I opened my eyes and gasped for breath. I felt no control over my limbs and was temporarily bewildered by what looked like indistinct spheres of light hovering over my bedroom door. So this is what it was like to experience sleep paralysis, I thought; I’d read about it once in school. Entombed beneath my sheets, I closed my eyes and tried to resurrect the narrative of the broken dream as best I could. Eventually, my consciousness succumbed to sleep, but this time, I didn’t realize that I was in a dream—not at first.
Now, I found myself seated on a white charger, alone. I wore a gold sash and a flowing, ivory toga, a detail that I appreciated thanks to my education in classical history. I held a bow in my right hand rather like a slingshot. Branches of laurel crowned my head. My left hand clenched a scroll. On it were seven waxen seals inscribed with the images of stars. One of the seals was broken. Then I noticed that I was wearing glowing slippers the color of heated bronze, some image conjured up from vague childhood memories of The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, or the original version of Snow White.
Blocking my path, I saw a congregation of 21 onlookers in long robes hovering around the gate of the great city. Three were dressed in red, and three by turn in orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. I guessed the worst when I noticed jagged rocks clenched in their hands. Toward the front of the crowd, the red, black, and pale horsemen were burying the girl to her waist in a pit of gravel and binding her hands.
“What’s all this about?” I asked the first stranger I met in the crowd.
“That child is about to be stoned to death,” answered the man.
“Our Sacred Law says, if a woman claims she’s raped in the countryside, she should be found innocent of adultery. But if she’s raped in the city, she should be put to death. Those three horsemen are about to cast the first stones. Two square hits, and it will all be over for her.”
“How perfectly awful.”
“That just shows you’re a naïve reader of scripture,” said a crone through her nose. “There’s actually great wisdom behind that rule. After all, you’d hear a woman’s screams of protest in a city, but not in the countryside. So, it follows that in the case of an alleged rape in the city, there were no screams, and that the woman didn’t really try to protest. Does the logic make sense to you now?”
“Preposterous,” I said. “This is a very great evil. I don’t care that this sort of punishment was common once upon a time, or that some horribly misguided people still do it now. It’s wrong, in all places and at all times.”
“Explain yourself,” thundered the old woman, and the crowd, instead of attending to the stoning, began to turn its attention toward me. “How can a law written in our Sacred Scripture be wrong? It’s the word of God, like it or not. You’ll never win this debate.”
“Oh, won’t I?” I laughed. Then, riding to the front of the crowd, I called upon the three pied horsemen.
“Don’t lay a finger on this girl,” I said.
The red horseman stepped forward and began to address me in a thunderous voice.
You may be a stranger here, but let me be clear about this country’s Laws. According to our Sacred Law, a woman in this condition must be stoned to death.
But your Sacred Law might not be sacred at all. There’s nothing to rationally prove that it represents divinely inspired truth. It might simply be an invention of imaginative human authors limited by the worldviews of the times and places in which they were raised. In fact, the existence of other sacred books that pious people follow in other parts of the world suggests that you don’t hold the monopoly on truth. So, you can’t be sure God wants you to kill this girl, and should err on the side of caution, since you know unwanted pain to be a great evil.
I’m not persuaded by your sophist’s tricks. I was born into this society, for whatever reason, and I’ve made a leap of faith; I’ve decided that the Sacred Law represents God’s perfect wisdom in the clearest possible form that it can take in this world. Our Sacred Book is more than the product of human hands. And as for other supposedly sacred books in the world, this set of divine laws makes the most sense to me. There’s synergy between my intuitions and its dictates. The other books are wrong. This one is right. I feel it, deeply.
Memories molded on the stage of culture shape your intuitions, and you mistake the relative for the absolute. Consider this. Everyone’s intuitions are shaped by culture and memories and habit, so every sacred book seems to be moral to the people who were brought up on it. How can you prove to other people that their sacred laws are wrong and that yours are right? If it’s only a matter of faith rather than reason, why would people from a different culture believe in your God? Their intuitions would be different from yours. And to make matters worse, your sacred law even sometimes contradicts itself, like on the question of whether future generations inherit the sins of their ancestors or not. All of this suggests that Bibles should be treasured as moral guides, but not deified as perfect and literal representations of God’s will. The only really persuasive Sacred Law is that of science–true everywhere, and provable to everyone.
The scripture is perfect and is never contradictory! Learned priests understand the full context of the writings and can explain away all your supposed contradictions. For example, certain language might be used symbolically, since a perfectly divine text has rich layers of internal allusions.
Then how do you know the injunction to stone this woman isn’t just a symbol or a metaphor? Why take this particular law literally, when you ignore so many others? And anyway, your logic is circular. For example, I can make the claim that Winnie the Pooh is divinely inspired, and I can begin to use it as a moral code. Can I persuasively justify my reasoning by saying—”I’ve taken a Leap of Faith, and since Winnie the Pooh is perfectly perfect in every way as a moral guide, whatever I do on the suggestion of the book is justified”? And can I silence voices of dissent by saying “any contradictions in the book only seem like contradictions, but really aren’t, because it’s perfectly perfect?”
You’re a contemptible debater. You would say, a man who killed his own mother mustn’t be morally judged. After all, some savage tribe somewhere on a mountaintop might howl at the wind and celebrate matricide. There’d be a difference of opinion on the issue—and so, you’d argue, nothing is impermissible! All we can do is take our moral bearings from the best traditions of the past, and follow the Sacred Law to the letter, whether we like it or not. So, the girl must be stoned. The Law against adultery is an important one. This isn’t a trivial affair. I realize that this girl’s life is at stake.
I think that you, sir, are the contemptible one. Let’s speak realistically here. In ancient times, before the rise of modern science, early humans turned to stories to explain how the world around them functioned. Great moral and legal narratives like the Bible tried to inculcate just and moral behavior among ancient people. Here and there, traditions diverged, but most religions spoke to the belief in order in the universe, and the importance of humility before God. Today, I think that people should embrace the commonalities of different faiths and see them as inspirations to better understand art and science and the law; they shouldn’t use religion as an excuse to murder other people, as you are. When it comes to the ethics of killing a woman who is a victim of rape, human knowledge has evolved in such a way that we can universally recognize this as a cruel and despicable act… Value Scripture for its timeless messages, but not its outdated biases.
And who’s to decide what’s a timeless message, and what’s outdated, or cruel, or despicable? You? First you said that every moral code was relative. And then, you have the audacity to impose a moral code yourself, saying that it would be categorically wrong to stone this woman. Why is your word better than Scripture? Is it thanks to your intuitions and social upbringing? Then you’ve fallen into the same trap you say I have. My intuitions differ from yours, as did my upbringing. So, here’s my vote when it comes to our first debate on this, my birthday. My two brothers can decide the matter for themselves.
The crowd was absolutely silent. The red horseman produced a rock from his robe and heaved it with all his might at the woman’s face. He shattered her two front teeth and unleashed rivulets of blood down her chin and neck. Her torso lurched forward in her place of burial. Her eyes revealed that one more hit would do the trick.
April 20, 2011
Next Chapter April 21, 2011