The interaction of culture and ancient religious texts continues to spark controversies in the modern world, from the debates in the Church of England over women bishops, and the crisis over provisions to be made for those who will not accept their authority on grounds of conscience, to the surprising and horrific news that the biblical punishment of stoning to death is alive and well in Iran (as elsewhere in fundamentalist Islamic communities).

The news that Sakinah Mohammadi Ashtiani, sentenced to death by stoning for adultery under Iran’s legal code, will not now face this death penalty, is welcome, of course.

As the news broke earlier this month, it seemed that Iran was scrambling for a face-saving solution to the growing international clamor for clemency.

That this means of execution is still on Iran’s statute book at all is a continuing shameful stain upon a state that struggles with the tensions of living in a fifth-century Arab culture, in which Islam arose, as well as the 21st century, and all of its capabilities for the production of nuclear weapons.

The international community is right to call for this barbaric means of execution to be abolished everywhere, for with its combination of torture and death it has no place in our world today.

Its practice prescribes that the stones should not be so large as to kill immediately, but should inflict the maximum pain before oblivion finally overcomes the victim. With two or three people executed in this way in Iran each year, the time has surely come for Iran to outlaw this practice completely if it wants to be taken seriously among the community of nations.

No wonder Jesus, confronted with a woman found in the act of adultery, said to those ready to stone her to death, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

If stoning has no place in our world today, it had no place in Jesus’ world of God’s mercy either.

Baptists, with our convictions about religious freedom, and our passion for the gospel of Christ, should say “amen” to that. Yet, the struggle does not end there, for the death penalty remains a feature of the country with the largest Baptist population in the world: the United States.

Thankfully, stoning is not practiced, but if just one person is executed by the state by electrocution, poison or, at the request of the accused, by firing squad, that is one too many.

That Baptists in the United States are among the more enthusiastic exponents of this provision is a shame upon the wider Baptist world, and it is time for the death penalty to be abolished everywhere. This too is a complex interaction of culture and ancient religious texts.

Inequality is the common feature of both the Iranian punishment meted out to women caught in adultery and the continuing questions over the place of women bishops. This is often based upon an interpretation of religious texts.

Gospel justice proclaims that not until women and men are treated with equity everywhere will both women and men be able to be truly the children of God and that the kingdom of God can be expressed in relationships between the sexes.

The subtle interaction of culture and religion demands our very best efforts of heart and mind if we are to pray honestly “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Culture itself is part of what it is to be human, and it seems, according to new research at Cambridge, also part of being a meerkat. A study in the Kalahari Desert shows that different groups of meerkats get up at different times in the morning as a result of learned traditions.

The gender injustices in our human world are equally learned, and not biologically predetermined, but the stakes for us are much higher than simply the time for the wake-up call.

Paul Goodliff is head of the Baptist Union of Great Britain’s ministry department.

Share This