or a thick book.

Rothley Parish ChurchIt seems to me that whenever we pick up any sort of book, we do so with an unspoken question at the back of our mind: whodunnit? who is this character? why did these events happen the way they did? When we come to the Bible, the basic question we should be asking of the text(s) is: who is this God and what is he like? At least, that is, I think, the fundamental question being addressed by the text. The answer given is: God looks like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Look at Jesus of Nazareth and you see who and how God is in the world.

But – and here is the sticky bit – that same Jesus called his followers and friends to be like him, to look and sound and feel like him. The New Testament writers – particularly Paul – grasped this and called the body of Christians the ‘Body of Christ’. The logic is that the Christian body should reflect the Jesus we read about in the Gospels (that is, incarnate him) in the ways we live, the ways we speak, the ways we listen and hear, the priorities we set, the habits we cultivate and so on. Hence the ‘formula’ I offered in my last post.

I cannot see any other way of understanding what the church exists for.

Hymn singingYet, in saying this, I will probably be criticised for being selective. Yes, there may well be other ways of describing the role and purpose of the church in the world; but no single pithy phrasing will be all-encompassing. The fallibility of any ‘headline’ or metaphor should not, however, prevent us from trying to communicate who and why we are in ways that can be grasped simply and quickly by most people. After all, that is why Jesus spoke in parables and with images and stories. And it is why Paul used the picture of a human body.

The pithiest ‘headline’ I have come up with is: ‘the task of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.’ And that is the beginning of the matter, not the end. I fear that too often in the church we go to the complicated end and forget that most people haven’t yet got as far as the beginning.

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