Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Catholic Christian woman, was sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad under Pakistan’s cruel blasphemy laws in 2010.
Asia Bibi, also known as Aasiya Noreen, is a mother of five children. She was charged with blasphemy after a heated argument with co-workers. They accused her of drinking from the same water as them, saying that it was now unclean. Asia Bibi denies the accusation but says that she has “forgiven the Muslims who put me and my family in this situation.”
On Thursday, she lost her appeal in Lahore’s High Court. She still has thirty days to appeal to the Pakistani Supreme Court, where we can hope and pray justice will finally be done. Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are widely abused, they are often used to settle personal grudges and to persecute minorities like Christians. Most of those accused of blasphemy are killed by mobs before their cases can even be heard.
Those who seek to reform these laws are also in danger. The Guardian reports,
When Bibi’s case came to prominence in 2010, three politicians – Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and Sherry Rehman – all from the Pakistan People’s Party, which was then in power, took up the case and called for reform. The consequences speak for themselves. Taseer was shot dead by his bodyguard in January 2011. In March the same year, Bhatti was killed by Taliban assassins. Rehman was forced into semi-hiding. The then prime minister shelved all reform, cowed into retreat by the potent mix of extremist threats and mob violence.
Pakistani and Indian bishops have called for all Christians to pray for Asia Bibi this Sunday, 19th October.
Today’s gospel gives us much to think and pray over:
The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:15-21)
We know that every human being, regardless of their religion, race, gender, ability, sexuality, health or anything other distinction, is created equal and possesses a unique dignity as a creature and child of God.
When Christ looks at the coin, He sees the image and inscription of Caesar.
When He looks at us, He sees the image of God and the name child of God.
In Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, we see even more clearly how cruel and barbaric the death penalty is. Yet, this is true whenever the state acts as God, taking human life as if it gave life. While the Catholic Church does not absolutely condemn the death penalty in every circumstance, and has even supported its use in the past, it maintains that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2267)
The Church also sees the movement away from the death penalty as “a sign of hope.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #405)
As much as we can, we want our societies to reflect the teachings of Christ: to not return evil for evil, but to forgive and restore all people to grace and a life-giving relationship with God. This doesn’t mean we ignore sin or crime but it does mean we always hold onto to the hope of repentance.
But by all means, if you are without sin and can judge all situations rightly, then go ahead and execute those you deem unworthy of life.
Over at Restless Press, Sandie Cornish, the Province Director of Mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart in Australia and New Zealand, explains why she opposes the death penalty in every circumstance, including Asia Bibi’s.
- The death penalty offends the dignity and sanctity of all human life. Every human being, even those who have done great evil, has the right to life.
- Using the death penalty undermines a society’s respect for life. It contributes to a culture of vengeance and death.
- Applying the death penalty is out of step with what Jesus taught and how he lived. He preached forgiveness rather than upholding the law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.
- The death penalty is cruel and unnecessary – there are other ways of protecting society from violent criminals.
- The death penalty denies people the chance to repent and reform.
- There is no empirical evidence that the death penalty actually reduces crime rates.
- It doesn’t make sense to oppose killing by means of State killings, and it doesn’t work.
- Mistakes happen, even in the best criminal justice systems, and so there is a risk that innocent people may be put to death.
- In many countries the death penalty is used in a way that discriminates against the poor, marginalized, disadvantaged and members of minority groups.
The way of Jesus is not about rejecting all authority of the state; we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But the way of Jesus is about forgiving those who sin against us, holding out hope for repentance and always seeking the true good of every human being. We give to God what is God’s. Only He can rightly judge and only He can give or take life.
What business do the followers of the Crucified One have with the death penalty: that which renders unto Caesar the gift of life that comes from and belongs to the Author of Life alone?