Why don't we stone for adultery?

rembrandt_adulterer-749222On Sunday, I looked a bit at a Newsweek article by religion editor Lisa Miller. Her piece took a position I largely agree with -- that there's no need to say that accused Ft. Hood gunman Hasan is either mentally unstable or an Islamic terrorist. (Although, as I pointed out yesterday, there hasn't been much evidence of diagnosable mental illness compared to the evidence mounting regarding terrorism.) But I had some issues with how well she made her case. There were other oddities about Miller's article. Here, for instance:

Why do we insist on framing religious issues dualistically, when anyone with a shred of experience of religion knows religion doesn't work that way? In our personal lives, we know how malleable creeds are. We know Jews who follow the laws of kashrut--except on the occasions when they order a cheeseburger for dinner. We know evangelical Christians who believe strongly in the rightness of evolution and Roman Catholics who believe in a woman's right to choose. But we can also point to passages in Scripture that command us to do things we would never dream of doing. In America, we don't stone adulterers.

Well, I don't know. All the Jews I know either do or don't keep kosher rather than skip back and forth so I guess I'm not on board with what she's getting at from the get go. But let's just look at that part about why we don't stone adulterers.

Now, Miller's tried to do exegesis before and it hasn't gone so well. But how can you be a religion reporter or religion editor in the United States and not know the story of Jesus and the woman charged with adultery? As a service to Miller and her editors at Newsweek, here's the first part of the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John:

Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?" This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.

So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?"

She said, "No one, Lord."

And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more."

Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life."

Normally I think this very well known passage is interesting because people forget that Jesus told the woman to stop sinning. But apparently Miller forgot that this famous passage even existed, much less had a tremendous impact on those portions of the world where Christianity exerts significant influence. (Jews have different reasons for no longer stoning for adultery.) The point is, there's a difference between self-identifying as a Catholic while rejecting some of the church's teachings and, say, Jesus' life and ministry changing the way people viewed human rights. And I'm not entirely sure what either of those things have to do with Hasan being a terrorist and/or mentally unstable.

Miller's larger point is that religion is not definitive and she goes on to say that there are narrow-minded and broad-minded interpreters of every religion. Islam's biggest problems are its narrow-minded interpreters, she writes. That may be true and many more stories looking at the different interpretations of Islam would be fascinating and a tremendous service to readers. And God bless Miller for not resorting to the trope of Islam being, unilaterally, a religion of peace or a religion of violence. But let's not reduce those "narrow-minded interpreters" to a caricature of selective Scripture-quoters either. Their interpretive view is much more complex and historical than that.

Please respect our Commenting Policy