Lately in the news, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has pardoned a rape victim who had been sentenced to prison and 200 lashes. This brutal sentence was handed down because the woman in question was meeting a male friend in public without an escort – violating the country’s repressive sharia laws – when she was attacked and raped by a gang of men. Although the rapists were also arrested and sentenced, the punishing-the-victim ethic of Saudi Arabia’s antiquated and backward laws had caused an international outcry. (Reportedly, the woman’s friend was also assaulted and raped; apparently he was not pardoned.)
The international community was right to raise an outcry, and it’s good to hear that this woman was spared, after everything else she’s already been through. I have no doubt that perversions of justice just as bad happen every day in Saudi Arabia and other Islamist theocracies, but at least in this one case, some good was done.
However, I do wonder if the Christians who joined in the protest fully realize the implications of their position. I’ve written before about how most modern believers are better and more ethical than the Bible, possessing the wisdom and moral insight to see many of its teachings for the primitive and cruel superstitions they are. This case is a telling illustration of that principle, because the actions of the Saudi state were actually in accord with the Bible’s model of justice.
I’m not just referring to the Old Testament’s instruction to stone rape victims (Deuteronomy 22:24), though there is that. I’m referring to something more fundamental.
According to Christian theology, God deliberately laid down a set of laws – the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament – that were impossible for humans to obey perfectly, no matter how dedicated they were or how hard they tried. Since God is absolutely holy, he decreed that the punishment for failing to follow these impossible laws was death. This would have put humans in a hopeless situation, except that in New Testament times God sent Jesus to shed his divine blood, and thereby grant humans an undeserved, unmerited forgiveness and excuse them for their inability to follow the law.
The parallels are striking. The Saudi authorities, too, laid down an impossible, unrealistic set of laws – the sharia laws, which condemn women to lives of slavery and enforced ignorance. They decreed death as the punishment for breaking these cruel laws. And then, when a woman broke those laws, they chose to grant her a pardon from the punishment which they themselves created, and they consider this a great instance of mercy.
In both cases, we can rightfully stand dumbfounded, and point out that there’s nothing merciful about “saving” someone from a cruel and irrational law that you yourself created! That behavior shows, at best, a warped sadism in unjustly condemning someone to death, then withdrawing that sentence at the last moment and expecting them to be flooded with gratitude for your benevolence.
The right course of action, the one that would be both merciful and just, would be to enact different laws in the first place, laws that were rational and fair. That way, no one would be condemned for absurd non-crimes, and the people who did commit legitimate wrongs would have a chance to atone. A system of laws based on reason and justice would strip away the absurd dogmas within which human beings suffocate, and move us closer to a world of enlightened humanism where the cruel dictates of ancient religions would fade away.