“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
I also recently read the ancient Christian account of King Herod’s death given by Luke the physician (who accompanied the apostle Paul on much of his travels) in Acts 12:21-23 (for contemporary biomedical accounts see here and here):
“On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.”
There are countless differences between the Pakistani penal code and this story of King Herod’s death. But each in their own way might raise the following question:
When, if ever, does a person deserve to die?
I recognize that “desert” is not explicitly mentioned in either text. But people in general—and believers in a God who is in some sense good and fair and just in particular—should be alert to desert-based discussions of each.
Consider four statements of how a person who believes in some desert-based explanations might explain what Herod deserved at the moment when the angel allegedly struck him down:
1. Herod deserved to live.
2. Herod did not deserve to live.
3. Herod deserved to not live.
4. Herod deserved to die.
I think resistance to 4 is based on 1. But if 1 is overcome for 2, and 2 for 3, then 4 is a done deal.
I think the shock of being told that a person “deserved to die” for an activity is often due to our sense that death is a penalty that gets “tacked on” and utterly fails to fit the activity.
But perhaps death is not a penalty “tacked on” to certain activities, but is a reasonably expected outcome of the activities themselves. At least viewing it this way might clarify how the causing of Herod’s death does not necessarily come from an utterly different moral universe than our own.
Here’s my proposal:
A. If something is a continuous gift from one person to another, dependent on the will of the first person (the giver) at each moment, then anything the second person (the gifted) does that can reasonably change the will of the first can reasonably end the gift.
B. Herod’s life was a continuous (not one-time) gift (not entitlement) dependent on the will of the giver at each moment (not an enduring thing of its own).
C. So anything Herod did that could reasonably change the will of the giver could reasonably end his life.
An example to support A: Nun lives next door to beloved Nephew, who she gives the gift of a crisp twenty-dollar bill to each year, for each day between Christmas and Easter. But one year he turns around and makes an elaborate money shrine out of these bills and worships them. And boasts about it. Often. To her face. Even after her pleas to use the money better. Nephew can reasonably expect not to get a crisp twenty from Nun next Christmas—or even tomorrow. He certainly has no right to expect another installment of such a gift from her. If he keeps getting twenties from her, it may be that she is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do him or others—but it’s not like she owes it to him.
I shall not try to support B. It does not challenge any sciences studying how we die.
Now consider: is not Herod’s offense here similar to what some politicians do during their speeches?
Or what you and I do every day?
Let me speak just for myself here. I am, to the giver of my life, much like Nephew to Nun. I practically worship my own life, even though I ought to know better, and even when the rumor’s out that I have been told better. And yet the spicket (sorry, spigot) supplying my life to me remains “on.” Why? It’s not entirely clear. But perhaps the giver is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do me or others.
And yet occasionally the spigot is abruptly turned off—like with Herod.
Crucial clarification #1: we should be reluctant to invoke a desert-based explanation when someone today dies—to the point of almost never doing it.
There’s a brilliant line that the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about someone who asked the following horribly insensitive questions online:
“Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?...It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy?”
To which Hitchens replied (in part): “my so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.”
Nice. But Hitchens’ point actually makes my point. I give the middle finger to God all the time, even when it’s not with my middle finger. And yet he is “patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Crucial clarification #2: there are many additional ideas that one must accept before she thinks we mortals should get involved in giving a person the death they deserve—especially in the form of a law, especially like the law I quoted from Pakistan.
Professor and Chair
Department of Philosophy