Forgiving the Man who Bombed Pan Am 103

Written as an enewsletter on August 20th, 2009

This week, Scotland freed Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of bombing Pan Am flight 103. It was a horrible atrocity.

They freed him on the basis of a tradition called “compassionate release.” When a prisoner is near death, the British and the Scottish systems may release prisoners to their families. It isn’t unusual.

Plenty of people are upset. The enraged think this is about oil. They find compassion hard to fathom given the immensity of the crime. Others, however, think Al-Megrahi was a convenient scapegoat for a crime actually committed by the Iranians. But these are trivialities now. We are faced with the problem of mercy.

Mercy isn’t forgiveness. Al-Megrahi did not take responsibility for the crime. It isn’t reconciliation: nobody is having beers with him. He will not get his life back. He wasn’t declared innocent. He was simply shown mercy. He was given some dignity to be with his family.

It’s a hard pill to swallow.

The purpose of mercy is not to make us feel good. It may enrage us more. But it may be a way for us to step back and stop the cycle of violence. Mercy creates an implicit covanent. It offers a gift that need not be returned. It changes the dynamic from an eye for an eye, to one of peace.

Mercy is a difficult gift, especially when other alternatives are just as well.

Those of us who believe that “mercy” was justified must not judge those who shake their fists and demand vengeance. These are not merely expressions of fear or hatred, but a desire for righteousness.

Still, we remember the story: a man executed, but shown no mercy; all those around him are enraged; it temporarily brings peace. But when he is seen again, he does not return out of rage, but out of forgiveness. There is no need to hold on to vengeance or resentment. Peace has been won. Christ has ended the violence by showing mercy upon those who executed him wrongly.

When we say “mercy” it is because we’ve understood the cross. that sometimes we murder the innocent; we know the dangers of becoming consumed by our own rage. By saying “mercy” we say that the the violence ends here. God will have his justice, but until then, no more. It stops with us. May it now. Stop.

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