This assembly explores our views about the relationship, or possible conflicts between, justice and compassion. It responds to the issues raised by the release of the Lockerbie bomber by the Scottish Government

Notes to Leader: Ideally this assembly should have some follow-up activity where the specifics of the release of the Lockerbie bomber can be discussed as well as the more general topics of justice and compassion. Clearly, sensitivity would need to be displayed in discussing this issue – in terms of both avoiding raising any unnecessary tensions within a school, and also being sensitive to the school community where they could well be pupils present who have some kind of link with the events of the Lockerbie bombing or similar events.

Resources

Engagement

Three readers stand at the front of the assembly. Reader 1 in middle and Readers 2 and 3 at either side, some way away from central figure. Reader 2 could be dressed in black (represents justice) and Reader 3 in white (represents compassion).

Reader 1: [Reads from a large book] The accused was found guilty of stealing a pencil from the English classroom. The teacher saw him running off with it

Reader 2: [All Reader 2’s lines should be spoken in a strident manner] He should be excluded from school immediately! Things will only get worse, and if we let him away with that, who knows what he’ll try next. It may only be a pencil now but tomorrow it’ll be money, then property, then housebreaking, then major robbery. Nip it in the bud now!

Reader 3: [All reader three’s lines should be spoken calmly and evenly] He should be spoken to. Perhaps there is a good reason why he took the pencil. Perhaps he thought it was his, perhaps he needs it as a gift for a friend in need. Let’s try to understand why he did it and then act after that. There’s no point in excluding him – it will only make matters worse in the end.

Reader 1: Next! The accused was found guilty of hitting someone in the street for no apparent reason. The victim is in hospital in pretty bad condition.

Reader 2: Lock him up! People like that don’t deserve to be walking about. We’re not even safe on our streets any more. Who will he be hitting next? Where will it all end? There’s nothing you can do for people like that – it’s in their blood. You’ll never cure them – so throw them in jail and throw away the key – the world will be a better place without him.

Reader 3: Listen to his story first. By all means protect the public – and perhaps prison is the right thing to do – but hear him out before you leap to judgements. Wait until you know the full story – perhaps there are reasons for his actions that you know nothing about. Perhaps if we’d had the kind of life he has had, we might do the same. And anyway, if you lock him up you’ll just make him even more angry and resentful. And perhaps he’ll learn some even nastier behaviour in prison. No, he doesn’t need punishment, he needs treatment – anger management treatment.

Reader 1: The accused was found guilty of lying about his qualifications to get a job. He got the job and his lie was only discovered after a year.

Reader 2: Fine him, fine him a huge amount of money! He stole that job. He didn’t deserve it – he didn’t earn it. Someone who did deserve to have it was cheated out of it. Someone’s life could have been ruined by his reckless act. No good can ever come of pretending to be something you’re not.

Reader 3: Understand him. Perhaps we all sometimes bend the truth to make ourselves seem more important than we are. Perhaps we all exaggerate a little from time to time. What harm does it do? He’s done something silly and he probably knows it. Now that he’s been caught he’s probably suffered enough for it. Let him learn from his mistakes and move on.

Reader 1: The accused was found guilty of placing a bomb on an aeroplane which exploded resulting in the deaths of two hundred and seventy innocent men, women and children. He was imprisoned for life, but has now found to be close to death himself through an incurable disease

Reader 2: So what! Let him rot in jail. He is a ruthless murderer who showed no mercy to anyone. He should die in prison. Each day he should remember the names and faces of those whose lives he ended. Such a person is simply walking evil.

Reader 3: His dying in jail would benefit no-one – certainly not those whose lives he is responsible for ending. He should be released and allowed to go home for the last few weeks of his life. If not, then we show no more compassion than he did, and we send the message that revenge is greater than forgiveness.

Reflection

Leader: Last month, the man who became known as the Lockerbie bomber was released from a Scottish Prison and allowed to return home to Libya. In 1988, a Pan-Am aeroplane came down in the town of Lockerbie. All two hundred and forty three passengers, as well as sixteen crew members and eleven people on the ground in Lockerbie, were killed instantly. A Libyan man, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, was found guilty of the bombing and given a life sentence. Eight years later, in 2009 – just a few weeks ago − he was released by the Scottish Government because he has a terminal illness and has only a few months to live.

Reactions around the world have been very strong and very varied. He arrived to a hero’s welcome in Libya. The US government expressed dismay. Relatives of the victims have expressed even stronger sentiments. But some have praised the decision saying that it was the right thing to do.

The views expressed fall into two categories. Those who feel that this is not justice – because justice demands that al-Megrahi serve out his life sentence, remaining in prison until he dies – and those who think that his release is an act of compassion shown to a dying man.

Reader 4: I am a Christian. I think that al-Megrahi should have remained in prison. The Bible teaches ‘an eye for an eye’; this means justice. This often used to mean execution in cases of murder, and still does in some places, but I think now we take it to mean that a crime like the Lockerbie bombing should be punished with a life sentence in prison. This man took two hundred and seventy lives and so his life should be over – even if that only means that his life of freedom should be over.

Reader 5: I am a Christian. I think that al-Megrahi should have been released. Jesus taught us to forgive the sinner. This means compassion. We are all guilty of wrong-doing in some way and we should all expect forgiveness. Compassion should be shown to this man by releasing him.

Reader 6: I am a Buddhist. I think that al-Megrahi should have remained in prison. I believe in karmic consequences – that you have to pay for your wrongdoings. What he has done will have its own punishments – and prison could be one of those.

Reader 7: I am a Buddhist. I think that al-Megrahi should have been released. I believe in karuna – compassion of all living things. The karmic consequences of what he has done will follow him to his rebirth, but in life we should exercise compassion – it is the best way.

Leader: Justice can mean matching the punishment to the crime. Compassion means hating the sin but loving the sinner. What has happened to al-Megrahi is either an extreme act of compassion towards this man or a supreme lack of justice for those whose lives were ended by him.

Sometimes justice and compassion go hand in hand – a person can be punished while still respecting their human rights as a person. They can still be treated with care, consideration and dignity even though they are being appropriately punished for what they have done. Perhaps al-Megrahi should have remained in prison until he died – an appropriate punishment for the crime that he committed.

However, sometimes justice and compassion are in conflict. Treating someone with care and consideration might go against punishing them in the appropriate way. Perhaps it would have been wrong to allow al-Megrahi to die in prison. Perhaps it would have been an injustice to do so.

In our lives we may all be asked to choose between justice and compassion. This may be over something which at the time seems a little trivial – like some bad behaviour in school or a small act of disobedience – or it might be a much bigger issue, such as the breaking of the law or violent crime of one kind or another.

Do we need to choose sides between justice and compassion? Which side would you be on? Can you be on both? Are justice and compassion opposites or just two sides of the same coin? What do you think?

Response

Leader: In response to wrongdoing let me act with justiceLet those who do wrong know that there will be punishment for their actionsLet them know that their punishments will match their crimes

Let me have the courage to hand out justice when it is needed, as it is needed, in the form that it is needed

In response to wrongdoing let me act with compassionLet those who do wrong know that they will still be treated with the respect they deserve as human beingsLet them know that their punishments will go hand in hand with compassion

Let me have the courage to be compassionate when it is needed, as it is needed, in the form that it is needed

[Amen]

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2009

About the author: Joe Walker is Head of RE & Psychology at Liberton High School in Edinburgh. As well as being a well-known author he was winner of Secondary Teacher of the Year at the Scottish Education awards 2005.

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