The adulteress, the accusers, politics and Afizal — Rama Ramanathan
AUG 21 — I’ve been wondering what to make of the story of the Messiah and the woman caught in adultery. One line in the story is perhaps the most quoted line in history: “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.”
The story is recorded in the gospel of John. It’s at the beginning of the eighth chapter. It’s set off from the rest of the text with a statement that the earliest surviving manuscripts do not include John 7:53 – 8:11. [Christians are very careful not to “add to the scriptures.”]
Commentaries say there is uncertainty over who recorded the incident. The style of writing seems more like that of the apostle Mark than of the apostle John. The commentaries also say there is no reason to believe the incident is fiction, for the story sounds so like what the Messiah would do — and there are early references to it.
What did the Messiah do? Well, he responded to a situation created by his opponents.
Most of the events recorded in the Bible occurred in public. The political element was never absent. In this incident, the Messiah was being provoked to say something which would either get him labelled as anti-Jewish law or anti-Roman law. His opponents wanted to “show” that he was anti-religious or that he was anti-establishment.
[Is this like Lim Kit Siang asking Muhyiddin Yassin whether he’s Malay first or Malaysian first? Is this like Najib’s proxies asking Anwar whether he supports hudud (proxies, because Najib himself does not support hudud)?]
Modern readers are drawn to the adultery aspect of the story. Adultery occurs when a person who is married has sex with someone who is not his or her spouse.
The woman is described as a serial adulterer who was caught in the act by witnesses. It’s presented as a cut-and-dry case. The text signals that the woman didn’t deny the charge, and that the Messiah believed she did in fact commit adultery.
I wonder whether the focus of the story is the event of adultery or the response to unsavoury opponents. I wonder whether some Malaysians think there is a similarity between the woman and Afizal, the bowler who doesn’t deny having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
The Messiah was teaching in a public place to a crowd. The opponents bring the woman to him. [This is rather like bringing a double mattress to a courthouse when a prominent politician is being tried for a sexual offence. It makes for publicity unfavourable to the accused. Remember the first Anwar trial?]
It takes two to commit adultery. Where is the man? Absent. What does this say about what the opponents of the Messiah think about gender equality?
The opponents bring the woman to the Messiah in front of the crowd. They cite the Jewish law, perhaps incorrectly: they claim the law commands the woman to be stoned.
The text doesn’t say the Messiah began a discussion about what they claimed the law said. The text tells us the Messiah wrote on the ground. The text doesn’t tell us what the Messiah wrote. The text tells us he wrote on the ground twice. We are left guessing why he wrote and what he wrote.
Then, we are told he gave his judgment. He said: “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” (see Deuteronomy 17:7)
We are told what happened next: one by one, they left; beginning with the oldest. When we read this, our hearts are strangely warmed. We like it! We’re on such a high we may miss his saying that though he too doesn’t condemn her, she should “go and sin no more.”
I am not aware of anyone appealing to this story as a basis for compassion towards Afizal, but I’m drawn to it. The story of the Messiah and the woman caught in adultery is the most often told story of compassion, sympathy and pity for the sufferings of others — in this case the woman’s humiliation and unequal treatment. (Compassion is exercised where suffering is recognised.)
We are asked to believe the High Court judge who sentenced Afizal to a jail term did not have compassion, did not have enough sympathy or pity for the national bowler. We are asked to believe the Court of Appeal acted compassionately in “freeing” Afizal, binding him over as an encouragement to “sin no more.”
Is that what the story of the Messiah and the woman caught in adultery is about? Are we called to act as the Messiah did, with respect to those who break the law? After all, which of us has not broken the law? Have we not bought illegal DVDs? Have we not run red lights? Have we not driven in excess of speed limits?
Since we ourselves are mean pieces of work and gladly not in jail, shouldn’t we be glad Afizal’s not going to jail? After all, Afizal’s offence (let’s not call it a “crime”) is only consenting sex with a minor! A minor, incidentally, who can’t consent to abortion or breast enlargement. Is that what compassion means?
What are we to learn from the interaction of the Messiah with his opponents?
Is it a story of the woman caught in adultery or is it a story of how to respond to people who would trap us, scorn us and cut us short?
We know that often in the scriptures repetition is emphasis. Why is the Messiah’s writing on the ground emphasised? What might he have written?
Commentaries speculate about what the Messiah may have written. It’s suggested that he wrote: “Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness” (Exodus 23:1b) and “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.” (Exodus 23:7)
Commentaries also tell us that one possible reason why the earliest manuscripts do not contain the story of the woman caught in adultery is that it could easily be taken as the Messiah’s disapproval of any kind of discipline by the church authorities!
We do know that law functions to restrain sin and promote order. Without the law, imperfect though it is, we will have anarchy. A democracy is only as good as the independence of its judiciary — and about this, even some Malaysian judges have doubts: see for example, N.H. Chan's “How to Judge the Judges”.
In the case of Afizal, we know the issue is not the guilt but the sentence. We are glad Afizal pleaded guilty, though we’re not sure whether the plea was the result of calculation, negotiation or remorse. We don’t know what coercion and duress the minor experienced and continues to experience; we fear the worst.
We know it’s a sad situation. We don’t think the case is a comedy or a joke. We do not dare to dismiss the prosecution as based on a technicality. We even wonder whether the prosecution was the means of avoiding a syariah scrutiny. We do not dare to condone any sentence based on the logic that the case is based on a technicality.
I hope we don’t use the “technicality” argument when we are summoned for speeding or for wrongful parking. I hope we don’t say our wrongdoings are mere technicalities, that “I was just doing 9km/h above the limit.” I hope we don’t argue “though I parked on the yellow line, traffic was still able to flow.” Enforcers have rules to follow, laws to uphold, jobs to do.
I hope we won’t walk away from the story of the woman caught in adultery thinking that all prosecution and sentencing is bad. I hope we will spare a thought for the public prosecutor: the Afizal case may well be one where the office of the prosecutor did the right thing in asking the High Court to impose a custodial sentence.
* Here, you can read about the bowler and his current girlfriend. For those who don’t understand Malay, the last tweet from his girlfriend says: “Thank you for the court’s judgment. If he was wrong, he would not have been let go. Those who are not happy, go punch the judge. If you’re not involved, don’t judge.”
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.