There is “no real prospect for rehabilitation”. That was the verdict of Mr Justice Sweeney as he sentenced convicted killer Michael Adebolajo to a lifetime in prison late last month.
Adebolajo, a 29-year-old British Islamist extremist, will die behind bars for his part in the horrific murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in south-east London last May. His 22-year-old accomplice, Michael Adebowale, was sentenced to a minimum term of 45 years in jail.
Of Nigerian descent, both young men were born into Christian families but converted to Islam. Neither one has shown any remorse for the brutal act of violence that saw them running down the 25-year-old British soldier with their car, before hacking him to death with a meat cleaver and knives outside Woolwich Barracks.
At the Old Bailey trial, Adebolajo’s barrister argued against a ‘whole life’ sentence, which excludes the possibility of parole and is reserved for exceptional cases of extreme severity. The barrister claimed that although his client had committed “a wicked act”, he was “not so depraved… that he is incapable of redemption in future”.
Some begged to differ. Justice Sweeney, for one. As did supporters of the BNP and EDL, who erected mock gallows outside the London court and wielded black placards featuring a noose and just three words: “Restore capital punishment.”
I cannot begin to imagine the debilitating pain, heartache and unspeakable suffering Lee Rigby’s loved ones have endured, and will continue to endure. What happened was barbaric and wicked and horrendous.
Legal justice demands that we pay for the consequences of our wrongdoing; the punishment must be proportionate to the severity of the crime.
And yet, I find myself disagreeing with the High Court judge’s proclamation that there was “no real prospect for rehabilitation”. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. In an online discussion board I stumbled across, one writer wondered: “Why are these two men beyond redemption?” It’s a question we need to answer honestly.
Do we really believe some people are so far gone that they can never be rehabilitated? If our answer is a resounding (or even a reluctant) yes, then we’re effectively saying they can never change. That they are out of the reach of grace. That they may as well hang for their crimes.
In response to the question in the online discussion board, somebody replied by asking: “Why are they entitled to redemption?” Indeed, why should someone who commits such an atrocious act – and who refuses to repent – be shown love, compassion, forgiveness?
Reflecting on this, I’m reminded of my childhood days in Sunday School. One popular memory verse we were encouraged to learn was Romans 3:23, much beloved in many Christian circles: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
And yet, we so easily forget that this statement is incomplete. Verse 23 ends with a comma, not a full stop. The sentence continues in verse 24: “…and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” You can’t have 23 without 24: they’re two halves of the whole picture.
The truth is, none of us is “entitled” to redemption, but we all get a free shot at it. Whether we’ve fallen a foot or a furlong, it’s ours for the taking. It’s there for gossips; terrorists; bullies; murderers; hypocrites; racists; people who lie, people who are greedy, envious and selfish; people who cheat on their partners; people who exploit others; people who hoard wealth while others go hungry. Put simply, people like me and people like you.
Redemption begins with remorse and repentance, so clearly Lee Rigby’s killers have a very, very long journey ahead. And who knows if they’ll ever make it. But if we believe Jesus really did come to “seek and save the lost”, then we have to hope – and pray – that one day they will recognise the sheer inhumanity of their actions, throw themselves on God’s mercy and receive his forgiveness.
We do not know if this will ever happen. And deep down, we might be convinced that it’s unfair and unjust that it’s even an option. But the truth remains: nobody is a lost cause. There is hope for all of us, no matter how far gone we may be, how improbable it may seem.
God’s divine mercy always leaves room for remorse, repentance, redemption. As far as he is concerned, there is always a “real prospect for rehabilitation”. It’s mind-boggling. It’s illogical. It’s grace.
(image via Wikimedia Commons)