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From Plato’s ‘The Cave’ to the 21st century lawful execution of criminal convicts, even children

Work goes on in Pakistan and other places to bring about God’s kin-dom as envisioned in Matthew 25

by Hans Hallundbaek | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Sarmad Ali, a lawyer at the high court in Pakistan, has devoted his life to prison issues, especially the execution of children. (Contributed photo)

In an ongoing series of prison-related stories from around the world, this article will take us to Pakistan, one of the several countries in the Indian Subcontinent of South Asia located between the Himalayas in the north and the Indian Ocean to the south.

Culturally, historically, and geographically, this subcontinent is characterized by its rich diversity in languages, religions, cultures and traditions. In size, Pakistan, an Islamic country, is twice as large and holds six times the population of California.

The focal point of the article is a friend and legal advocate, Sarmad Ali, a lawyer at the high court in Pakistan who valiantly has dedicated his life to prison issues and especially to the fight against the execution of children in his country. In exploring issues as traumatic as child execution still practiced in a few countries around the world, it seems appropriate to consult with main world religions and the voices of ancient philosophy on the moral and religious issues of such practices, well aware that religion has clearly demonstrated its potential to enlighten its followers to a higher level of spiritual understanding. Sadly, it has also proved its dangerous ability to lead to spiritual darkness and doom.

Combined, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam represent more than half of the world population. They have much in common, with Judaism as the oldest monotheistic religion, dating back more than 3,000 years, and with Christianity emerging from Judaism in the first century CE based upon the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Islam originated in the 7th century CE in the Arabian Peninsula with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe in one God and consider Muhammad to be the final prophet in a line of prophets that includes figures like Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

These three religions have mixed views on the issue of death penalty and how it is practiced in various countries. A recent count shows that 91 countries have outlawed the death penalty including Canada, Australia, and all of Europe (except Belarus), while 38 countries still practice the death penalty, including Pakistan and the United States.

‘The state cannot give life and cannot take it away’ — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The even more controversial issue of Pakistani child executions relates to special religious blasphemy laws against the prophet Mohammed, which can carry severe penalties, including death. This is a complex and controversial topic, and these laws have been criticized by many human rights organizations and activists for their potential for abusing and infringing upon freedom of speech and religion.

In Islam, one of the fundamental attributes of Allah is mercy. The Quran repeatedly emphasizes the mercy of Allah and encourages believers to show mercy and compassion to others. However, the application of this principle in legal systems, including blasphemy laws, is subject to interpretation and cultural context. Some argue that the imposition of severe penalties for blasphemy may not align with the mercy and compassion emphasized in Islamic teachings. They may argue that forgiveness and education would be more in line with the spirit of Islam. Others may argue that blasphemy laws are necessary to protect the sanctity of religious beliefs and prevent social unrest. They may view the enforcement of such laws as a way to uphold religious values and maintain social cohesion.

These are issues which are on the daily agenda for Sarmad Ali and his staff in the law firm he founded, Legal Awareness Watch (LAW), which works tirelessly for justice from its base in Lahore, Pakistan.

A conference on juvenile justice was held in Pakistan. (Contributed photo)

In Plato’s allegory, “The Cave,” prisoners are chained inside a cave, facing a wall, unable to see the outside world. They perceive only shadows cast by objects passing in front of a fire behind them. One prisoner escapes and discovers the true nature of reality outside the cave; he is enlightened. Sadly, when he returns with the good news, the reaction of his fellow prisoner is one of disbelief, mockery, and rejection, and maybe threats of death. Even 2,000 years after Plato told this story about human potential, we still prefer the low road.

With Pakistan, the United States and other counties still holding on to the right to execute fellow humans, it may be time jointly to listen to the numerous humanitarian organizations advocate against the death penalty worldwide, citing ethical, moral, and practical reasons. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has raised its voice on many occasions to end capital punishment in the United States, including the 221st General Assembly (2014).

With much of the world on the brink of chaos, it seems time to take the spiritual interfaith high road and start with this memorable quote from Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” According to the biblical account, Jesus spoke these words while he was being crucified. Despite immense suffering, Jesus asked for forgiveness for those who were responsible for his crucifixion, including the Roman soldiers and those who had condemned him. This statement is often interpreted as an expression of Jesus’ boundless compassion, mercy, and willingness to forgive even his persecutors.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus commands his followers to visit and care for imprisoned people. From the same biblical source we have this moving quote: “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” This statement reflects Jesus’ welcoming and inclusive attitude toward children, emphasizing their importance and worthiness of receiving his love and blessing. It conveys the idea that children are valued members of society and are fully accepted and embraced by God. Additionally, it highlights the innocence, humility, and trust that characterize childlike faith, qualities that Jesus encourages his followers to emulate in their relationship with God.

In 2022, Pakistan’s National Commission on the Rights of Child said there are 1.5 million street children in Pakistan, and that number is rising. Sarmad Ali and his team are working tirelessly to save some of them.

The Rev. Dr. Hans Hallundbaek, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a co-founder of both Rehabilitation through the Arts and the Interfaith Prison Partnership, an outreach of Hudson River Presbytery. He is an adjunct instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Marist College. He lives in Katonah, New York.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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