Leonard Pitts Jr

September 29, 2003

Sept. 29, 2003: Faithful often give religion a bad name

This is how you stone a woman to death. You bury her up to her neck. Then you heave stones at her head. One imagines her face slowly obliterated, her skull repeatedly broken. One imagines the process takes a long time.

One finds it hard to imagine a crueler way to die.

Last Thursday, a court in Nigeria spared Amina Lawal that grisly fate. She is a 31-year-old peasant who had been convicted of adultery under sharia law, a religious code based on the Koran. The chief evidence of her "crime": her 2-year-old daughter, Wasila.

Lawal has long claimed innocence, saying Wasila's father promised to marry her. But the man she identified turned out to be married already and denied fathering her child. Three male witnesses corroborated his claim that he never had sex with Lawal.

An outsider is at a loss to understand how a man's friends can authoritatively testify that he did not have intercourse. But their word was enough under sharia law, and the man was acquitted.


Lawal's exoneration was less sweeping. Judges relied largely on technicalities in setting her free. Their ruling also took into account interpretations of sharia law that hold that an embryo can gestate for up to five years as opposed to the more widely accepted nine months.

Something else an outsider finds hard to figure. Still, that fanciful time frame allows for the possibility that Lawal's ex-husband fathered the child, thus contributing to her acquittal.

I am not a scholar on the Koran, but I'm sure it contains passages to justify throwing rocks at Amina Lawal. Nor would I be surprised to hear that it also contravenes its own harsh justice by passages requiring mercy, compassion, forgiveness.

In this, it would be much like the Christian Bible, which also requires death by stoning for people who commit adultery. Yet, when a group of men brings to Christ an adulterous woman with a demand that the penalty be enacted, he just kneels and doodles in the dirt. When they press him, he stands and says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Then he kneels and doodles some more.


One by one, the men slink away.

And isn't that always the way? People are always pleased to indulge their religiosity when it allows them to stand in judgment of someone else, licenses them to feel superior to someone else, tells them they are more righteous than someone else.

They are less enthusiastic when religiosity demands that they be compassionate to someone else. That they show charity, service and mercy to everyone else.

Consider that last month thousands of people wept on the steps of an Alabama courthouse in support of a rock bearing the Ten Commandments. And watching, you wondered: What hungry person gets fed because of this? What naked person is clothed, what homeless one housed?

It seemed a fresh reminder that religious people are often the poorest advertisement for religious life.

How much more convincing an advertisement, how much more compelling a testimony, if people of faith were more often caught by news cameras demonstrating against healthcare cuts that fill our streets with the homeless mentally ill. Or confronting the slumlord about the vermin-infested holes he offers as places for families to live. Or crusading to make the sweatshop owner pay a living wage to workers who are treated little better than slaves.


Problem is, this would require more than the ability to feel self-righteous and aggrieved. It would require putting oneself on the line. Small wonder many people of faith prefer to content themselves with spiritual busywork.

Sometimes, piety is just an excuse to throw rocks at somebody's head.

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