Culture, guilt, and Lockerbie

Posted on August 19, 2009


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.

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