Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blasphemy Act Two

Act 2.

A blue-and-white sign at the back of the stage: PURGATORY. An angel, representing Justice, dressed in white robes, stands at a podium to the right.
Sir James Stewart, short and stout, stands at a podium to the left. He speaks clearly and loudly; he is very confident.
Stewart: Thomas Aikenhead was a liar! He admitted it. When he was confronted with his blasphemies—Jesus was an “impostor” and the Apostles were “witless fishermen” and so forth—he denied saying these terrible things. He confessed only after five of his friends—five of them!—shocked by his devilish behavior reported his blasphemies.
And after lying, what did he do?
He tried to shift blame upon a close friend of his, Mungo Craig. I—
Narrator walks onto stage from left.
Narrator: I just want to say—
Stewart [shouting]: Get out! You do not belong here! How dare you interrupt me? Get out! Out! Out!
[The narrator is intimidated and begins to leave.]
Justice: You may stay, whoever you are, but be brief.
Narrator: [timidly] I just want to explain to the audience that Sir James Stewart—(turning) this distinguished gentleman—was the lord advocate of Scotland, a powerful and respected figure. [Stewart is pleased.] He could prosecute anyone he wanted to, and he set most of the rules. A high muckamuck in the church—
Stewart: (angrily) A high WHAT?
Justice: Please do not interrupt.
Narrator: He was deeply worried and upset about latitudinarism, the tolerance of different religious beliefs, which was gaining popularity in England. In 1695—
Justice (sighs): Please be brief. I have a long caseload.
Narrator: In 1695, Scotland’s parliament, at the behest of the church, decreed that an “obstinate blasphemer” could be put to death—but only after a third offense. Unless…the blasphemer had cursed God and the Holy Trinity.
Stewart unremittingly sought the death penalty for Thomas Aikenhead. At his trial, there was no defense: There was only Stewart. The jury found Aikenhead guilty. Stewart asked for the death penalty – “to the example and terror of others.”
Aikenhead had one more chance. Britain’s King William and Queen Mary could issue a pardon.
The kirk then sent them a petition: Please do not pardon Thomas Aikenhead. They did not.
Justice: Are you finally done? [Narrator nods hurries offstage.] Good. I don’t know how he got in here. I don’t know what this place is coming to.
Now, Sir James, I would like to ask you some questions, if I may.
Stewart: I am ready to defend myself.
Justice: Didn’t the young man say that his friend Mungo had read the same blasphemous literature that he had read—Voltaire, for example? Wasn’t it possible that Mungo was worried about his own fate and that was why he implicated Aikenhead?
Stewart: It was a pitifully weak excuse. Mungo was a hero, bringing Aikenhead’s blasphemies to the attention of the church. Without Mungo, Aikenhead might have continued to spread his satanic blasphemies.
Justice: Did Aikenhead’s youth suggest that he deserved a little mercy?
Stewart: Someone who commits murder, whether at 18 or 80, is still a murderer. We should execute murderers as early as possible, even at 18, so they don’t commit murders for the remainder of their lives. Are you going to try to refute me?
Justice: That is not my job. I just pass along your defense. Now, you aver that Aikenhead lied about his blasphemies. Wasn’t that to be expected in the circumstances? Have you never lied when you were in a tight corner?
Stewart: I have never lied. And I have only contempt and hatred for all liars.
Justice: Didn’t he abjure his blasphemies? Didn’t he promise to be a devout Christian henceforward? Did he not say that he, quote, “from my very heart abhorre and detest” the words he had uttered? Did he not write to the court that he sincerely believed in the Trinity and in Jesus Christ as savior? Did he not write that as a native of Edinburgh it was, and I quote, “my greatest happiness that I was born and educated in a place where the gospel was professed, and so powerfully and plentifully preached”?
Stewart: What would you expect him to say? If he were Satan himself, and threatened with execution, would he not suddenly and convincingly swear his loyalty to Jesus and to the scriptures? I am nothing if not naïve.
Justice: Sir James, you did everything you possibly could to have young Aikenhead executed, didn’t you?
Strewart: Yes, I did. And my fellow churchmen strongly supported me. Aikenhead would serve as an example to curb the spread of atheism throughout the world—atheism, the worst and most deadly of all plagues. It--
Justice: But is it fair to put someone to death so as to serve as an example to others? Shouldn’t the punishment suit the crime? If there were an epidemic of pick-pocketing, would you cut off the hands of any people newly convicted of being pickpockets just to fight the epidemic?
Stewart: I have scant sympathy for pickpockets.
Justice: Sir James, you seem to have a keen legal mind. But now I have one last and very important question for you. Pay attention. Consider your answer carefully. Did you ever entertain any possibility that you might have been wrong? Was your mind totally closed? Was it not possible that Aikenhead was just acting like a mischievous child, eager for attention, and that he would have become a God-fearing and God-loving citizen?
Stewart: [pauses] I am proud to say that I never thought for a moment—for a moment!—that I could be wrong. I believe in God, in the Bible, in hell and in heaven, and I believe that people who blaspheme, who mock God and who mock religion, will not only burn in hell forever, but so will any unfortunate people they persuade to join them in their heresies. By insisting that Thomas Aikenhead die, I saved an untold number of Christians from spending an eternity in the brimfires of hell. Eternity! Can you imagine eternity in horrible pain? I am proud, extremely proud, of what I did. Justice [coldly]: So you never had any doubts. No…doubts…whatsoever…. That is never a good sign. The worst sins -- in my long, long experience-- are committed by people whose minds are tightly sealed.
We will refer your case to a higher court.
With perhaps a recommendation for mercy.
Stewart: [shocked] For mercy? For mercy? What have I done wrong?
Justice: Next case.

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