Only Monty Python could make stoning funny. In their cheeky yet brilliant movie Life of Brian, mistaken messiah Brian Cohen and his unholy mother stop to buy four rocks and packet of gravel for the stoning of a local man who dared to utter the name Jehovah.
The execution is to be executed by women disguised as men since stoning is obviously a man’s job.
If you take the redemption out of the story of Jesus, it’s a ghastly tale. And if you take the sarcasm out of a stoning, it too is ghastly.
Though not mentioned in the Koran, stoning is imbedded in Biblical law when it encounters adultery. If a husband discovers that his bride is not a virgin, “Then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father’s house, and the men of the city shall stone her to death.” (Deuteronomy 22:21)
When Pharisees brought a girl so condemned under the Mosaic Law to Jesus for his verdict, he invited the one without sin to throw the first stone and told the girl to go and clean up her act. (John 8)
The first Christian to bleed for his faith was Stephen who was stoned to death while an arch-conservative Jew named Saul stood guard over the stoners’ shirts. (Acts 7:58)
Sadly, death by stoning is not confined to history, biblical or otherwise. Once carried out privately in remote villages, Iran’s revolutionary government threw stoning into their criminal code in 1979.
Sex before marriage is punishable by 100 lashes, but those accused of sex outside marriage are sentenced to death by stoning.
The Islamic Penal Code of Iran is very specific about proper procedures for stoning. Article 102 states that men shall be buried up to their waists and women up to their breasts for the execution.
In certain cases, if the victim can escape from the ditch during the stoning, they will be freed.
Since women are buried deeper than men, they are at a disadvantage. Big surprise. According to Article 104, stones are to be large enough to cause pain, but not sufficient to kill immediately. While stoning isn’t illegal, throwing the wrong-sized stone is.
Mercifully, stoning is going out of style. According to Saeed Rahnema, political science professor at York University in Toronto, stoning is disliked in Iran to the point that “the authorities often resort to a rent-a-crowd to carry them out, promising the 20 or 30 people heavenly rewards, as well as some financial inducement.”
In May 2006, the criminal court in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province found Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani guilty of having had an “illicit relationship” with two men following the death of her husband. She was given 99 lashes.
That September, during the trial of a man accused of murdering her husband, another court reopened an adultery case based on events that allegedly took place before her husband died.
Three of the five judges, including the presiding judge, found her guilty on the basis of the “judge’s intuition.” Article 105 of the Islamic Penal code of Iran allows a judge to rule according to his personal opinion in the absence of clear or conclusive evidence.
Ashtiani was sentenced to die. For the last five years, the widow has been in jail where she continues to retract a confession she made under the tortuous lashings of 2006 — which would make anyone say anything.
While there are currently 12 women and three men in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province known to be on death row under sentence of stoning, an international campaign is building to save Ashtiani, thanks to her sons who took their mother’s case public.
Stoning is the ugly tip of the iceberg of theocratically-sanctioned misogyny. It is barbarism which far outweighs the moral transgression, real or imagined, of those condemned.
The Pythons rightly poked fun at ridiculous religious rules and the notion that stoning then as now, is not so much punishment as entertainment; but entertainment which breeds murderers out of ordinary folks.
It must be stopped.
Rev. Bob Ripley, author and syndicated columnist, is the Senior Minister of Metropolitan United Church in London, Ontario.