Leonard Pitts Jr

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 slowlyobliterated, 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-oldpeasant 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 sheidentified turned out to be married already and denied fathering her child. Three male witnessescorroborated 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 hedid not have intercourse. But their word was enough under sharia law, and the man was acquitted.

TECHNICALITIES

Lawal's exoneration was less sweeping. Judges relied largely on technicalities in setting herfree. Their ruling also took into account interpretations of sharia law that hold that an embryo cangestate 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 thepossibility 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 atAmina Lawal. Nor would I be surprised to hear that it also contravenes its own harsh justice bypassages requiring mercy, compassion, forgiveness.

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

SHAMED

One by one, the men slink away.

And isn't that always the way? People are always pleased to indulge their religiosity when itallows 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 insupport of a rock bearing the Ten Commandments. And watching, you wondered: What hungry person getsfed 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 forreligious life.

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

STRONG MEDICINE

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

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

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