Culture, guilt, and Lockerbie

Local news today is full of the debate over whether Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, should be freed on compassionate grounds. He is dying of cancer, and my understanding is that it would be normal practice in Britain to allow any prisoner who is terminally ill to die at home (indeed, another very high-profile convict, Ronnie Biggs, was freed on such grounds just last week).

His crime, of course, affected families and the wider community in the USA as much as in Britain. The news reports I have heard suggest that the notion that he might be freed is being greeted with simple incredulity in the USA. The breadth of condemnation from across the Atlantic is striking: it is not confined to (families of) victims, or to social conservatives, but seems to be almost universal (Democratic senators have intervened publicly, and Hilary Clinton has been reported to have been involved).

Is Britain – specifically in this case Scotland – just more liberal than the USA? Actually, probably it is, but I don’t think that this is the reason for the divide in this case. Rather, our understandings of what words like ‘guilt’ and ‘justice’ mean are culturally-determined, and somewhat different. To us, dying in prison seems a cruel and unusual punishment, and so essentially unjust; it seems that the default assumption in the USA is that sentences should be served, and so that any relaxation is unjust.

My own instincts are, unsurprisingly, fairly straightforwardly British. Is this right or wrong? I don’t know; being exposed to different cultural understandings at least allows me to ask the question, though, rather than simply assuming that what I have grown up with must be right.

What is the theological point here? Simply this: words like ‘guilt’ and ‘justice’ are rather central to at least some accounts of the atonement (‘justice’ has wider theological application, of course, not least in theology proper and in discussions of providence). It is rather easy to use these words assuming that we all agree what they mean. We don’t, and if we are to understand each other’s attempts to speak adequately of the salvation of Christ, we need to realise that, and to be sensitive to it.


  1. Catriona
    Aug 19, 2009

    Excellent post. I don’t have any answers but, like you, I am decidedly ‘British’ on this one!

    A prison chaplain friend told me that they work really hard to enable prisoners to die outside of prison, but that they do have to comply with certain requirements for this to happen (such as,in this case, dropping appeals) so it isn’t without its complications (she spoke of someone not famous who would probably die in prison because he refused to admit guilt). One important factor is the impact on other prisoners of someone dying in jail: there is a real horror of someone dying alone in a cell or in a hospital wing that unsettles inmates irrespective of their tariff – so pastorally it is a wider issue.

    We often seem to sing songs/hymns or pray prayers about mercy over judgement in relation to our own immortal souls… so surely we should ‘do likewise’ in cases like this?

    Not a very thought out or theological response, but all I can offer.

  2. Jason Goroncy
    Aug 19, 2009

    Steve, a point well made.

  3. Steve H
    Aug 19, 2009

    Hi Catriona, thanks for the comment. I think there is wisdom, often, in disentangling theological/ethical questions from pastoral ones: we should be clear both what, in the best of all possible worlds, should be the right answer; and also what, in the particular circumstances we face, we can best do.

    I’m not sure about ‘mercy triumphing over judgement’; it is a fine poetic image, but in strict theological understanding, it seems to me that all God’s decisions are at once far more just than we can ever imagine, and far more merciful than we can ever imagine.

    Looking forward to welcoming you to Scotland, by the way!

  4. Steve H
    Aug 19, 2009

    Hi Jason, thanks for the comment. Steve.

  5. henryyoung
    Aug 20, 2009

    What, all we all of a sudden giving out FREE Lunches? Since when??? Under what premise? Did this guy learn his lesson? Who knows, right? Well I guess we’ll have to find out the hard way, maybe???

  6. RuthGouldbourne
    Aug 22, 2009

    the thing I have found most disturbing is the response – “why should we be compassionate to him; what compassion did he show?”
    I think that we think that compassion is not about deserving, but about not deserving. Mercy is that which is not deserved… only I’m not sure how to think about it further, except that in showing mercy we are refusing to descend to – or allowing ourselves to be raised above – the “level” of those who kill without mercy.
    Does this make sense?

  7. Steve H
    Aug 22, 2009

    I thought just the same, Ruth. Do you know Portia’s great speech on mercy in The Merchant of Venice? It starts on precisely that point. In fact, the whole speech is worth some thought:
    Portia: Then must the Jew be merciful
    Shylock: On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.
    Portia: The quality of mercy is not strain’d [i.e., ‘constrained’],
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
    ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
    The throned monarch better than his crown;
    His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
    But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
    It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
    It is an attribute to God himself;
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
    When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
    Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
    That, in the course of justice, none of us
    Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
    The deeds of mercy…

    • RuthGouldbourne
      Aug 22, 2009

      this is the text that has continually been flashing through my mind as I have listened to all the media reports – together with the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

  8. Steve H
    Aug 22, 2009

    Angela Shier-Jones has an excellent theological meditation on this subject on her blog:

    • RuthGouldbourne
      Aug 22, 2009

      interesting other view – thank you.

  9. Katye
    Aug 23, 2009

    Dr. Holmes,

    I appreciate this post. Certainly here in the U.S. there is a general air of disapproval, even disgust, at the release of the Lockerbie bomber—and as you pointed out, this is true not just with social conservatives and Fox News (which is to be expected) but is an overall response elicited from many quarters of society. I’m not sure where I am “supposed” to stand on the issue, but can’t help taking into consideration that the man is dying of cancer—I do not think he is to be causing any more bombings. I feel a need to inquire of those who are opposed to the Scottish compassionate release what exactly it is that they hope to accomplish by leaving him in prison to die. The only reason I can think of would be deterrence—he would be an example to all other would-be bombers. However, those opposed to his release do not view this in a cold, calculative manner of enacting a deterrent measure, but in most cases, view this as a moral outrage with themselves becoming emotionally involved when discussing the matter. They see it as an issue of justice, almost as if an evil act has set the universe out of balance and must be rectified by the appropriate punishment. They view this punishment as having been abrogated and hence justice being denied.

    I think you suggest a very interesting point here regarding the importance of knowing what we mean when we use words such as ‘justice’ and ‘guilt.’ It seems to be a common fact of human nature that when we are wronged or hurt, we desire retribution upon the one(s) who were responsible for our misfortune. If such retribution does not occur, we feel as though justice has not been served—and this feeling of injustice is not just an indifferent calculation but comes across as a moral outrage. The theme of avenging the death of a loved one can be found in cultures the world over—people will even go to the point of endangering themselves in order to see the killer of their loved one put to death and hence ‘justice’ served.

    Evolutionary psychology has some very interesting things to say about the evolution of this sense of retributive justice that seems to rely so heavily upon deep-seated moral emotions of revenge, disgust, contempt, fairness, anger, etc. Of particular importance here is reciprocal altruism. In such a non-contractual obligation between individuals, reciprocators help those who have helped them and shun or punish those who have failed to offer help. Such relationships can be readily examined in many primates and higher mammals today. It is suggested that this would have led to the evolution of cooperation among individuals and hence punishment of free-loaders, which all would involve the evolution of the moral emotions. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has grouped the moral emotions into four major families: 1) contempt, anger, and disgust are used to punish cheaters 2) moral awe and elevation are used to reward altruists 3) sympathy and compassion are used to help a needy beneficiary 4)guilt and shame are used to prompt oneself from avoiding cheating. (this comes from Steven Pinker’s ‘The Blank Slate’ 271) It is thus suggested that humans have a wired-in notion of revenge.

    I have found that this explanation of our moral emotions and retributive justice makes a lot of sense. But I also think it raises a lot of questions, especially for theology, and as you mention, understandings of the atonement. How much of our notion of ‘justice’ is based upon a deep-seated evolved moral emotion of revenge? Does our justice system depend upon vengeance and do we suppress our instinctual emotions through civilization and religion? Perhaps most importantly, when we speak of the ‘justice’ of God (particularly in some models of substitutionary atonement) are we just projecting upon God the end-result of our own evolved emotions? Does God really act in a mode of retributive justice? Does this feed off of revenge, vengeance? Why? On a larger scale, in claiming that all of our emotions, including love, are products of natural selective pressures, are we doomed to merely projecting our human selves upon something we call ‘God’ when we talk of God feeling and acting? Or could it be that we humans have evolved into a ‘morality’ and now possess a sense of ‘emotion’ that is comparable to what can be called the ‘Imago Dei’? Perhaps only until we reached this point could God interact with us and with the universe through us.

    Bottom line, I think that evolutionary psychology poses some very challenging questions to theology and ethics that must be taken into consideration.


  10. Steve H
    Aug 28, 2009


    Thanks for the comment/essay! Two comments, perhaps, on the use of evolutionary psychology:
    First, it is of course a relatively new discipline, and one that blurs some traditional dividing lines in ways that seem to me significant for reading its practitioners. Most were trained in scientific method, where (crudely…) one invents a plausible hypothesis, then constructs experimental tests of its truth or falsity. Evolutionary psychologists can’t do this. Their hypotheses, then, are more akin to those of an archeologist or a historian. Now, there are well-established ways of testing archeological and historical hypotheses, of course, but most evolutionary psychologists are not schooled in them. As a result, in my (rather limited, I admit) reading, too much of the field consists of illegitimate moves from ‘this is a plausible reconstruction of what happened’ to ‘this is what happened’.
    This becomes important when we consider the acute awareness of historians in particular of the way in which ideology drives perceived plausibility. I tend to end up reading evolutionary psychologists in the fields of ethics and religion (for obvious reasons…), and my observation is that, very often, a series of silent ideological decisions about what plausibility structures will be admitted almost entirely determine the conclusions reached.
    2. All this, of course, is not a dismissal of the field, but a caution about (some of) its current practice. It may be that better practice will lead to more robust conclusions. Let us assume for a moment that it does, and that the conclusions look very like the ones you have sketched. Does this challenge theology and/or theological ethics?
    I think not. Classical Christian theology works with a clear distinction of divine and created causalities. (Aquinas is brilliantly lucid on this, although I have some reservations about how it is integrated into his wider system of thought.) Any event is at once caused (in some sense) by God’s sovereign providence, and caused by perfectly explicable creaturely actions and reactions. (Aquinas would make miracles an exception, which are not different in terms of their providential cause, but have no created cause.) So, say, Moses survives Pharaoh’s attempt to slaughter every male Israelite baby because God intended Moses to lead the Exodus; equally, Moses survives because his mother is clever, and because Pharaoh’s daughter is feeling maternal.
    If this account is right (which it may not be, of course, but it is standard in Christian theology) then the fact that we can explain the way in which an intuition of the existence of the divine, or of the whole notion of morality, arose using the tools of evolutionary psychology does not in any way alter the confessional claims that God revealed Himself to us and that God calls us to live in some ways and not in others. They are each potentially-valid causal claims, working on different levels.

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