My late mother was, according to the testimony of many whose perspective is much more unbiased than mine, one of the finest Christians you could have ever wanted to know, but she nonetheless provided me with a very good example of how messy mercy can be.
One Sunday night, during one of the inter-tribal conflicts that unfortunately characterized the life of the church of my childhood, my father, as a good deacon should, stepped in between our pastor and a woman who was berating him which gave the lady the opportunity to turn her berating skills upon my father who, although he possessed a temper himself, just stood there smiling and taking it. I, along with others, was an eye witness to the whole episode.
The following Wednesday night, on which was scheduled—rather ironically I thought—our church’s monthly fellowship supper, I and the rest of the folks who were there, including my good mother, watched in fascination as my father and the berating lady came walking across the church yard, their arms around each other, smiling and laughing and obviously reveling in their newly negotiated rapprochement.
The next day, as I joined my mother in her daily visit with her mother and my grandmother on Granny’s front porch, my good Christian mother—and I’m not being ironic in describing her that way—offered her assessment of my father’s act of mercy: “I could have killed him.”
To her way of thinking, Daddy’s extension of mercy to and embrace in mercy of the one who had offended and hurt him as his response to the mess that the offense and hurt had created was a scandal that created more mess.
Mercy is messy.
I thought about that story as I contemplated the decision of Scottish authorities to release on humanitarian grounds Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 on 270 counts of murder in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988 and who is reportedly suffering from terminal prostate cancer. Understandably, Megrahi’s release has raised a storm of protest, particularly in the United States which was home to 189 of the victims of the terrorist attack; the anger over his release has been exacerbated by images of the hero’s welcome that Megrahi received upon his arrival in Libya.
In a BBC story on the release, Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is quoted as saying, "Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.” “But, MacAskill continued, “that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days."
MacAskill went on to say, "Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed, but compassion be available. For these reasons and these reasons alone, it is my decision that…Megrahi…be released on compassionate grounds and be allowed to return to Libya to die."
It is my understanding that some people believe that Megrahi was wrongly convicted (he maintains his innocence) and that some believe that others were involved and that he should not have been the sole one punished. I have also heard some speculation about the politics behind the release, which goes something like this: Libyan leader Mohammar Qaddafi has in recent years been much better behaved and has in effect begun to play ball with the community of nations by ceasing sponsorship of terrorism and by ending his quest for nuclear capability and it is thus in the best interests of diplomacy to help him when possible and this release is a public relations coup for him in Libya.
But the Scottish Justice Secretary’s public pronouncements have focused on compassion as the motive for Megrahi’s release and I will take him at his word that the release was an expression of mercy.
If so, it underscores the truth that mercy is messy.
I want to be very clear about something here: I am my mother’s son and, if I had a relative who was killed on Pan Am Flight 103 my feelings toward the Scottish government would likely mimic those that my mother expressed toward my father when he exhibited mercy. I confess my own sense of outrage that, if Megrahi was in fact guilty of playing any role in the killing of so many of my countrymen and of so many citizens of other nations, he has now been shown mercy where he showed none; I admit my anger that justice has not been done.
I wonder, though, what such attitudes say about my Christian character and about my Christian commitments; I wonder what they say about the quality of my following of Jesus Christ and about the effect or lack of effect that the presence of the grace, love, and Spirit of God in my life have had. While how I feel about the release of Mr. Megrahi, who did me no personal wrong, may make little difference, what do my feelings about the mercy shown to him reveal about my desire and about my willingness—even about my capability—to show mercy toward someone who has directly hurt or wronged me?
Such thoughts bother me because I am supposed to be a Christian—I’m even supposed to be a Christian pastor.
I am not even attributing the Scottish government’s decision to Christian motives because I don’t know that such motives stand behind the decision; besides, I have elsewhere made the case that a nation state cannot be expected to be Christ-like in its policies, particularly related to affairs with other nations, because such an approach would be suicidal to a nation given the state of things in the world.
But I and other people who worship, serve, and follow Jesus Christ are supposed to exhibit Christ-like attitudes and actions in our lives and there is simply no way around the fact that one of the primary characteristics of God as God is revealed in Jesus is mercy; therefore, one of our primary characteristics should be mercy.
It is easier—and neater--to live our lives always insisting on justice; it is easier—and neater—to live our lives always insisting that people must get what they deserve; it is easier—and neater—to live our lives always insisting that that the letter of the law be followed and that every wrong must be righted.
It is harder—and messier—to live our lives showing mercy; it is harder—and messier—to live our lives always insisting that people must be forgiven; it is harder—and messier—to live our lives insisting that grace must be shown.
Is it possible? Is it possible for me? Is it possible for you?
I think of those Amish folk who expressed forgiveness for the man who murdered their little girls back in 2006 and I say, “Maybe.”
I think of a story I heard years ago about a family who, when their daughter was killed by a drunk driver, brought that young man into their home because, they said, there was no sense in two lives being destroyed by what had happened and I say, "Maybe."
Messy. Mercy is messy. It stirs up so much trouble, so much resistance, so much anger, so much fear, and so much misunderstanding. But perhaps it also stirs up so much more mercy—which of course only stirs up more mess.
It was Jesus who said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” It was Jesus who lived exhibiting perfect mercy. And it was Jesus who died on the cross for our sins so that, as we live our lives and when we face the judgment, it will be the mess of mercy and not the order of justice that defines our destiny.
Is there anyone out there who will join me in this prayer: “O God, let me in my life show such mercy that I make a big, big, big mess; cause me in my life to be part of the mess that your mercy makes”?